Many people don’t realize that intense cravings and the out-of-control-around-food feeling aren’t a result of “food addiction” or some inherent flaw. The vast majority of the time, they stem from what experts call the restrict-binge cycle, or the binge-restrict cycle.
TRUTH: Bingeing is usually a result of restriction, not “food addiction” or lack of willpower.
(A quick note here: If you feel like your binges are severely hindering your quality of life, a dietitian and/or therapist who specializes in binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa can help. You can read more about my binge eating and eating disorder nutrition counseling here.
The binge-restrict cycle has four main stages.
Honestly, I think it’s more accurate to think of this as the restrict-binge cycle, since restriction comes first and bingeing comes later. But you’ll see it written both ways.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of why this vicious cycle might take hold of you and how you can end it, let’s go through what it actually looks like.
Stage 1: Shame
Think about the last time you started a diet, detox, “lifestyle change,” or anything else that involved controlling your food intake in order to change your body. Now, think back to what you were feeling just before this.
Chances are, you were feeling some kind of shame. Maybe you felt shame about the size of your body and wanted to lose weight. Maybe you felt shame because you’d eaten “too much” in the days, weeks, or months before. Or, because you felt that you were eating “bad foods” all the time.
That shame could have come from an outside force: a comment from a friend about how much you were eating, a comment from a family member about the size of your body, or a comment from your doctor about your weight.
Or, it could have come from your own reaction to a certain event: not fitting into a pair of pants, seeing a photo of yourself that you didn’t like, or having less energy than usual and blaming food.
Maybe there wasn’t any one instance of shame. Maybe you always feel a bit of shame about your body size or your eating habits. (That’s nothing to feel bad about — our culture makes nearly everyone feel that way to some extent!)
Stage 2: Restrict
You decide to “take control” of the situation. You think that your shame will disappear once you change your body and/or gain total control over your eating habits.
So, you start a diet. Maybe you don’t think of it as a diet — maybe you’re just “cutting back” on portions or a certain food group, or counting calories “just to hold yourself accountable.” Maybe you’re just trying to “clean up” your eating pattern. But, all of those things are a form of dieting. They’re certainly restriction, because you constantly have to tell yourself not to eat certain things, or to eat less.
For a few days or weeks — maybe even months, if you’re relatively new to restriction! — you feel great! The restriction is challenging sometimes, but you feel empowered and in control.
Stage 3: Intense Cravings
Then, inevitably, the intense cravings hit. You’re constantly having thoughts about food. You spend your mornings at work just waiting for it to be lunchtime. You’re always scrolling through food photos, searching recipes, or googling menus of nearby restaurants. After lunch, it’s the same thing — you’re just counting down the minutes until it’s time for dinner.
You soon realize that food really is consuming your thoughts, like an obsession. You might feel intense cravings for certain “off-limits” foods. Or, you might feel extreme hunger for any food, even when you’ve just eaten. It’s even possible that you dream about food.
Stage 4: Binge
Eventually, your intense cravings get the best of you. It’s possible that you hold them off for some time, but you can’t hold them off forever.
So, start eating an “off-limits” food and you just cannot stop yourself. You notice that you feel full, but it doesn’t matter. You tell yourself that you’ll start back on the diet tomorrow, so you think, “might as well go all-out, since I’ve already screwed up.” Before you know it, you’ve finished the box/bag/container of what you were eating, so you move on to something else. You’re barely even tasting the food at this point, but it doesn’t matter! You want it, and you can’t stop eating it.
For some people, this “binge” stage is a bit less intense. Maybe you don’t experience full-on binges, but you feel out of control around food and often eat until you’re slightly uncomfortable. People in this category are often afraid of social gatherings where food is readily available, or refuse to keep certain foods in the house for fear of bingeing.
It’s also important to note that bingeing isn’t just about the amount of food you eat. In order to be considered a binge, there’s a psychological component. You need to be feeling distressed, out of control, guilty, secretive, or all of the above.
And then it’s right back to stage 1, because you feel shame about your bingeing and/or lack of control.
Being stuck in the binge restrict cycle really sucks. It’s absolutely possible to break free from it, but first you have to recognize the pattern.
Diet culture blames bingeing on “food addiction” or lack of willpower, which is garbage.
Let’s get something straight: If you binge regularly (or occasionally), it’s not because there’s something wrong with you. Same goes for if you’re always thinking about food, or feel out of control around certain foods.
Diets make you believe that the way to stop bingeing is to start another diet. Let’s take the Whole30 for example. They claim that if you restrict a long list of food for 30 days and then reintroduce them slowly, you find food freedom. But that’s just not true. Most of the time, following a strict diet for 30 days just means you’ll fantasize about off-limits food during that time (they even write about it on their site!), then binge on and/or feel out of control around those foods when the 30 days is over.
Diets love to tell you that if you find the right diet, you’ll be able to stop bingeing and feel in control around food forever . But that’s not true, and there’s evidence to prove it. One 2019 review in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that, although true binge eating disorder is complex and has many contributing factors, dieting and restrained eating (AKA restriction) has been repeatedly shown to contribute to binge eating.
Diets also often describe that out-of-control feeling as “food addiction,” which is untrue. Actually, it’s a harmful way of thinking. I wrote a bit about why sugar addiction doesn’t exist here — it doesn’t meet the criteria, and while it’s very possible to feel addicted, it’s probably because you’re restricting. The same goes for all other foods!
Bingeing isn’t caused by “food addiction.” It doesn’t happen because you lack willpower, or because you’re a failure. It’s just what happens after periods shame, restriction, and intense cravings.
To stop the cycle, you must stop restricting.
No diet will heal your relationship with food. There’s no magic restriction formula that will lead to a lifetime of “perfect” eating. A diet might feel good at first, but eventually it just leads to intense cravings and makes you feel out of control. So if you’re looking to break free from binge eating, diets are off the table.
While it might sound scary, the only way to free yourself from bingeing is to stop restricting. It takes time, but when you give yourself permission to eat any food you want, in whatever amount feels good, your intense cravings and out-of-control feelings will start to fade. (Yes, really!) When you eat regular meals and snacks that include satisfying foods, you’ll feel far less obsessed with food.
This won’t happen right away. If you’ve long experienced intense cravings for, say, French fries, it’s unlikely that those cravings will suddenly disappear when you give yourself permission to eat French fries. The first few times you eat them, you might eat more than feels comfortable. Or, you might eat French fries every day for a week or two (or seven! Who knows!?). But sooner than you think, you’ll be able to sit down in front of a plate of fries, eat some, and stop eating when you feel full or you’ve had enough. When you’re allowed to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, food starts to lose some of its luster.
If you’re struggling with binge eating, disordered eating, or chronic dieting, nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian can help. Read more about my counseling services here.
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