10 Tips to Stop Binge Eating

Binge eating is an increasingly common concern. Feeling out of control, consuming large portions of food in a short period of time, and feeling ashamed characterize this highly distressing pattern. If you can relate, these 10 tips are for you:

1. Don’t Restrict

In the “feast or famine” times of our ancestors, bingeing made sense. When food was available, they feasted, preparing for when food would be scarce. In those days, excess food didn’t cause the anxiety it causes us now, and the feast-famine model was functional. Now, however, it causes distress and shame. If you restrict—whether it be intentionally or unintentionally (dieting, overexercising, or appetite-suppressing drugs), you’re setting yourself up for a binge. It’s very important to eat regular meals to shift away from this cycle. If you binge at one meal, don’t skip the next or you’ll simply set yourself up for another binge.

2. Practice Self-Compassion

Usually, when we binge, we beat ourselves up for it. And then we feel shame. And we don’t like those feelings of shame, so we distract ourselves from them. How? By continuing to binge! And what about when we want to understand what led to the binge? If we’re self-critical, we avoid thinking about it because it makes us feel so crappy. Not only does self-criticism make us feel worse, it actually prolongs and perpetuates binge behavior. With mindfulness and self-compassion, we’re actually far more likely to make a change in our behavior. Being self-compassionate means you treat yourself like you would a friend or loved one. If you slip up, you’re supportive and understanding, rather than cruel and angry.

3. Make Sure You’re Getting Enough of Certain Nutrients

Oftentimes, bingeing is our body’s way of seeking nutrients we’re deprived of. A craving for sweets is often a sign that we’re dehydrated or lacking vitamin C. A craving for salty foods might mean we’re missing calcium, sodium, magnesium, or zinc. Low energy combined with insatiable appetite might mean you’re low in iron or B12. Make sure you’re getting enough of these important micronutrients, as well as satiating macronutrients such as high-fiber carbs, healthy fats, and protein. Not only do these fill us up, they prevent blood sugar crashes (that often result in binges).

4. Clear Your Cupboard of Binge Foods

The solution to binge eating is not simply to avoid binge food, but it’s a necessary step in recovery. The way to work through alcoholism is not to practice abstinence while surrounded by vodka bottles; similarly, the way to work through binge eating is not to practice intuitive eating surrounded by your binge foods of choice. If you don’t feel safe around cereal, don’t buy cereal for now. If you don’t feel safe around ice cream, don’t buy ice cream for now. This is not a sign of weakness or failure; it’s a supportive and compassionate action in your recovery process.

5. Learn and Use Mindfulness

Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention to the present moment, without judgment. We can mindfully bring attention to our bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, and senses. With practice, we are able to switch out of the “autopilot” mode of bingeing, and change our behavior. Mindfulness also helps you become more aware of whether or not you’re physically or emotionally hungry. Yoga and meditation are great avenues to gaining mindfulness skills.

6. Do Low-Intensity Exercise

Unknowingly, many people who struggle with binge eating make their recovery more challenging by engaging in high-intensity exercise that can set them up for a binge. High-intensity exercise keeps our appetite high and can often put our bodies into that state of “famine” we discussed earlier. If you’re wanting to get a handle on binge eating, consider scaling back on spinning or CrossFit. Bring more functional fitness into your life, like taking the stairs, walking, and practicing yoga.

7. Learn to “HALT”

An acronym I encourage clients to use once they can switch out of “autopilot” is HALT: “Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?” Of course angry and lonely could be replaced with many other emotions—hurt, sad, bored, guilty. As you become more in touch with your body, you’ll be able to better tell if you truly are hungry, or if your hunger is for something else. For example, if you can acknowledge you’re lonely, you might reach for the phone or practice self-compassion instead of going to the cupboard. Similarly, we seek high-fat, high-sugar foods for quick energy when we’re tired. For anyone prone to bingeing, this can be a trigger.

8. Join a Support Group and/or See a Therapist

Shame thrives in secrecy, and shame perpetuates bingeing. When we can talk about our struggles in a safe, supportive environment, the shame begins to melt away. Then insight and change happen. There are many support groups for binge eating, both online and offline. If you’re not ready for a group, consider seeing a therapist or attending a treatment center. It is very challenging to try to heal on your own, and usually bingeing has become a maladaptive way of dealing with more complex issues. 

9. Don’t Purge

Purging perpetuates a cycle of bingeing on several levels: First, it sends the message to our body that despite eating a moderate amount of food, we’re not satisfied. So what do we do? We eat more! Secondly, it psychologically permits us to keep bingeing, as we know we can alleviate the discomfort of a binge with a purge and not absorb the calories (yet, we still absorb most of them). When we stop giving ourselves the option to purge or restrict, we’re more intentional about binges.

10. Be Mindful of Your Relationship with Alcohol

I’ve had many clients who feel extremely vulnerable to bingeing when they’ve been drinking alcohol. This is because alcohol affects our prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain that controls logic, decision-making, rationality, and self-control, among other important functions. Alcohol also increases our appetite for up to 24 hours after consuming it, depresses mood, and destabilizes blood sugar—which raises your susceptibility to a binge the next day. If you’re trying to binge less, consider cutting back on how much you drink, or cutting it out entirely.

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