Do you recognise this scenario?
You’re on a diet.
So far you’ve followed that classic dieting term and ‘been really good’. Watching friends, family and colleagues eat the delicious foods you love, munching forlornly on your carrot sticks and rice cakes.
But now you’ve had a stressful day, and you’re ready to crack. That voice pops into your head. ‘Go on, have something that you want. You’ve done so well, one won’t hurt. It will make you feel better. You deserve it.‘
You head to the cupboard and take an oreo out of the packet. OMG it tastes so good. The sugary, crunchy deliciousness immediately relieves the tension you were feeling. Before you know it, you’ve reached for another. Your brain goes numb and 5 minutes later you’re staring at an empty packet. You’ve ruined it.
Suddenly your brain switches back on and you’re overwhelmed with guilt and shame. What the hell have you done? Insults now rain down from the voice in your head. The diet is broken, so you may as well carry on eating everything else now too.
Whenever you restart the diet (or ‘healthy eating plan’) you’re unsure of yourself. There’s very little trust around food. You restrict even more –
‘I can’t be around chocolate. No willpower, can’t control myself.’
You start to wonder if you’re addicted to sugar. It feels so powerful. The avoidance and restriction is inevitably followed by cravings and succumbing again. It’s a vicious cycle. But it’s not your fault. And with the right tools, self-compassion and practice, you have the power to change it.
Before we begin, I want to make clear I am not an expert in binge eating or eating disorders. I am a qualified nutritionist, and have over a decade of experience as a personal trainer helping women to lose weight. Many women I’ve worked with have struggled with binge eating and emotional eating, and I have researched the topic extensively, also completing the online Brain over Binge course with Kathryn Hansen.
I’ve written this article as I believe it can help many people, but take from it what feels right for you. I always recommend seeking professional advice from a doctor or eating disorder specialist if you are struggling. BEAT is a brilliant resource for this.
Binge eating and emotional eating
Struggles with binge eating are a lot more common than we think. And even if we don’t binge, most of us overeat at times due to reasons other than physical hunger.
We often believe that we binge or emotionally eat to help us cope with problems. Which leads us to feel we need to solve those problems first, before we can break the patterns around food that make us unhappy.
I want to present a different perspective to you here.
If you have stresses in life, absolutely work to address them in whatever ways you can. But you don’t need to do this in order to stop binge eating or emotional eating.
If you’re in a phase of life that just is hard – maybe you’re dealing with family challenges, your kids are needing a lot of your time and energy, or you’re going through menopause – believing that you need to change those problems first can leave you feeling powerless and stuck.
The thing is, although it feels like you’re eating to cope with stress or emotions, technically you’re not. You’re eating to cope with the urges to eat.
We all experience stress at times, and there are many people who don’t turn to food in that situation. That’s not because they’re any better than you; it’s because they don’t experience urges (or they’ve taught themselves to deal with them). That craving for food is so uncomfortable, sometimes it feels better to just give into it. Even though we know it doesn’t help in the long run.
But if you learn to dismiss those feelings, you can rewire your brain so you no longer experience them.
Our two brains and why we binge
Let’s delve briefly into the brain. To get the most important points across, I’ll keep it really simple. There are two key areas in this wonderful organ inside our heads –
- the primal / lower brain (wants to help us survive, seek pleasure and avoid pain. Not changed much since we evolved into humans)
- the higher brain (logical, able to think realistically and make decisions for our future happiness).
Any urge to binge comes from the lower brain, and is basically a result of faulty wiring. It doesn’t mean you’re flawed or broken. And it can be changed.
So why do we experience urges to overeat, and sometimes end up binge eating?
We often pick up these habitual thought patterns when we’ve spent time doing diets that, quite frankly, suck, and dramatically restrict our food intake.
Overly restricting food sends the lower brain into overdrive. Fearing that there’s a famine, and believing we need to gorge on excess calories in case we can’t find food again soon. Over time, this becomes a habit. We usually experience pleasure and relief in the first stages of a binge, and the brain mistakenly forms the conclusion that this is a good thing to do.
In our modern world, we know that there’s plenty of food around all the time. So these urges can be dismissed as a lower brain glitch. It’s trying to help and protect us, and we just need to retrain it.
That’s the first step to dismissing the urge – viewing it simply as neurological junk.
It doesn’t have a deeper meaning, and you don’t need to fix any other problems first. It’s just some brain neurons firing in an unhelpful pattern.
Viewing it this way takes away its power, and keeps your calm, logical higher brain in control.
The urge voice is not you
This is important to understand. It’s faulty wiring and an unhelpful brain habit – not a reflection of who you want to be. So you don’t need to feel bad or beat yourself up for what you’re experiencing.
Be a compassionate observer of the situation. When you take a step back and look at it objectively, you’re just a person having a thought.
Think of a time when you had an urge to binge, but you couldn’t because other people were around. Maybe you were at an event, with family or friends. In that situation, you decided that giving in to the urge was simple not an option. So you didn’t act, and it faded away.
That shows you can do it.
Remember that. Very often we spend far too much time visualising ourselves doing what we don’t want to do. We worry about the problem we have, play back images of ourselves binge eating, and hope we don’t do it again (usually while imagining ourselves doing it again).
Instead, play back those times when you were successful. Imagine what it will be like as you continue to improve. Focus on who you want to be. Build an evidence bank of all the times in your life where you’ve shown you’re strong and capable. Don’t let yourself off the hook with ‘I can’t think of any times’ – put some effort in! There will be innumerable examples when you look for them.
Don’t react to to binge eating urges
Obviously, this is the goal. But there’s context behind this that can really make a difference.
When we experience an urge, we often react by giving in to feel better and make it go away. But of course this doesn’t work. Sure, the urge might go, but then you’re left with feeling regretful and stuffed. the problem that sparked that craving is still there, and now you’re more unhappy than before.
So, we need to react in a better way. Essentially by not reacting at all – recognising the urge as junk, and being calm and unattached until it fades away.
Don’t judge yourself for experiencing those thoughts and feelings. It is what it is. It’s ok. And it doesn’t have power over you. Be as unattached as you can possibly be. You can’t choose the fact that you’re experiencing the urge, but you can control how you think and feel in response. You are in control.
Regular meditation (for as little as 5-10 minutes) can make a huge difference in these moments. The practice of letting thoughts come and calmly watching them go, like clouds drifting across the sky, translates perfectly to dismissing urges to binge.
The Calm app is brilliant – they release daily 10-minute guided meditations, and even have ‘masterclass’ sessions you can listen to that cover topics including mindful eating and building better habits.
What to do when experiencing an urge
To weaken the pathway in your brain, you need to stop acting on it whenever it crops up.
Imagine a jungle, where tribes-people have carved a path through the bushes and trees. If they decide to start taking a different route, over the next few months the original path will become overgrown. Meanwhile, the new route they’ve chosen will become more accessible and easy to follow, each time they use it.
It’s the same with the pathways in the brain. Every urge is a fantastic opportunity to practice doing things different – to create a new, better pathway and weaken the old one.
Here are three options you can choose from when experiencing an urge to binge.
- Keep doing what you’re doing (calmly carry on with whatever task you were engaged in, and let the fade away)
- Distract yourself (start a new task and keep calmly focusing your brain on that)
- Simply observe the urge (again, calmly is the key word – just notice it, let it be there, and remember it can’t control what you do)
It will still be uncomfortable, but remember, that’s ok. The feeling is temporary – it will fade.
The discomfort of giving in and then dealing with the guilt and frustration after… is a lot worse.
In any area of life, to grow and become better, we have to get uncomfortable. So if that’s how you feel, congratulations – you’re on the right track. Every time you practice dismissing the urge, it gets weaker and you become stronger.
Get excited for the next version of you
Think of this as a new skill to learn, that will make dramatically positive impacts on your life. What can you do with that extra level of confidence and self control, when you’ve shown yourself you can do it?
As humans we are habitual negative thinkers. Get excited for positive change – this will help to strengthen the good habit you want to create. We need to consciously use our higher brain to visualise what we want to create. Keep focused on the benefits you’re gaining, and how great it feels to be in control.
When you’ve rewired your brain… how will that make life better?
Imagine the energy, confidence and pride you’ll have.
Think about the clothes you’ll wear when you’ve lost weight because you’re so consistent and in tune with your body.
Now… visualise yourself experiencing an urge, and following those steps above.
Put it into action at the next opportunity you get. I’d love to hear how you get on.
Remember – it will take practice, you don’t need to get it right every time. But with consistency, you will create a new pathway and some brilliant results. You’ll also be free and clearer when it comes to tackling other problems too. I hope this helps.