5 Proven Strategies to Stop Yourself from Binge Eating
Many people have a love-hate relationship with food.
The unhealthy way that many of us view food can lead to eating disorders. One such disorder is binge eating. This happens when a person periodically overeats (usually very quickly) to the point of discomfort and then feels shame or guilt afterwards.
For some, binge eating begins as a mindless habit of sitting down in front of the TV with a big bowl of popcorn or bag of chips. In time, this habit evolves into uncontrolled eating that quickly spirals into a myriad of negative consequences.
Because of the guilt and shame that is associated with binge eating and obesity, some people take compensatory measures such as severe food restrictions, purging, or extreme exercise to counter the incidence of binge eating. It can become a life-threatening disorder.
Nevertheless, with help, a person can overcome binge eating. In this article, we’ll explore the root causes of binge eating disorder and provide five proven strategies that will help you stop binge eating.
Side note: Before we move on, it’s important to know that binge eating is often recognized as an eating disorder with severe, long-term, negative health consequences. If you feel like this is a habit that’s out of control, consulting a certified medical practitioner regarding this matter is essential in order for you to get the proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment. The information given in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
6 Causes of the Binge Eating Habit
Binge eating and depression are closely linked. In fact, the same genes that are involved in depression may also be involved in eating disorders such as binge eating. While feelings of depression can make someone eat more, it can also begin a cycle because people often feel depressed after a binge.
When you are depressed, it can be difficult to recognize emotional hunger. Once you’ve become more skilled at noticing your hunger cues, you can then determine whether the cues are occurring because of physical or emotional hunger.
Some indicators to look for include sudden (emotional) vs. gradual (physical) hunger, specific (emotional) vs. general (physical) hunger, and if the hunger is occurring in your stomach or in your mind. You also want to pay attention to how you feel after you eat. Emotional eating leads to feelings of guilt, while physical hunger leads to feelings of satisfaction and contentment.
If you know that you’re experiencing emotional hunger, find something to do other than eat. Your body is not asking for nourishment, so anything you consume will be in excess.
The experiences that you have lived through can impact your eating habits. Scientists have found that about 25% of people who binge eat have experienced trauma in their lives, such as abuse, assault, a life-threatening accident, witnessing a serious crime, or experiencing war. Both trauma and binge eating are related to functional issues with stress hormones and mood-regulating brain chemicals, and your genes might also determine if you are at risk for developing these disorders.
Most of the time, trauma leads to PTSD, which can then eventually develop into binge eating as a side effect. Scientists think people who have experienced trauma tend to turn to food to escape the painful memories that are associated with the traumatic events.
Also, people suffering from PTSD have a very difficult time focusing on the present and the future due to the fact that they are distracted with their memories of trauma. Sometimes this results in the improper planning of meals, which leads to severe hunger and overeating.
3. Coping Difficulties
People who binge eat often don't know exactly what they're feeling or the reason behind their feelings because they don't have the necessary coping strategies. So they compulsively try to numb their pain with food. Using self-soothing as a coping skill for an eating disorder often requires a very gentle approach to oneself. Those who know how to comfort themselves are familiar with how and when to rest, and they treat themselves to things that make them feel good—which often includes food.
During childhood, people look toward their primary caregivers for comfort, but if the caregivers cannot fully meet the child's needs, he or she must develop self-soothing techniques such as thumb sucking or holding a favorite stuffed animal. As people mature, more sophisticated coping skills emerge. While a lot of coping skills are healthy, such as running, reading, and spending time with friends, others are unhealthy, like addictions, eating disorders, and self-destructive behaviors.
4. Hormonal Irregularities
Research has shown that high weight associated with binge eating is related to metabolic processes that can increase hunger, prevent you from feeling satisfied after eating, and sometimes even control one's food preferences.
For example, when leptin is released in the body, it sends signals to the hypothalamus that tell your brain you are full. Leptin levels have a direct relationship with body weight because weight gain can lead to leptin resistance.
Another significant hormone that is related to binge eating is grehlin. This peptide hormone serves a critical role in energy balance that impacts binge eating.
Grehlin contributes to the pleasure that people get from eating, especially when eating energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugar. Elevated levels of this hormone can cause a significant shift in food preferences to these high-calorie foods. In animal studies concerning binge eating, grehlin has a positive association with increased reward signals in the brain when eating high-fat foods.
5. Social Pressures
Social pressures in friendship groups often lead to the spread of binge eating, especially among athletic teams, cheerleading squads, and sororities.
Groups develop their own social norms regarding appropriate behaviors, and if eating and losing weight are important to the group, norms will emerge that define how much, when, and with whom people eat. Displaying counter-normative behaviors in groups such as these can result in rejection.
6. History of Dieting
Those with a history of dieting may believe that dieting is the solution to their weight problems. The truth is, their habits of dieting are often the culprit. They often have an unhealthy relationship with food that works in a cycle of binging and then dieting and then binging again. Fortunately, healthy food rules can be learned so people no longer feel the need to diet or binge.
Also, for people who have gone on crash diets in the past that worked for a short period of time, they may retain the idea that they can always go back and do a quick crash diet after a period of binging to "undo" the harm that they have done. This is unhealthy and not sustainable in the long run.
2 Common Consequences of Binge Eating
1. Weight Gain and Higher Health Risks
Constantly binging and “punishing” oneself by restricting healthy food intake or doing extreme exercise can negatively impact your health. Weight gain is a common symptom of binge eating, considering that about 65% of people who binge eat are overweight.
It is easy to put on weight when you eat a lot of food in a small amount of time without exercising the calories off. This weight gain may lead to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
But trying to counteract your binge eating by depriving your body of the nutrients that it needs or exercising to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis is also a health concern that can lead to malnutrition and injury. Allow yourself to have healthy fruits if you are craving sweets, or some crunchy vegetables when you want some texture.
You can't starve your body of the nutrition that it needs to function. When it comes to exercise, your point of overdoing it may be different from someone else's, but you must first look at your intent in exercising to see if you are doing it for the right reasons and in a healthy manner.
2. Emotional Problems and Social Isolation
A lot of people who binge eat feel ashamed of their weight, which leads to low self-confidence, which then again leads to overeating. Often, binge eaters are secretive about their eating habits because the shame that they feel about the disorder isolates them from others.
Eating disorders such as binge eating often co-occur with loneliness, which means people may engage in binging behaviors because they are emotionally and physically isolated and are seeking a sense of acceptance and control.
People who suffer from binge eating often avoid situations where food will be served because they are afraid of overeating or they want to avoid questions and looks from others if they don't eat at all. People also start to distance themselves from friends, family, and partners so they can spend more time binge eating. Many decline social obligations because they are uncomfortable with their bodies and don't want to feel judged.
5 Proven Strategies to Stop Binge Eating
1. Stop depriving yourself.
This means stop doing restrictive diets and giving in to cravings. It may sound counterintuitive, but actually giving in to your cravings could well be the key to avoid overeating. But it is important to indulge in moderation.
When you stop eating all of the foods that you enjoy, you are much more likely to give in and binge. Instead of extremely restricting your diet, follow a flexible plan that lets you have a few treats. If you eat a little of what you enjoy on a regular basis, you are less likely to binge eat.
Chronic dieters are known to deprive themselves, which ultimately sets them up for failure. When your body is in a deprived state, it thinks that it is in starvation mode, so your metabolism slows down and your body stops burning fat and stores it in order for you to survive. So starving yourself by depriving yourself doesn’t work either.
When you deprive yourself, you end up in a worse position than where you started because the deprivation turns into an obsession, and when you give in (which you will), your binge could carry on for weeks. It is better to allow yourself to have what you want to eat now (in moderation), and upgrade the overall quality of your food to create a balance.
2. Start loving who you truly are.
Pressures from society often make people feel inadequate. But when you begin to accept yourself for who you truly are, society’s labels and other people’s opinions about you will no longer matter. You have to forgive yourself for the unhealthy eating that you have done in the past because it can't be changed. But you can learn from those mistakes and start to love yourself for who you are rather than what you perceive yourself to look like.
Once you love yourself as a person, you will be able to heal the relationship that you have with food and your body. You can learn new ways to cope with any physical, emotional, and social stressors that come your way without turning to food. You will also learn to understand why you binge eat, and find ways to better address your needs.
You will be able to get your needs met without turning to food when you love who you truly are. Your happiness will be so deeply rooted that food and your outside appearance become trivial parts of life.
3. Learn to de-stress.
Not knowing how to manage your own reactions in a stressful situation is one of the known triggers of binge eating. Avoid this pitfall by learning new habits to reduce stress. When some people feel stress coming on, they feel a rapid heart beat or a queasy feeling. But just as receiving not-so-constructive criticism or bad news from a friend can bring these symptoms on, you have the power to shut these symptoms down.
Some common things that people do in order to make their bodies relax include going for a walk, doing some deep breathing, visualizing a peaceful place, listen to music, and reading. Whatever method you can find that works for you is great. Once you do find a way to decrease the stress you are feeling, start replacing your eating habit with your new, healthier coping mechanism.
It is important to remember that using food as a coping mechanism to de-stress is a temporary fix that will end up making you feel worse in the future. Once you have found your healthy method of dealing with stress, you will probably be less resistant to stressful situations because you will know that you can power through them.
4. Listen to your body.
This may seem like simple advice, but it is critical when you are trying to overcome binge eating. Our bodies give us signals when we need something—for example, the flu could be our bodies’ way of telling us we need to get some rest. It’s the same with nutrients—our bodies know what we need.
Cultivate intuitive eating instead of compulsive eating. In our fast-paced society, we are very bad at listening to what our bodies are telling us about hunger. Often, our meals revolve around our schedules, with minimal thought given to the times that our bodies are actually hungry.
We grab a quick bite on the go (which may not even be satisfying), and then may not eat again for several hours—at which point we are so hungry that we reach for anything in sight. Take the time to listen to your body and feel when and what you need to eat throughout the day.
Once you start getting the hang of this, it will be easy to plan ahead. You can develop a routine for your meal and snack times, and keep healthy snacks with you during the day so you can just grab them and go.
5. Practice mindfulness.
Being mindful can curb the urge to binge eat. Mindful eating focuses on feeling and paying close attention to the physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and external environment that co-occur with eating. This common approach is taught in recovery for binge eating disorder because many people find practicing mindfulness to be helpful when dealing with the urge to binge.
Mindfulness revolves around being aware of the current moment and accepting any thoughts and feelings without judgment as they pass. Originating from Buddhist meditation, the integration of this practice into the Western world has been helpful for countless people suffering from a wide variety of conditions.
Practicing mindful eating can increase a person's awareness of their thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors. Eating disorders are often used to numb emotions, but people who are practicing mindfulness reflect on their feelings or experiences prior to a binge, and possibly prevent the binge from happening.
Mindful eating may involve asking yourself questions such as “Am I really hungry, or is there something else that I need right now?” and “What are my current feelings?” Reflecting on these questions can help people move past urges to binge, and instead identify what they truly need in order to adequately nourish their bodies and minds.
The more we honor and accept ourselves as we are, the more positive our lives will become. If you implement the five strategies that we just outlined, you will have taken that first step to stopping the binge eating habit, and to creating a more positive existence.
If you’d like to take this one step further, I encourage you to check out our article on 192 healthy habits.