Binge eating is far more common than most of us think. Many people suffer in silence, feeling embarrassed and ashamed, but it is essentially a habit that’s been created in the brain. With patience and practice it can be changed. In this article I’ll take you through an evidence-based approach for how to stop binge eating.
What’s key to stress first is that binge eating can vary dramatically in terms of frequency and severity. When emotions are involved and the habit is repeated often, it can get to a point where it feels extremely powerful and difficult to break out of.
If you struggle with it, you are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you, and you can absolutely overcome it. You may just need some guidance and support to help you do that safely and effectively.
Don’t be afraid to reach out if you are struggling to deal with this by yourself. A good online resource is BEAT.
In this article I’ll share with you a plan to help overcome binge eating, but first we need to understand more about it.
What is binge eating?
I’ll keep this part brief so we can get into tools to help. Simply put, binge eating is consuming large amounts of food in a short time frame, accompanied by a feeling of being out of control.
The foods involved in a binge are usually high calorie, hyper-palatable ‘forbidden’ foods, and you may feel like you’re eating on autopilot. When the episode ends, guilt, shame and frustration take over. It’s common to hide both the evidence of the binge and the struggles you’re having. But you are not alone.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why this is a struggle for so many.
Risk factors for binge eating
Binge eating is linked with low self esteem, and a tendency to base self worth on looks and weight.
It’s also linked to black and white thinking. If this is you, you might recognise that you have an ‘all or nothing mindset’ when it comes to food.
Restrictive diets can create this mentality. Diets, and the pressure to be thin from society in general, and are a large part of the reason it is often maintained.
Combine this with low self esteem – feeling unworthy of the time or effort to make change – and you have a recipe for getting stuck in a pattern.
So two key factors to support change are:
- building self esteem – focusing on enhancing confidence and happiness in other areas of life
- removing food rules – practising a more intuitive eating style approach, with food freedom supported by planning and structure to increase chances of success.
People who binge eat often identify as perfectionists or are over-achievers. You might excel in certain areas of life such as work, and feel SO frustrated at not being able to apply this excellence to weight loss.
You may see others succeeding, and wonder why you are ‘failing’ in comparison.
Many people have an underlying subconsciously belief of – ‘I must reach this goal and do it perfectly’.
Here are a couple of key underlying principles to be aware of.
Many transformations are not real life
A crucial element of shifting your mindset is awareness of how the media works.
What we see on TV and in magazines is generally not real life. People are photoshopped, airbrushed and made to look as beautiful as possible.
You can see these incredible transformation photos online and in magazines, and feel completely inadequate. But in reality the photos were enhanced, and the transformation only lasted a few weeks anyway, because the approach used to get there was completely unsustainable.
Similarly with people who look fabulous on instagram. Many have taken dozens of shots to find that perfect angle, filter and lighting. Other photos are taken after restricting carbohydrate and water intake to look as lean and toned as possible.
The main point to take home… there is a lot of smoke and mirrors. You never know the true story behind a photo. And regardless of that, no one has the same body and circumstances that you do. So you can’t compare to anyone else.
Self love, thoughts and feelings
What you can do, is find as many ways as possible to love and respect YOUR body. For what it is, what it can do, and everything it’s got you through so far.
Here’s a task – how many ways can you think of to appreciate, love and respect your body?
What has your body enabled you to do that you’re proud of?
If you got £1000 for every positive thought you can find about this amazing vessel you’ve spent your entire life in, how many could you come up with?
Write them down!
Honestly – extremely valuable exercise, even if you don’t get any money for it.
Now, we also need to learn to experience thoughts without believing or acting on them.
Just because you think a thought, doesn’t mean it’s true. So many of our thoughts are negative and, when you question them in the cold light of day, wildly incorrect.
It’s important here to not judge the thoughts you have, but build the habit of observing with interest and curiosity.
If you don’t like what you’re thinking… you get to change it.
What’s a better, kinder, more helpful thought to choose?
Intuitive eating is the ability to listen and respond to hunger and fullness signals. We are born fully able to do this, but we can disconnect with it through restrictive eating and dieting.
If you currently have a pattern of binge eating, intuitive eating can be a big leap to take. You may need guidance, support and a structure to follow. Then it’s a case of practising the skill of tuning back into your body and trusting it’s signals, and yourself.
How to stop binge eating
This is a 5 step plan that can help overcome binge eating – discussed in depth in the book Overcoming Binge Eating.
- self monitoring
- regular eating
- problem solving
- exposure to fear foods
- activity scheduling
Step 1 – Food and Feelings Diary / Self Monitoring
The process begins with recording your thoughts, feeling and behaviours towards food and eating. This illuminates your patterns and triggers.
What gets measured gets managed. You need to know the specific situations and emotions that lead to binges, so you can work to change and manage them.
For each meal and snack that you eat, write down as much detail as possible. Time of day, location, thoughts and feelings beforehand, whether you felt it was a binge, and any other useful info.
Keeping a record can seem like a chore, but there is so much value to this.
It’s a fundamental first step that helps you gain awareness. If you want to break the pattern, don’t skip it.
Step 2 – establishing a regular eating schedule
A good guideline to follow – 3 meals and 2-3 snacks, each no more than 4 hours apart.
People who struggle with binge eating tend to have a chaotic approach to food. Life is hectic, meals and snacks are skipped, grabbed on the go and eaten in a rush.
It can feel like there’s a lack of control, and having a plan to follow helps change that.
Through creating your own eating schedule and following a regular pattern, you can improve concentration, mood, and well-being. This creates a sense of calm and empowers you to feel back in control.
A key factor for this is that it needs to work with your lifestyle. Make the plan fit your day. Just ensure that you keep as much structure as you can, and don’t skip meals in the early stages.
Step 3 – Problem solving
Why is it so common to turn to food for comfort? Many of us don’t have the tools and strategies to deal with problems and uncomfortable emotions, so food is a coping mechanism. Building the skill of problem solving and managing your state can help stop binges and emotional eating..
This works best when added to your repertoire alongside self monitoring and regular eating. Keep going with the food diary and planning while you build some new coping strategies.
Below is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy technique that helps people deal with difficulties, take action and overcome the inevitable problems that occur in life.
These are the 4 steps to follow.
- Identify the problem – are you tired / anxious / bored / lonely / frustrated by the scales? Be as specific as possible about the time, location, emotion, situation, and reason for feeling the way you do – the more info the better.
- Identify as many solutions as you can – brainstorm every possible solution you can think of, even if it seems a bit silly. Literally as many as you can. Write them all down.
- Think through the implications of each solution – “If I do X then Y will probably happen”. Think it through with calmness and curiosity. What’s the likely result of each solution?
- Pick a solution and act – decide and write down what you will do and why. What’s the specific action, and what benefit it will create?
This take practice and patience – it’s a skill to master. But it can be hugely beneficial in many areas of life.
Step 4 – exposure to forbidden foods
Once you feel confident with recording and planning, and are building your problem solving skills, you can move on to gradually reintroduce feared or forbidden foods. This is best done with support, and I would highly recommend working with a professional or at least using the book as your guide.
Reintroducing ‘forbidden’ foods in a strategic way eliminates irrational fears and anxieties about them. You train yourself to realise they wont make you gain weight, and that you are able to stop when eating them.
This is approach tackles all or nothing thinking, and stops these foods being binge triggers. With practice you break that pattern.
To do this in a step by step process, write a list of foods you don’t feel comfortable eating in three categories – least feared, moderately feared, and most feared.
You choose which one to reintroduce first – starting on the least feared list. Track your level of anxiety – once you can eat the food calmly in moderation with no guilt or fear, move onto the next one. This takes a while to work through, but again, patience is key. It can be an effective tool and a good ongoing project to work on.
Step 5 – Increasing self esteem
The goal in step 5 is to enrich your life, boost self esteem, and upgrade how you see yourself. One of the ways we can do this is through Activity Scheduling.
Binge eating stems from an over-evaluation of weight and shape. We want to shrink that focus and create an awesome life – finding value from relationships, family, health, work, hobbies and activities that truly light you up.
It’s highly encouraged in this step to choose something fun or empowering to pursue. What different activities could you try out? Examples could be knitting, painting, joining a book club, playing a sport, or starting an online course.
Remember you can change if you don’t like it. The goal is just to give it a go and see what happens. If the activity isn’t for you, now you know, and can move on to try something else. Exposing yourself to new people, skills and situations will increase your confidence and enhance your life.
So, are you up for it? Is there something you’ve been wanting to try for a while? What would you do if you had the confidence? What if you jump in and do it anyway? Identify one activity to try in the coming week.
Commit to engaging in it. Connect with others. Find ways to enjoy life and feel proud of yourself.
When you do this, food and weight will fade into the background.
These 5 steps above, combined with consistency, self-compassion and patience, can help you break the binge eating pattern. It takes time, but you can change it.
This is something to work through with a coach or trained professional, but you can use the book Overcoming Binge Eating.
I’d also recommend checking out breakbingeeating.com by Dr Jake Linardon, who’s teachings inspired this article.
Everyone benefits from support – I work on this with clients through Online Coaching.
If you need help or have any questions, comment below or get in touch here.