What Causes Binge Eating? How Diets Like Whole30 Contribute to Disordered Eating Patterns
Hey friend, just a quick heads up: we do discuss weight, what causes binge eating, disordered eating and past diet behaviors in this blog post, as it relates to either a featured expert’s or one of our own personal histories. We’ve done our best to edit for specifics without compromising the full story, but this content could be triggering. Please always prioritize your mental health, and proceed at your discretion. If you are struggling with food or your body, send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be happy to provide resources or refer you to a specialist. And as always, a disclaimer: this blog is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose, treat or provide medical advice of any sort.
Binge eating to the chronic dieter is like cocaine to the alcoholic. Many could live as a functioning alcoholic for years, a lifetime even, but throw a few lines of coke in the mix and things get f’d up a lot quicker. For many, it’s the type of thing that although painful in the moment, in retrospect it’s a helpful fast track to rock bottom.
Well at least that’s what binge eating was for me.
I had been on and off diets since I was eight years old. I always remember the first diet because I was eight years old and I lost eight pounds. Looking back it’s both unbelievable and incredibly sad, as I have a six year old girl and I would be heartbroken to learn if weight loss was one of the million dreams cycling in her beautiful little head at night.
For decades I tried every diet under the sun: WW, slim fast, low carb, no carb and even got my first job as a sales rep for Jenny Craig. Although I was in a relatively “average” size body, in my mind I was always just outside the unrealistic standards of beauty. Back in the 80’s, BMI charts told me I was bordering “overweight,” so that was enough to keep me running steady on the track of diets, barely getting off for a water break for the next thirty years.
But then I got pregnant for the first time, and twice more after that. I treated each pregnancy as a break from dieting and, looking back, also like an extended binge. While I was pregnant, I would research diet plans I would go on as soon as I had my babies. I remember one doctor’s visit when my OBGYN wanted to chat with me about what she called my “unusual weight gain.” Full of hormones and scared, I cried uncontrollably, and she gave me pamphlets with a meal plan that focused on caloric restriction and limiting sugar. As if I needed more information on dieting.
And then the day came when I would deliver a perfect new baby and with my life turned upside down and my body image in the trash, my mental todo list read:
1. Keep new baby alive
2. Lose some f’ing weight
With baby number one I started trying to lose weight immediately, restricting calories so low that I was barely able to produce breast milk. When my lactation nurse scolded me about my low calories I begrudgingly ate more but combatted that with double workouts and yet a new “live it” called “clean eating.” I cycled weekly through a highly restrictive diet during the week, and then, if I had lost weight I’d treat myself to a cheat meal on the weekend. The weight came off and I got pregnant again.
By baby number two I had gained the same impressive amount so I doubled down on my clean eating lifestyle and did my first Whole30.
Whole30 was my gateway to disordered eating. If you haven’t heard of it, this is a program that set my expectations on days 4, 5 and 6, I would feel like I wanted to KILL ALL THINGS. They even produced a calendar to help dieters anticipate how they would feel throughout the program that had a BREATHING DRAGON on it.
At first, finding the Whole30 felt like I had found the holy grail of diets! It was straight forward, and easy to follow, be it that it eliminated far more than it allowed. With three kids and almost 40 years old, here I had found a way to feel bad about eating bananas.
I completed my first one, planned strategically to wrap up just two days before my second baby’s 1st birthday. I was proud of myself. At the party I was showered with compliments about my weight loss, everyone questioned how I did it, and I proudly dictated out the rules to all that asked… as I LITERALLY ATE MY FACE OFF.
Birthday cake, wine, chips, crackers, I ate everything that I had spent the last 30 days dreaming of. If I wanted it or not, I ate it. If it tasted good or not, I shoved it down. I stayed up a bit later, poured myself another glass of wine, cut myself a big piece of cake, because when the clock struck midnight, I was going to be that “healthy Whole30’er again.”
By the time my third baby came along, my life was either on or off Whole30. If I was on, I was foggy, sluggish, shaming myself for my previous indulgent food indescretions, and punishing myself through workouts I had no energy to do. The longer I stayed on the Whole30, the longer I binged when I was off. I was consumed, obsessed, and owned by thoughts of food. What I would eat, what I wouldn’t eat, and what I couldn’t believe I ate.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one, in an article for Bon Appetit, Natalie Zises, an eating psychology coach said, “A common unspoken side effect of the “miraculous” Whole30 is that it often ends—either by day 31 or way sooner—with bingeing. Eight out of nine of my clients who identified as having weight and health issues told me they’d experienced heavy binges after the 30 days were up.” Whole30’ers are left thinking, I wonder what causes binge eating, when it is likely the program they just got off.
Now in retrospect, this is not surprising. Melissa Hartwig, the founder of Whole30, is a recovering addict, and absolutely not to take anything away from her impressive recovery but the dichotomous thinking that allowed her to get sober, the all or nothing mindset, just does not work with food. We still have to eat. Life still happens, there are still birthdays and weddings and holidays. And yes, food is fuel, but if we are being honest it is more than that.
I’m writing this post for those women that have found themselves in similar situations. That place where although their diets and meal plans have become more restrictive over the years they now find it somehow harder to lose weight. And to add to that, the addition of regular binge eating (maybe calling them cheat days) starts to impact their lives, and further threatens their health goals.
In this post we will go through exactly what binge eating is. We will discuss the experts perspective on what causes binge eating (It’s actually is very straight forward.) And we will also go through the four shifts I made with the help of the coaches at Wellness Lately to stop binge eating literally overnight.
These shifts helped me drop the obsession around food, trust myself around foods I used to not be able to have in the house and ultimately, vow to never diet again.
So let’s get to it; What is binge eating?
Binge eating is not simply overeating from time to time. The Natural Library of Medicine, writes, “Binge eating is characterized by discrete episodes of rapid and excessive food consumption not necessarily driven by hunger or metabolic need.” For people like me, that had such rigid dichotomy of good versus bad foods and “allowed” behaviors around foods, a small amount of overeating, or the wrong choice of foods could, and in most cases would lead to a binge. Evelyn Tribole, and Elyse Resch refer to this as the “last supper syndrome.”
“Well I ate the cake, so I might as well eat everything not nailed down, and start over tomorrow.” Or, if not that type of binge eating, it was after dreaming of eating chips for three of the four weeks of this last Whole30, I just couldn’t hold out anymore and “fell off the wagon.” Those are typically the two types of binging. Whole30 specifically promotes this kind of thinking, demanding that, if you slip up in any way, you should start over, there is no grey area.
What causes binge eating?
Repeat after me, Binge eating is a direct result of deprivation or perceived deprivation around food!!!!!!
What?! What causes binge eating?
You mean I’m not a lazy piece of shit with no willpower? I spent so long feeling like it was me: my lack of willpower, not enough sticktoitness, inability to achieve goals…you know the beatdown script we’ve all given ourselves. But it turns out in my case, I was wrong. Meagan Gunnip, MA, MHC, an eating disorders therapist says, “Dieting can lead to obsessive thoughts about food and feelings of extreme hunger. When people experience extreme hunger paired with an increase in thoughts about food and eating, they’re more likely to binge.”
When I first started learning about disordered eating through the Wellness Lately program, they told me about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Although this study is called the “starvation experiment,” these men were not starved to the “brink of death,” in actuality, 36 men were put on meal plans of around 1,600 calories for 13 weeks. Again, although called a Starvation Experiment, this was more like common dieting than starvation. These men were said to be driven to the “threshold of insanity” doing things like staying up until 5 am reading cookbooks, stealing food, and yes….once they were allowed to eat, eating more than hunger required. (Hmmm…sounds a bit like my friends and I?)
I was starting to get what was happening…. When I was on Whole30, I was depriving myself of important nutrients, just like the men in the Minnesota study. When I was off, my body was anticipating this deprivation coming back and fighting against it.
THE FOUR SHIFTS that helped me to stop binge eating literally overnight:
- Operate with Self Compassion
I used to think that being hard on myself was how I stayed on track. I’d say, “I’m my biggest critic, it’s how I stay motivated.” I thought I was driven by that nasty voice in my head. The one that would say, look at how fat and lazy you are, work out double tomorrow you ate so much. What I learned through my Intuitive Eating Program, was that if that type of conversation with myself had worked, I wouldn’t have been on and off diets all my adult life.
They encouraged me instead to talk to myself as I would my children. As a mother of three, that resonated with me so much. To think of yelling derogatory names at my children when they were having a hard time, expecting that would somehow snap them into shape made me angry. It also was clearly ineffective.
- Leverage Your Body’s Set Point
I remember first learning about “set point,” and changing your set point, watching the Oprah Show back in the 90’s after school. Needless to say, 20 some years later, as a spokesperson for WW, Oprah is still trying to prove the concept that you can successfully change your set point, and with all the data detailing the contrary she’s still defending the idea that diets are a valuable pursuit. This is hard for me because I LOVE ME SOME OPRAH. But even Oprah has been swimming around in diet culture, just like the rest of us. I will practice my compassion toward her.
What we know is that our bodies have a natural, healthy set point, a weight where they are their happiest, a weight that they’re naturally wired to be at or around, it’s actually coded in our DNA.
One of the best explanations of set point theory is out of Lindo Bacon’s Book Health At Every Size. In it she says, “Think of it as the preferred temperature on a fat thermostat. Like any thermostat, this one can be set at whatever point is most comfortable. The system then works tirelessly to do anything it can to bring your body into alignment with that point. It acts like a pull to get you back to the comfortable range.
This system only works if we let it; however. If you keep jiggling with the thermostat via diets, the mechanisms break down. This jiggling is like a power struggle to wrest control away from your body’s innate weight-regulation mechanism, and in the end, it only makes your body fight harder to retain control. The result: Your body forces you to not only regain any weight you’ve lost, but you may even pay a penalty with extra weight gain- and a setpoint now set high to protect against future diets.”
What Lindo is explaining here is that set point is a science. When we restrict ourselves, it triggers the internal alarm system. It actually makes the body want to gain weight instead. This is the good news: it explains why diets don’t work, why they tend to end in binges, gaining back all we lost and then some. And it also explains that none of this is YOUR FAULT.
The potentially bad news for some, is we CAN NOT choose our set point. We are not all meant to be the same size. I think back to conversations I’ve had with my kids when teaching compassion, explaining to them that people come in ALL SHAPES and SIZES, and that is what makes the world beautiful. The question was, could I apply that to myself? In full disclosure it was VERY hard for me.
- Body Neutrality
I’ve now already established that based on how I was used to talking to myself I would have been a shoe-in for the cast of Mean Girls if they did a sequel. In fact when my coaches started tentatively talking to me about body positivity and positive affirmations I became somewhat hostile and certainly skeptical. I had spent my entire life trying to change my body, seeing only the negative, hating it even. They weren’t going to magically transform me into one of the Dove Commercial Models, posing in my undies, with my stretch marks for all the world to see. That just wasn’t me. But what they had to say was different.
Instead of stripping me down to my undies and trying to convince me my stretch marks were beautiful, they introduced me to a different term; Body Neutrality. Dana, one of my coaches, wrote a great post about Body Neutrality. Body Neutrality is the belief that how you look is the least interesting thing about you, that you don’t have to make that leap to LOVE how you looked to feel good about yourself. That how I looked wasn’t the problem, it was what I THOUGHT about how I looked that was my problem. This was the work…
- Invest In Support:
We tend to believe, especially as women and Mothers, that this type of work on ourselves is indulgent, or not necessary. We should just be able to figure this out on our own. In truth, I don’t know why I asked for help and signed up for the program. I’d like to say it was my intuition driving me. I just knew deep down that what I was doing wasn’t working. Reaching, a point in my life where I knew I was creating a legacy for my children that I wasn’t proud of, was a strong lightbulb moment for me. I also knew I couldn’t go back to dieting, but I honestly did not know how to move forward. But now, looking back at my journey, I can cite so many times, whereas if I was doing this on my own, I would have given up. I had no prebuilt network of support, in fact, everything was working against me, the magazine covers at grocery stores, fitfluencers on Instagram taking photos of their abs and my relatives discussing their latest round of Weight Watchers at Thanksgiving.
I believed there were women in this world (Intuitive Eaters) that didn’t spend every minute hating their body, obsessing over food they ate or wouldn’t eat, but I didn’t know them personally. My friends, my family, were like me, deep in diet culture. Investing in coaches, provided me a network of support from individuals that had been where I was and now had been trained to get me to the other side.
Where I am Now
After 30 years on and off diets, no one had ever told me that I wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t my lack of willpower, my inability to reach goals or my sugar addiction. It’s clear now that diets like the Whole30, which were overly restrictive in nature, forced my body to fight back in the form of binge eating. The coaches at Wellness Lately worked with me one on one, to teach me the four shifts to end my binge eating and yo-yo dieting for good. They helped me finally feel in control around food, and accept and respect the strong body I’d been given. This was a life changing transformation.
I haven’t done a Whole30 (or wanted to) or binged since. My menus include variety. My food choices for the most part make me feel good physically and make me happy mentally. I ask my body what I want to eat in each moment and I trust my own guidance. I listen to my body and feed it when it’s hungry, and stop when I’m satisfied.
If you can relate to my story, and are ready to do something about your own struggle, the coaches I worked with would love to hear your story. Click on this link to set up a free call with them to discuss how you can put an end to this struggle today.