Almost everyone overeats here and there, but how do you know when it’s become more than that? If you find yourself eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time, regardless of being full or if you feel like you’re using food as a coping mechanism, you might actually be engaging in binge eating.
What is Binge Eating?
Binge eating involves consuming large amounts of food very quickly, even when you’re not hungry. This can often result in the “uncomfortably full” feeling. Although binge eating may seem like it’s all about the food, it’s actually so psychological that it’s been classified as a psychiatric disorder. This is why it may feel like it’s impossible to stop yourself from eating more. As mentioned above, almost everyone will overeat here and there throughout their lifetime, so how do we tell the difference between overeating and binge eating?
Overeating Vs. Binge Eating
Overeating is exactly as it sounds, eating a larger amount of food than needed by the body. Some examples of overeating include having more than one dessert after dinner or finishing a whole bag of popcorn while watching a movie.
Binge eating is often tied to your psyche. Some examples of binge eating are sneaking food and finishing it in secret which is often associated with the feeling of guilt and continuing to eat quickly even when uncomfortably full.
The bottom line is, whether you have a tendency to overeat or if you engage in binge eating, if you feel uncomfortable, guilty, or unhappy about the habit then it’s time to look into techniques and coping skills to make a change. To do this, we first need to know WHY we binge.
Why do we binge?
There’s a few factors that can lead to binge eating disorder- some you’re born with and some that are conditioned.
Some people are genetically predisposed to certain psychological conditions, binge eating being one of them. Family member of obese individuals with a history of binge eating are twice as likely to suffer from binge eating themselves.
The human body learns and adapts to the environment it’s given. For this reason, once you binge many times, the body expects and then begins to demand the binges. Your brain facilitates this need to binge by sending strong urges, as if binge eating is essential for survival. This is the sign of a healthy brain and is a normal response. The key here is that we need to retrain the brain to no longer expect the binge.
Comfort eating, otherwise known as emotional eating, actually stems from our brains trying to take care of us. Food is inherently enjoyable (most of the time) and can trigger the reward sensors in your brain. For this reason, food can act as a temporary band aid to make you feel better when you’re feeling an unpleasant emotion. However, that’s just what it is, a band aid. In order to beat the binge, we need to actually treat the source causing the emotion in the first place.
Caveman Brain, otherwise known as your survival instincts, is an adaptive response to calorie restriction that is often seen with dieting. Too much of a calorie restriction causes your brain and body to go into “survival mode” and responds by urging you to eat large amounts of food quickly to avoid what the body reads as starvation. This is another sign of a normal, healthy brain.
All or Nothing Thinking
Years of dieting can cause our brains to think of food in a very black or white way. You either have a good food day or a bad food day, there is no in between. This causes your brain to throw in the towel when one “bad” food comes into the mix. For example, you’re having a great food day and then end up eating a cookie. This has now “ruined” your good food day, so you might as well eat whatever you want and then try to start fresh tomorrow. In reality, this has not ruined anything! Having a good balance involves all types of foods, and no foods are inherently good or bad. You should be able to enjoy the cookie guilt free and move on with your day.
Ways to cope
It’s important to remember that everyone is different, so there is no one size fits all approach to beating the binge. But it’s also important to remember that you’re not alone. Many people struggle with binge eating and it takes trial and error to figure out which coping mechanisms work best for each person.
It’s important to approach your binge eating behaviors with a curiosity mindset as opposed to a judgmental one. Try asking yourself these things when trying to navigate binge eating behaviors:
- Do my food and activity choices come from a place of self-care?
- Am I using food to help comfort my negative emotions or uncomfortable feelings?
- What does an urge to binge feel like to me?
- What thoughts encourage me to binge eat?
- What payoff or reward does binge eating give me?
- Do you notice any patterns before or after a binge eating episode?
- How do you think survival instincts or habits have played into the development and maintenance of my binge eating?
- Do I trust my body to tell me when to stop eating?
Take a step by step approach
When you’re feeling the urge to binge, take this step by step approach to work through it.
- Does something feel off? Is there something external prompting this?
- Recognize and Reflect. Name specific emotions, note how your body feels physically, explore your hunger or fullness, reflect if you’ve had enough to eat today.
- Sit with uncomfortable feelings. It’s okay to feel negative emotions and it’s important to let your body feel these things instead of trying to mask them with consumable comforts.
- Think of “future you”. How will you feel an hour from now? Tomorrow? Next week?
- Engage in a “spiral up” activity. Journal, go for a walk, talk to a friend, read a book, take a bubble bath, have a dance party.
- Celebrate all wins. Remember progress over perfection. Any habit change no matter how small is a victory!
Binge eating is psychological, it’s not all about the food.
You’re not alone, so many people have a similar struggle and there are plenty of resources to help with your recovery.
Beating the binge takes time, patience, trial and error, and most importantly being kind to yourself!
Explore helpful resources
Ask for help. Enlist the help of a therapist and a dietitian to help you in your recovery.
Kaitlyn Willwerth is a Registered Dietitian at OnPoint Nutrition. Kaitlyn's work focuses on providing individualized health and lifestyle coaching and, most importantly, support. She is a Certified LEAP Therapist and has also completed the Monash University 'Low FODMAP Diet for IBS' online training course for health professionals.