“I can’t stop binge eating.” – Why You’re Doing It + How to Stop
“I can’t stop binge eating.”
I hear you. I’ve Googled something along the lines of “I can’t stop binge eating” once too.
In fact, I distinctly remember more than one occasion when I found myself in my apartment in New York City, late at night, eating Ben & Jerry’s straight out of the tub, really fast, bite by bite, standing over the open trash can, willing myself to throw it out, but I just couldn’t stop. At least not until the whole thing was gone. And then I’d finally toss it in garbage, cloaked in shame and disgust, feeling like an absolute failure, vowing to start over again the next day and finally get my shit together.
Maybe for you it’s not Ben & Jerry’s, but if you’re binging, you completely understand this moment. You can feel it in your bones. Because you’ve been in your version of it, more times than you’d like to admit.
The worst part is that you know what you should be doing. Of course you do. There’s no shortage of information on how to eat perfectly out there in the world. But, you just can’t for some reason.
You’ve even thought that maybe you’re addicted to food or sugar or carbs. Because let’s be honest, nobody ever binges on hard boiled eggs or kale. We only binge on what we’re “not supposed to be eating” but, we’ll get to that in a minute.
This article is for you if you’re someone who does things like Google “I can’t stop binge eating.” And don’t worry, you’re not alone. Binge eating is the most common eating issue in the United States. So there’s that.
Besides, nobody comes to us for help when dieting is going well. Women come to us for help when they are binge eating.
Because the pain of binge eating is intense. The way each binge chips away another piece of confidence has a real impact on your life. And the amount of time, energy and mind space you’re spending trying NOT to binge is probably not okay with you. But still, you just can’t seem to get yourself under control. And you know if you’re ever going to lead a happier, calmer, more confident life, something has to change.
That’s why you found yourself here. And you’re in the right place. We’re going to explain why you’re binge eating and then show you exactly how to stop.
Why You Can’t Stop Binging
To explain why you’re binging, we should first make sure that you are, in fact, binging. There are some terms that get confused and we need to differentiate between them.
1. Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a clinically diagnosed eating disorder. According to NEDA, “Binge eating disorder (BED) is a severe, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States.”
The diagnostic criteria for BED are as follows:
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
- Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
- A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
- The binge eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
- Eating much more rapidly than normal.
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
- Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
- Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward.
- Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
- The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for 3 months.
- The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging) as in bulimia nervosa and does not occur exclusively during the course of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.
2. Binge Eating
Now, you may not feel you’re in danger of having a clinically diagnosable eating disorder. Perhaps the frequency, severity, amount of food and emotional charge isn’t quite as dramatic as described above. Perhaps you’re not quite binging once a week for 3 months straight. Perhaps you’re not sure.
The diagnostic criteria for what constitutes a binge is actually quite vague: ‘definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time.’ But honestly, none of this is black and white. Just as the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating is not black and white. There’s a lot of grey area out there and many women swirl around in it. Many have a hard time figuring it out.
However, what’s most notable is 1.) the lack of control you feel when you’re eating, like you’re not able to consciously stop, and 2.) the distress this eating causes you. So perhaps you don’t suffer from BED but, you’re binging and it bothers you and that’s what matters.
It’s like when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to describe porn in 1964 saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced .. but I know it when I see it.” If you are binging, you likely know it when it’s happening, regardless of formal definitions.
3. Emotional Eating
Emotional eating, although sometimes confused with binging, is eating for emotional reasons, be they positive, like birthday cake and anniversary dinners and holiday treats, or as a somewhat ineffective means of coping with negative emotions, like stress, boredom, loneliness or overwhelm, etc.
What many sometimes believe is the latter type of emotional eating is often binge eating in disguise. As you’ll learn about in a minute, most binging is a response to deprivation and restriction. So if you’re chronically hungry and then you let your guard down due to heightened emotions, your body will take that opportunity to be fed, and binge eat.
4. Eating past the point of comfortable fullness.
Sometimes we just eat a whole lot of food and find ourselves really uncomfortable, like at Thanksgiving. Or if you’re not paying attention and wind up eating way too much and have to unbutton your pants, but you’re not freaking out about it.
These instances are not the same thing as a binge (unless you are binging eating Thanksgiving dinner) because the emotional distress is not present and there’s no perceived loss of control. It’s not a binge if you’re in control. It’s not a binge if you’re consciously eating more on purpose because you’re just really enjoying it. It’s also not a binge if you accidentally eat past the point of being comfortably satisfied either.
It’s important to parse these apart to understand what you’re really dealing with so that you can get to the root of the issue and alleviate your suffering.
What Causes Binge Eating?
Now that we’ve defined those terms, let’s talk about the underlying cause of binge eating.
Whether you feel you may be suffering from Binge Eating Disorder or are one of many binge eaters with disordered eating patterns in the grey area, the cause is likely the same: dieting.
Unrestrained eaters (a.k.a. non-dieters) don’t binge eat.
Think about your friend (we all have one) who can eat whatever she wants and stop when she’s full and leave a half a brownie on her plate like it’s no big deal. When it comes to the hors d’oeuvres, she could take ‘em or leave ‘em. She does not diet therefore she never feels out of control around food.
Binge eating is a direct, primal and healthy response to restriction and deprivation.
To be clear: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.
You don’t have a problem with sugar. You are not addicted to food. You’re not a disgusting slob of a human with no willpower who deserves to be locked up away from Oreos.
You are, in one word: hungry.
You have been restricting or depriving yourself in some way (or both) and now your body is fighting back to keep you alive.
That is all that’s going on.
Once our bodies are threatened with real or perceived food scarcity, our brain takes over and creates a primal drive to overeat. This means, at any given chance, when food is present (or our guard is down due to heightened emotions) we will binge. We will eat and eat and eat and not consciously be able to stop because our body is taking over and winning the fight for survival.
Your primal drive to eat couldn’t give two shits about how you look in your jeans. So if you’re dieting and restricting, it’s eventually going to take over and force you to binge. And that’s if you’re otherwise healthy. (If it doesn’t take over, something is very wrong.)
Isn’t that wild?
The exact thing we think is going to help us reign in our appetite and fix our evil hunger is what causes our urge to eat to shift into overdrive.
Think about what I said before about nobody binging on kale and hard boiled eggs. What do your binges usually consist of? If I had to guess, it would be carbs and sugar and/or anything that was off limits previously while you were dieting, right?
When we binge, our bodies are on the primal hunt for quick energy and anything that will help us pack on fat, so carbohydrates and fatty foods are more enticing than unusual in this state.
For me, back in the day, Ben & Jerry’s, which is essentially just sugar and fat, was the perfect binge food after a week of struggling to not eat any carbs while on the Paleo diet.
So just to be totally clear here, and to reiterate, binge eating is caused by dieting.
Even if you’re not on a formal diet like Noom or Keto, if you are binging, you are likely restricting food in some way. You’re either trying to watch the amount, or skipping entire food groups or measuring your intake. It’s either that, or you’re psychologically restricting, which means even if you’re eating, you’re beating yourself up the whole time, telling yourself you’re going to restrict in the future. The same result will follow.
How to Stop Binge Eating
Okay so now that we know what’s causing the binge eating, how do we stop? Well, you may not like this very obvious answer: stop dieting.
It seems most people, our previous selves included, always wanted to get better at dieting, not stop. We want to get rid of the binging but we don’t want to let go of the restriction.
The truth of this matter is that dieting itself is what makes you feel so incredibly out of control around food. So, if you want to stop feeling that way, and start living like a normal human again, you’ll have to let go of the restriction. You can’t have it both ways. Believe me, we’ve tried to get around this. It won’t work.
You’ll have to make the commitment to confront your diet mindset head on, throw away all the dieter’s tools you’ve been using, and get honest with yourself about why you’re eating (or trying to eat) a certain way, and then actively stop doing that.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, which is why we do free breakthrough sessions with anyone interested in putting an end to their binge eating for good. You can sign up for your own free session by clicking on this link. It will take you to our calendar where you can grab a time to chat with one of us. We’ll dive deep on a free, 45 minute call to get to the bottom of what’s going on for you with food and your body right now, what you’re missing in order to fix it and a step-by-step plan to get started.
When you’ve been dieting long enough to start binge eating, you’ll need a framework to help you heal and start to eat normally again. Which is where our 4 steps to stop binge eating come in.
4 Steps to Stop Binge Eating
Step 1: Stop dieting
As discussed above, you have got to stop restricting and depriving yourself, whether physically or psychologically, in order to stop binge eating. You have to eat enough, regularly, until your body and brain start to trust you again. That means just eating, probably more than you’re used to, and definitely more than dieting ever told you was okay.
It also means (gulp) you might gain some weight. But don’t freak out. Gaining some weight after periods of restriction and deprivation is very normal and healthy. And before you curse me out and slam your laptop shut, or throw your phone across the room, there’s typically a pendulum swing that begins.
You might feel a little out of control at first. You might eat so much it scares you. But eventually, you’ll start to feel disinterested in some of the foods that used to trigger binges. You’ll start to be satisfied with less, and you’ll start to crave things like vegetables, as well as cookies.
Your body will find balance again and your weight, instead of yo-yo-ing and weight cycling for the rest of your life, will finally settle at a healthy, natural range for your body and stay there.
And the beauty of all of this, is that you won’t have to think about it so much or try so goddamn hard anymore. You won’t have to spend your entire life either on or off of a diet. The constant battle against food and your body will stop sucking up all your time, energy and mind space. You will be free. You’ll get your life back. And you will feel an epic sense of relief. You’ll wonder why you waited so long to find help.
P.S. – You can get help right here by booking a free Breakthrough Session.
2. Begin to Practice Intuitive Eating
After a lifetime of dieting, just stopping can be very challenging. It’s like letting go of the thin thread you’ve been hanging on to and getting sucked out to space, flailing and spinning and flipping over and over, like Sandra Bullock in that movie with George Clooney where he was so happy to just float away from a woman his own age, out into space and die.
When you do make the commitment to stop dieting, there is no better framework out there to help you heal and come back to Earth than the framework of Intuitive Eating.
You can read ALL about Intuitive Eating here but, essentially, it’s the process of returning to your body, rebuilding trust between the two of you, and shifting back to being the number one expert on your own needs and tastes. It guides you away from everything that obstructs you from listening to your own body’s cues, while simultaneously helping to amplify those cues. So you can follow that info to have your needs met, you know, instead of following Dr. Oz. Or some rando from high school on Facebook who’s in a pyramid scheme selling shakes and portion containers on the internet and asking you if you want to make easy money working from home. It’s very healing.
3. Build a Positive Body Image
I know, I know. Nobody wants to talk about improving their body image because it’s not very sexy to say “build a positive body image.” And it’s also not sexy to say “just love the body you have.” Nobody wants to hear that shit. Feels like a copout. And besides, there’s no way you could love your uniquely unlovable body the way it is today. It’s just not possible. Or so you think.
We all figure we’ll just naturally like our body more when we lose weight. Even though we can’t lose weight, because we are binge eating.
Here’s the thing though, shitty body is the number one trigger underlying your fraught relationship with food. Terrible body image, triggers the diet-binge cycle. So if you’re ever going to truly heal, and stop binge eating, you’re going to have to work on your body image. The more you come to appreciate and respect your body, the less you’ll want to control food to change it, and the less you will binge eat.
And I’m not talking about empty hashtag body positivity here. I’m talking about understanding what a true positive body image means and then actively working toward it. We have a very specific framework we help our clients work through to get there. And we can help you too if you like. But the gist of it is that you’ve got to understand and start to criticize the cultural norms that got you here, uncover your own personal beliefs and stories and start to practice body respect, appreciation and neutrality. It’s some real deal work but, as you start to practice, you start to build resilience and radical change begins.
At the end of the day body image is in your mind, not on the scale. So that’s where the work must happen.
4. Begin to Practice Health at Every Size
Health at Every Size is a weight-inclusive, health-affirming set of principles that can guide you to take care of yourself to the best of your personal ability, taking into account the multifaceted aspects that contribute to health outcomes. Basically, it shifts the focus from weight as a health indicator (because BMI is bullshit and weight doesn’t tell you much about a person’s overall health) and focuses on the behaviors and habits that we can control. HAES also takes into account the fact that health outcomes are a social justice issue, and a person’s health is impacted far more by circumstances outside of individual control than we’ve been led to believe – like genetics, socioeconomic status, access to quality healthcare, varying forms of oppression and stigma and more.
If health is a value for you, you can learn to take care of yourself in a way that does not emphasize weight loss as a means for improving health outcomes. You can improve your health through your habits and behaviors rather than through the pursuit of intentional weight loss.
We believe, after decades of failed diet culture and harmful, weight-normative approaches to health, Health at Every Size will one day be embraced as the norm.
Binge eating is a direct response to dieting, restriction and deprivation. Trying to control food only pours gasoline on the fire of your appetite. And there was likely nothing wrong with you or your appetite to begin with. In order to stop binge eating, you have to stop dieting.
Ironically, if you want to feel more in control and less obsessed with food, you have to allow yourself to eat without condition. And this can be really hard and scary in our fat phobic, diet culture, that demonizes food and eating and makes us terrified to lose the perceived or real social currency of being in a smaller body.
But there is hope. You can stop dieting, learn to practice Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size, and work toward a more positive, sustainable body image. Doing these things will allow your body and brain to relax. It will strip those binge foods of their power and will free up the massive amount of time, energy and mind space you’ve been wasting trying to control yourself around food.
We promise. There is nothing wrong with you. And once you stop dieting and start to heal, you’ll be amazed when you start to feel that truth in your bones. When you can one day be one of those people who could take it or leave it when it comes to the dessert menu.
If you want to go deeper and finally stop binge eating in your own life, we urge you to watch our totally free class: 5 Shifts to End Binge Eating. We go way deeper than we can in a blog post and if you’ve read this far, you can definitely benefit from giving it a watch. Might be THE THING you’ve been searching for.
And if you’re ready for a deeper level of support, book a free, Intuitive Eating Breakthrough Session with one of us today. In this 45 minute call we uncover exactly what’s not working for you regarding food and your body, what you’re missing in order to fix it and step-by-step plan to stop binge eating and embrace true well-being instead. Just grab a spot on our calendar and we’ll be in touch soon!