If you can’t stop binge eating and feel like a failure when you lose control around food, you’re not alone. Maybe you’ve been trying for years to figure out how to stop binge eating, to no avail. You might be feeling hopeless and ashamed. You are not the only person who feels this way.
As a dietitian who helps clients overcome binge eating, I know that there’s so much terrible information out there about why we binge and how to stop it. That’s a huge problem, since binge eating is common. Roughly 8 percent of American adults will experience binge eating disorder (BED) in their lifetime. And that’s not including all the people who might struggle with binge eating but who don’t meet the criteria for BED.
Still, I understand that when you’re at the height of a binge — raiding your cabinets and eating for anything (ANYTHING) you can get your hands on, or finding yourself unable to stop eating even when you’ve had enough — it might feel like something is wrong with you, and that you’re the only one who experiences such a loss of control. There’s so much shame attached to binge eating (it’s actually part of the definition, which we’ll get to later!) that it’s natural to think of binges as a personal failing.
But if you struggle with binge eating, it’s not your fault. And while it might feel impossible to stop, recovery is possible.
What is binge eating?
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 Disorders 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.
Binge eating isn’t a result of “food addiction” or some defect inside of you.
If you’ve ever tried to stop binge eating, you may have fallen prey to a program that makes you believe that binge eating comes from a lack of willpower. Maybe you bought into the idea that you’re a food addict, or that your body is defective and naturally programmed to binge. You may have even been led to believe that the secret to end binge eating is to find a strict diet “that works for you.”
First, you need to realize that all of these hypotheses (and the programs that go with them) are bullshit. The concept of food addiction is incredibly flawed. In fact, myself and countless other experts don’t agree with the concept that food can be truly addictive. Yes, you can feel addicted to food (or a type of food, like sugar), but the root cause probably isn’t addiction. More likely, you feel addicted and out of control because you’ve been restricting food and/or not eating enough. There’s nothing inherently wrong with your body. You’re just stuck in the restrict-binge cycle (also called the binge-restrict cycle.)
The big problem with thinking about food as addictive is that it just makes you even more afraid of it. You might try to set stricter rules around food, or go on a more rigid diet. But of course, that will only make things worse.
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Binge eating is caused by dieting and restriction.
You’ve likely heard me say this countless times before, but: Dieting always backfires. (Here’s a deep dive into why diets don’t work.) The first time I heard this, I was skeptical. (It’s OK if you’re skeptical, too!). I thought to myself, ‘Sure, fad diets don’t work. But long-term weight loss is possible if you find a sustainable, not-too-restrictive diet that works for you.’ That’s what the diet industry tells us: Keep trying diet after diet, until you find the *perfect* one.
Over time, I came to realize that there’s no *perfect* diet, and that even “less strict” diets aren’t sustainable. I noticed that every time I tried to control the way I ate in order to lose weight, the same thing would happen. At first, it would work! I would be very deliberate about what I ate and didn’t eat, and I would lose a little bit of weight. But within a few weeks, I’d start to feel obsessed with food. Eventually, I’d give in to my intense cravings. And then, I’d lose control. I always blamed myself for this — diets refer to it as “falling off the wagon” — but ultimately I realized that it wasn’t my fault. Dieting and restriction almost always leads to food obsession and bingeing.
The binge-restrict cycle — does this sound familiar?
Binge eating is not your fault. It’s not a personal flaw or failure. It’s a natural reaction to dieting. If you feel guilty and ashamed of your binges, understanding the binge-restrict cycle can help. Here’s what it looks like in a nutshell:
Shame: You feel ashamed of your body or your eating habits (including binges), and you feel like you must gain control.
Restrict: You start restricting by going on a diet, counting calories, avoiding certain foods, etc. At first you feel totally empowered! You’re doing the thing!
Intense cravings: But not long after you start restricting, the honeymoon phase ends and you find yourself obsessed with food. You’re constantly thinking about your next meal and you never feel satisfied with what you eat. You’re always hungry. Maybe you start thinking that maybe you’re addicted to food, because it sure feels that way.
Binge: Eventually, you give into your intense cravings. When you finally allow yourself to eat without restriction, you feel totally out of control. You eat well past the point of fullness. Even when you want to stop eating, you can’t.
And this leads right back to the feeling of shame that started the cycle.
What is binge eating, exactly?
Before we go any further, I want to get something straight: Binge eating isn’t the same thing as eating a lot. In order for an episode of eating to be considered a binge, there needs to be a mental and emotional component as well.
Say you go to a fancy dinner and end up eating more than feels comfortable, because you’re having a great time and the food is fabulous. You leave that dinner feeling incredibly stuffed, but you don’t beat yourself up. You simply go home, lie down and let things digest, and trust that you’ll feel better the next day.
This isn’t a binge! Why? Because even though you ate more than usual and felt overly stuffed, you didn’t feel guilt or shame. You weren’t eating in secret. You weren’t distressed about eating — you just wrote it off as enjoying a great meal.
On the other hand, say you go to a party and see a massive buffet table filled with foods you love. You tell yourself that you should avoid the food, because it’s too rich/not part of your diet/”unhealthy”/whatever. At first that’s fine.
But eventually, you give in and decide to allow yourself a small plate of the delicious food. One plate turns into another. Ultimately, you spend the rest of the night camped out next to the buffet table. You don’t want anyone to judge you, so you sneak bits and bites one at a time. Even when you feel super full, you can’t stop. Heck you might not even be tasting the food anymore — you’re just eating it because it’s there, and you know that tomorrow, you’ll be going back to your strict way of eating. You end the night feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself.
THIS is a binge. Why? Because you felt out of control. You felt ashamed. You couldn’t stop eating even when the food stopped tasting good. And then you kept eating because you told yourself you weren’t allowed to eat these foods tomorrow.
Even the idea of restricting can lead you to binge!
I mentioned earlier that restriction leads to bingeing. You develop intense cravings and food obsession, and as soon as you start eating, you can’t stop.
But it’s not just restriction that causes bingeing. Even the idea of restriction can cause or worsen a binge. In the party buffet example above, I mentioned the moment in a binge when you don’t really want to be eating anymore. But you keep eating because you think, “I won’t be able to have any of this food tomorrow when I go back to my diet.” That thought alone can worsen a binge. Sometimes, it’s even enough to cause a binge. Think about the last time you went on a super strict diet. I bet you had a “last supper” beforehand, where you ate lots of food that you knew you wouldn’t be “allowed” to eat the next day.
“What if I’m not dieting but I still binge?”
If you’ve gotten this far and still don’t see how the above information applies to you, it might be because you’re restricting yourself without realizing it.
Maybe you think, “I understand what you’re saying about the binge-restrict cycle. But that doesn’t apply to me. I don’t diet!”
A disclaimer: If you’ve been struggling for a long time with binge eating, you should seek individualized, expert guidance. As a HAES dietitian specializing in eating disorders and disordered eating, I provide virtual and in-person counseling for people struggling with binge eating. You can learn more here.
To that, I’d say — it’s likely that you are dieting without realizing it. The truth is that we all live in diet culture. We’re constantly told that being thinner is better, and that we should exert a certain amount of control over what we eat, “for health.” Even if you’ve never been on a formal diet — although, that would put you in a small minority of people! — you probably live by some food rules.
Maybe you try not to eat too many “empty calories.”
You might tell yourself that you can only have one type of carb at every meal. Bread or dessert. Pasta or garlic knots. Hash browns or toast.
Maybe you measure your peanut butter with a tablespoon to make sure you’re not eating “too much” on your sandwich.
You might choose a smoothie over the egg sandwich you crave for breakfast every morning, because it’s “better for you.”
Look: I’m not against gentle nutrition. Choosing nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables is good for health, no doubt about it.
But if you’re constantly opting for the “right” foods and denying yourself the foods that you actually want? If you’re always trying to not eat “too much”? That might not be a formal diet, but it is restriction.
How to stop binge eating? Stop dieting, and make peace with your body.
Understanding that dieting causes bingeing is liberating. It means that there’s nothing inherently wrong with you. And, it means that it is within your power to stop binge eating. It’s a matter of being less strict with food, not more strict — that’s good news!
But, the idea of giving up the diet mentality and making peace with food is also incredibly overwhelming. And for many people, it’s hard to accept at first — because it also means accepting your body as it is. That means not trying to lose weight.
To end binge eating, intuitive eating is an essential tool.
If you want to learn more about intuitive eating, these two articles are a good place to start:
I’ll give a quick summary here. Basically, intuitive eating means getting in tune with your own hunger cues and cravings, instead of relying on external food rules or diets. Full disclosure: It’s probably not going to feel intuitive at first. In fact, you might feel a little out of control around food for a while. When you give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want after so many years of restriction, it’s natural to gravitate towards previously off-limits foods. But eventually, you’ll find that you start craving a wide variety of foods.
When you master the practice of honoring your hunger (knowing when you’re hungry, and eating to rid yourself of that hunger), you can start tuning into your fullness and learning how to use it as a sign of when to stop eating. Although, it’s important to note that intuitive eating is not the hunger-fullness diet. Eating enough food is the most important thing. And you don’t have to stop eating just because you’re full. Often, you will feel satisfied when you feel full — but sometimes, you’ll want to keep eating for any number of reasons, and that’s fine!
Body acceptance is crucial to ending binge eating.
Body acceptance looks different for everyone. But ultimately, it means accepting your body as it is, without trying to change it.
For some people, body acceptance might come in the form of body love or body appreciation — you learn to love your body for all the things it can do, and you realize that supposed “flaws” are just a natural part of you.
For others, body love might feel impossible. This is particularly true for people who live in marginalized bodies — bodies that are seen as “wrong” in our fatphobic, racist, sexist, transphobic culture. If you can’t imagine ever loving your body, then body acceptance for you might take the form of body neutrality. This means that even if you don’t love or appreciate your body, per se, you don’t let it interfere with how you live your life. Although you don’t love your body, you don’t waste your energy trying (in vain) to change it.
The Health at Every Size® approach is super helpful in ending binge eating.
The Health at Every Size (HAES) approach is a way to take care of yourself without focusing on weight loss. It’s key to binge eating recovery, because if you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll restrict your food intake and end up bingeing.
You can learn more about the HAES approach (and what it’s like to work with a HAES dietitian or doctor) here. Basically, HAES encourages you to take care of your body by practicing intuitive eating, moving in a way that feels good, and taking care of your mental and emotional health.
Understanding and believing in HAES is crucial to binge eating. Because, again, diets don’t work and weight loss is never sustainable. The sooner you learn to care for your body without trying to lose weight, the better off you’ll be.
Binge eating recovery is absolutely possible.
If you only take one thing away from this article, I hope it’s this: Binge eating is not your fault, and you are not broken.
If you’ve tried and failed to end binge eating several times, it’s not because you did something wrong. It’s because the program you tried was wrong.
You can’t end binge eating with a diet. You’re not addicted to food, and believing that you are will only make you feel more out of control (and more likely to binge)!
The only way to end binge eating is to break free from the root cause of your binges: Dieting and restriction.