Learn How to Finally Stop the Binge Restrict Cycle
The binge restrict cycle erodes our physical and mental health but you can stop this harmful cycle and thrive around food!
Read on to learn the exact steps to take to end your binge restrict cycle.
What is the Binge-restrict cycle?
I’m going to guess that you already understand the binge restrict cycle because it is so common! Almost every current or former dieter finds herself in the cycle to some degree. I would like to elaborate about it a bit because I think much of this cycle is the mindset around it.
The binge restrict cycle involves going from one limited, rigid way of eating to a more free and no-holds barred feast. Of course, once we are done overeating or binge eating, we feel guilty and ashamed which leads us right back to a desire to lose weight, followed by food rules and restrictive eating once again.
Binge eating is not a moral failing! It is your body’s way of protecting you!
A quick note of clarification: I use the terms binge and restrict here loosely because the amounts of food or what a binge restrict cycle looks like will differ for each person. But the result is the same: you are constantly obsessed with food and your body, as your attempts to eat less are overridden by your body’s protective mechanism – that’s what makes your hunger and cravings get so intense that you eat and eat.
The binge restrict cycle looks like this:
You start your day (or week) intentionally limiting your food, either in quantity or according to some other health guidelines (like no sugar or limited carbs). Eventually, though, you find yourself with cravings so strong that you feel compelled to eat, often much more than you think you should. Feelings of guilt and shame (and sometimes worthlessness) follow which leads the cycle to begin all over again.
How long have you been stuck in the binge restrict cycle?
If you have been stuck in the binge restrict cycle, you are not alone! So many of us spend years in this harmful cycle because we don’t know how to break free.
Dieting is the ultimate setup to start this cycle. Diet culture tells us that eating less and moving more will shrink your body. And while this may be true in the short term, research shows us that your body reacts to this restriction by altering hormones to increase food cravings and slowing down your metabolic rate*. When you feel this intense hunger come on, you binge (or eat more than you thought possible)!
While this series of events can be really frustrating to the dieter, a binge is our body’s way of protecting us. You need adequate food and energy to stay alive!
Unfortunately, diet culture (and many health professionals) blame you, the dieter, when you regain the weight, so you try harder and restrict more. It seems to make sense and it’s what society is telling us to do! But your body knows best, so it jumps in to protect you again and you find yourself binge eating.
What are the benefits of stopping the binge restrict cycle?
The first and most obvious benefit is the cessation of binge eating. But there’s more that follows that makes you feel great!
- You’ll feel relative peace and relaxation around all foods
- You’ll also likely have more consistent energy and an improved mood.
- Your hunger and fullness signals will become more prominent and you’ll start to respond to your body’s needs more effectively.
- You’ll feel better physically and mentally, too!
I hear you asking, “So how do I stop the binge restrict cycle?”
How to overcome the binge restrict cycle
Overcoming the binge restrict cycle takes some time and resolve, but it is definitely possible!
Here are the steps you can take to end the binge restrict cycle:
1. Eat at least 3 meals every day.
This might seem too simple or easy, but, trust me, you will reap great rewards from this step!
Many women who are stuck in the binge restrict cycle skip meals, most often breakfast. This habit often starts as a strategy to eat less throughout the day, and eventually, you might not even be hungry in the mornings as your body adjusts to this pattern.
However, you might find yourself more hungry or grazing in the afternoons and evenings.
Can you relate?
Do you find this frustrating? It’s actually your body’s way of protecting you to get the food that you need. But it might not make you feel your best as you eat more in the evenings and go to bed with a full stomach.
Resetting your eating pattern by eating at least 3 meals every day is the first step to help you stop the binge restrict cycle.
2. Do not go more than 4 waking hours without eating.
This step is an addition to a minimum of 3 meals a day. Chances are that you’ll need to add at least 1 snack too.
Why? If you are stuck in the binge restrict cycle, your body is probably really confused. You go long periods with little to no food, followed by periods of lots of food. Through more frequent eating, we will begin to help build trust between you and your body.
Eating every 4 waking hours shows your body that it will get a consistent supply of energy and food. Your body is learning to trust that you will feed it. Slowly, your body will stop fearing the next famine of restriction and you will start to experience gentle hunger and fullness before and after meals.
3. Eat adequate meals.
Eating frequently is important, but equally important is getting the nourishment you need at each meal.
Here’s my quick and easy guideline to help you get started. For simplicity’s sake, I like to break down all food into 6 groups:
- Protein (meat, fish, eggs, cheese, tofu, nuts and nut butters, legumes/beans, etc)
- Fruits/veggies (any fruit or vegetable, as juice or whole fruit – fresh, canned or frozen)
- Starches (bread, cereal, rice, grains, tortillas, crackers, pasta, etc)
- Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese, Calcium-fortified orange juice, etc)
- Fats (oils, butter, avocado, ghee, etc)
- Play foods a/k/a Treats (cookies, candies, chips, cake, etc)
When you eat, use these guidelines:
- All meals should contain 3 or more food groups.
- All snacks should contain 2 or more food groups.
- Plan to eat at least one play food every day.
You don’t need to worry about portion sizes or limiting the amount of each food! Eat until you feel full and your taste buds feel satisfied.
Quick side note: Please throw out all of the rules about veggies as starches. If it’s a veggie, like potato or corn, it’s a veggie. If you drink juice, that’s a fruit. And for our purposes, fruits and veggies are one food group combined! No, you can’t have one of each and call it a snack 😉
4. Give yourself permission to eat all foods.
In step #3 above, I encouraged you to eat at least one play food (treat) every day. That’s your first step towards giving yourself permission to eat all foods.
To heal from the binge restrict cycle, you will need to challenge your beliefs around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. And if you think about how this type of thinking has worked for you in the past, perhaps you’ll consider trying this different approach? What do you have to lose?
To learn more about giving yourself permission to eat all foods, I encourage you to read my article, 5 Steps To Make Peace with Food: Principle 3 of Intuitive Eating
5. Eat when you are hungry, even if you just ate an hour ago.
Healing from the binge restrict cycle will challenge your thoughts and beliefs around eating. Your body may react to being adequately fed by ramping up your appetite. This often makes women panic and feel the urge to restrict again.
I know this is so common so I want to address it here: falling back on restriction or attempting to quell your hunger with water or other non-food or calorie-free substances will backfire in a big way.
Healing from the binge restrict cycle requires your body to know that it will be fed when it is hungry. This is how we heal our bodies from the trauma of restriction.
So, when hunger strikes in the form of a rumbling stomach or that hangry feeling, the way to heal is to take time to eat something. For more information on how responding to hunger can help your relationship with food, check out my blog: Principle 2 of Intuitive Eating: Honor Your Hunger.
6. Get professional help if you are struggling!
Many believe that eating should be easy and feel like they are a failure if they have to ask for help.
I want you to know that asking for help is incredibly brave and I wish it was more common. Working with a dietitian (like me!) or therapist who has experience with binge eating recovery or disordered eating can help you get from suffering to thriving! If you’ve been doing the work by yourself and feel like you are stuck, reaching out for help can make all the difference.
If you want to know what it’s like to work with me, read my article, Are You Curious What It’s Like to Work with a Non-Diet Dietitian?
And if you want to know what your individual recovery from binge eating could look like, schedule a complimentary call to help you figure out if we’d be a good fit. It’s a no-pressure way to help determine your next best steps. Schedule your call here.
These steps will help you to overcome the binge restrict cycle. This is not an overnight (or even a month!) fix but if you consistently use the steps above, I bet you’ll find your binges quickly reducing and even disappearing.
You deserve to have a great relationship with food and your body and overcoming the binge restrict cycle can help you get there!
*Researcher Tracy Mann PhD, conducted a review of all weight loss randomized controlled trials with follow-up periods of at least two years. She found that while participants initially lost weight, “over the next two to five years, they had gained back all but an average of 2.1 of those pounds.” Read Dr. Mann’s summary with links to original research here.
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.”