There’s so much shame associated with binge eating, but it shouldn’t be that way. It’s not a personal failing, it’s the result of restriction and a scarcity mindset. If you find yourself binge eating while dieting, it’s probably time to re-examine your relationship with food.
Binge eating isn’t the same thing as eating “too much.”
First, let’s get something straight. Binge eating isn’t the same thing as eating past the point of fullness, or eating more than feels comfortable. In fact, binge eating isn’t just about what and how much you eat — it’s also about how you feel about it.
The National Eating Disorder Association defines binge eating with two criteria:
- Eating an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time, under similar circumstances. In other words: Eating a lot of food — more than feels physically comfortable — in a short period of time.
- Feeling out of control or unable to stop while you’re eating, then feeling disgust, guilt, or shame afterwards.
Do you see the difference between those two criteria? The first has to do with what you eat. The second has to do with your own feelings about how much you eat. Eating a lot in one sitting isn’t necessarily binge eating. Once you start feeling shame about it, that’s when it’s defined as a binge.
Dieting creates shame around food.
If you’re on a diet (or if you’re covertly restricting food without explicitly dieting, more on that here), you’re primed to feel shame around food. Believe it or not, that’s what turns (totally normal) moments of eating more than you typically would into bona fide binges.
Let’s use the Whole30 diet as an example. The diet vilifies all kinds of foods — sugar, grains, soy, processed food, legumes, etc. — and forbids you from eating them for 30 days. So, you internalize the (false) idea that these foods are bad. If you break the diet’s rules and eat one of these foods during the 30 days, you feel guilt and shame. Heck, even if you eat one of these foods after the 30 days is over, you probably still feel shame. Because in the back of your head, that Whole30 voice is telling you that these foods are bad.
So, what happens? Let’s say your 30 days are up. You head to the grocery store to pick up a pint of your favorite ice cream, which you haven’t had in a month. You start eating it. But you’re saying to yourself, Be careful! Don’t eat too much of this! It’s not good for you!
Of course, that (coupled with the fact that you’ve deprived yourself for a month) just makes you want it more. So you keep eating. You start eating faster, without even really tasting the ice cream. You want to eat as quickly as possible, so those voices in your head stop as soon as possible. The next thing you know, the container of ice cream is empty. You feel shame.
Too often, shame and food guilt lead us back to dieting.
Here’s where things get really fucked up. You probably don’t realize that your lack of control around ice cream isn’t because you don’t have willpower. It’s because of the restrictive beliefs that come from the diet. You ate all the ice cream, as quickly as possible, because you felt like eating it was wrong. Then, you had so much food guilt. So you thought, the sooner I finish this, the sooner I can put this bad behavior behind me. And then, you felt shame.
So often, this feeling of shame after a binge leads us back to a diet. We think that following a strict set of food rules will help us feel in control around food. We think that the shame of bingeing is our fault, when actually it comes from the diet in the first place.
When we start a diet after binge eating, what we’re really doing is setting ourselves up for yet another binge.
The binge-restrict cycle keeps us locked into dieting.
I go more in-depth into the binge-restrict cycle here. Ultimately, it has four phases.
One: Shame. For all the reasons discussed above and more, you feel shame about how you eat and what your body looks like.
Two: Restriction. You believe that dieting will cure us of this shame. At first, it does! You feel fantastic, in control, empowered.
Three: Intense cravings. That honeymoon period of restriction doesn’t last long. Very soon, you find yourself longing for all the foods that are “off-limits.” Or, if you’re not eating enough overall, you might just long for food in general. In this phase, you think about food constantly.
Four: Binge. Ultimately, you give in and eat the food you’re craving. And then you can’t stop. You worry that you’ll never be able to have that food again. (Because it’s off-limits on your diet.) You feel completely out of control around food. And then you find yourself right back at the top of the cycle, feeling shame.
Dieting leads to binge eating. The only way out is to quit dieting and work towards intuitive eating.
Wanting to diet your way out of binge eating is natural. It’s what you’ve probably been told to do. But for the reasons above, it just doesn’t work. You’ll always find yourself binge eating while dieting. Dieting creates food guilt and makes you feel shame for eating, which ultimately leads you to a binge.
The only way to stop bingeing is to stop dieting altogether. Intuitive eating is the anti-diet alternative that helps you ditch food guilt and make peace with food.
That said, intuitive eating is hardly intuitive at first. Especially if you’ve been dieting for so long. So many people ask me the same question: How do I eat intuitively when I don’t trust my intuition about food? I answer that question in great detail here. But here’s the short version.
The first step in healing your relationship with food is learning to feel your hunger, then allowing yourself to satisfy it in whatever way feels best. Pay attention to what hunger feels like — it’s not just in your belly. You might feel irritable, tired, achey, or something else.
Then, tune into what your body wants to eat when you feel this hunger. Most likely, you’ll notice a little battle going on in your head: what you want to eat, versus what you think you should eat. This is the food police trying to hijack your cravings. Tuning them out takes work. At first, it’s helpful just to notice that these thoughts are there. Then, you can start ignoring the food police and eating what you really want. You’ll probably notice some shame come up, but don’t be afraid of that. If you continue challenging those food police and eating what you really want, the shame will start to fade.
Ultimately, intuitive eating is the best way to stop binge eating.
Diets lead to binges, and binges lead to feelings of shame. The best way to stop the bingeing is to get yourself out of the binge-restrict cycle. That means that you must quit dieting. More than than, you must challenge the diet-y thoughts in your brain, telling you that you should feel ashamed for eating a certain food, or a certain amount of food. Those thoughts don’t serve you. They don’t honor your health. They just make you feel out of control around food.
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