Yes, You Can Break Free From the Cycle of Binging and Restricting
So many people are caught in the cycle of binging and restricting. They feel like it will never end!
If this is you, I want you to know that you are not alone. There is a way out!
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, I want you to know that you can learn to eat in a way that allows you to enjoy ALL foods and feel good physically and mentally. No more binging and restricting!
Why Do We Start the Cycle of Binging and Restricting?
In our culture that worships thinness, far too many of us develop dissatisfaction with our bodies. Body dissatisfaction begins very early, often in childhood or adolescence.
This dissatisfaction leads us to diet in order to make our bodies smaller.
Our weight reduction diets cause us to limit daily calories, cut out food groups, increase movement, and/or reduce “treat” foods.
At first, a diet can feel exhilarating! You follow the rules of the diet and you start to see your weight decrease. You feel in control. You might even get compliments throughout the day!
After weeks or months on the diet, it might not seem that exciting or sustainable anymore. Perhaps your weight loss has slowed, or you’re sick and tired of not being able to eat at celebrations…or maybe you’ve noticed that you are obsessed with food…
- You dream about ice cream or birthday cake.
- You can’t sleep because of hunger pangs.
- You wake up feeling guilty because you had a dream that you cheated on your diet.
We can only survive for so long restricting intake (or over-exercising).
Your basic biology will kick in: your body will start secreting hormones that increase your hunger signals and cause increased cravings. Your body does this as a protective mechanism to get you the energy to survive! And because these hunger signals are so strong, that’s most often when binging starts.
However, because we are so focused on making our body smaller, the uncomfortable physical feelings and the loss of control we feel when binging feels so terrible and out of control. We are immediately filled with guilt and shame because we have succumbed to our “cravings”.
I would encourage you to think about binge eating in a different way: binge eating can be your body’s way of making sure it gets its needs met! Your body is protecting you!
Binging after restriction has roots in our body’s survival mechanism.
When our body isn’t getting the fuel (energy) it needs, it sends chemical messengers, like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y to increase cravings and hunger so that we eat.
Being in a cycle of restriction and binging can feel really crummy…what keeps us stuck there?
What keeps people stuck in the binge/restrict cycle?
In my work with women who struggle with binge eating, I observe many common patterns.
- They often have a history of dieting, which involves restriction.
- They are dissatisfied with their bodies and wish they were thinner.
- They label foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and try to avoid ‘bad’ foods.
- They use food as their primary source of comfort.
- They may have grown up in a family with food rules or food insecurity due to economic factors.
Now that you know why binging happens and what might keep you stuck in the cycle, let’s talk about how to break free…you deserve freedom!
Here are steps you can take to break free of binging and restricting:
Breaking free of the harmful cycle of binging and restricting is about learning new skills…and also about unlearning habits and beliefs that no longer serve you. This takes practice.
Here is what I recommend you try after your next binge.
1. Resume your usual meals after a binge.
I know the last thing you want to do after a binge is eat a regular meal, but this first step is crucial to breaking the cycle of binging and restricting.
Why you might ask?
Sometimes after an evening binge you might wake up without feeling hungry, and your thought might be to skip breakfast to “make up” for the night before. I know that this makes complete logical sense in your brain!
However, skipping meals after a binge puts you right back into restriction, when the cycle will repeat all over again.
What if instead, you chose to have something for breakfast? If you’re not hungry, eating some toast with sliced banana and peanut butter, or some yogurt and fruit will give your body energy for the morning and will prevent you from getting ravenous.
Your body will start to trust that it will have food regularly, so it won’t have to jump into protection mode, aka binging! Eating 3 meals and 1-3 snacks each day will help give your body the energy it needs to reduce binging.
2. Include adequate food in your meals and snacks.
Another common response after a binge is to cut back and avoid certain food groups, and the most frequent I see is carbohydrates, often in the form of bread, pasta, and baked goods. However, this is just another form of restriction and will start the binging and restricting cycle all over again!
My advice is to plan meals with 3 or more food groups and snacks with 2 or more food groups, including treats! This will help to keep you feeling satisfied.
3. Don’t avoid any foods – even your ‘binge’ foods.
It’s common for people to binge on foods that they don’t eat frequently, like foods that are considered treats or ‘forbidden.’ And as soon as the binge is over, you might think “I need to avoid [insert binge food] so I can stop binging!” This way of thinking might seem rational but it is actually keeping you stuck in the cycle of binging and restricting.
What you need to do is the exact opposite!
I know how hard this advice sounds. Trust me as this is something I help women overcome every day!
My experience with the research and my professional experience as an Intuitive Eating dietitian has taught me this:
Allowing yourself to eat ALL foods unconditionally is a key element to overcoming the cycle of binging and restricting! Of course, you can’t just snap your fingers and eat all foods without guilt! It takes practice, and often professional help!
To learn about the process of finding peace and neutrality around food, I encourage you to read, 5 Steps To Make Peace with Food – Principle 3 of Intuitive Eating.
4. Avoid distractions at meals.
In our fast-paced society, most of us are multi-tasking while we eat. Whether it’s checking email, scrolling social media, watching TV, or driving, distracted eating has become the norm.
While you might consider this a harmless action, there are ripple effects.
- Distracted eating prevents us from fully experiencing our food. We don’t use our senses of sight and smell, and we fail to appreciate the textures of our food. Additionally, we don’t fully taste the flavors.
- When we eat while engaging in other activities, we also tend to eat more quickly and we don’t sense fullness as readily.
- When you don’t experience all the pleasures of eating, it’s common to not feel satisfied, even though your stomach is full. Many of my clients share that they want to eat more after a meal, even though they are physically full.
Food is meant to be enjoyable! Could you imagine buying tickets to the theater and looking at your phone the entire time? What a waste! But, every day, we do that with our delicious food! Think about that for a minute!
5. Practice compassion around your eating habits.
When you are in the cycle of binging and restricting, you are likely also experiencing guilt and shame. You feel like you are alone and it is your fault. You feel like your only way out of this cycle is to beat yourself up so you can change.
Would you be surprised to hear that a different approach yields better results? That’s right!
Self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, has demonstrated that we are more likely to make positive changes when we treat ourselves like we would a beloved friend. By practicing self-compassion, we are able to step away from using punishment as a motivator and make changes that really last.
I highly recommend checking out Kristin Neff’s website, self-compassion.org, or reading one of her books.
Overcoming the cycle of binging and restricting is not something that can happen overnight, but you CAN heal from this vicious cycle and experience an increase in body satisfaction, improved mental health, and increased satisfaction with life!*
Try using these steps one at a time to begin seeing results. Remember that this work takes time, so be patient with yourself.
Many people benefit from professional help to overcome this cycle. I help women heal their relationship with food and their bodies and I’d love to discuss my approach with you. Book your complimentary Take Action Call with me today to find out what your life could look like once you end the cycle of binging and restricting.
Burnette, C. B., & Mazzeo, S. E. (2020). An uncontrolled pilot feasibility trial of an intuitive eating intervention for college women with disordered eating delivered through group and guided self‐help modalities. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 53(9), 1405–1417. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23319
Boucher SE, Edwards O, Gray A, et al. (2016) Teaching intuitive eating and acceptance and commitment therapy skills via a web-based intervention: A pilot single-arm intervention study. Journal of Medical Internet Research: Research Protocols 5(4): e180.
Bush H, Rossy L, Mintz L, & Schopp (2014). Eat for Life: A Worksite Feasibility Study of a Novel Mindfulness-based Intuitive Eating Intervention. Am J Health Promotion (July/Aug):380-388.
Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”