Finding it difficult to control your eating?
Don’t understand why you have an unhealthy relationship with food and eating?
Seeking out effective and easy-to-implement strategies to stop your binge eating behaviour?
Here, I present 5 steps that are sequentially designed to tackle binge eating. Each step contains multiple evidence-based techniques that are proven to be effective in breaking the binge eating cycle.
Before presenting these steps, it is first important for you to understand (1) what binge eating is and (2) the factors that are maintaining your binge eating.
What is binge eating, and what is causing it?
Put simply, binge eating is eating uncontrollably.
We can usefully distinguish between two “types” of binge eating episodes: Objective binge eating and subjective binge eating1Fairburn CG. Overcoming binge eating. London, UK: Guilford Press 2013.:
- Objective binge eating: the consumption of an unusually large amount of food (~2,000 calories) in a short period of time (e.g., < 2 hours) which is accompanied by a sense of loss of control.
- Subjective binge eating: eating what is perceived as an excess amount of food, but in reality is not objectively large, while also experiencing a sense of loss of control.
There are other characteristics of binge eating episodes. Some of these include:
- The food eaten during a binge is high calorie, palatable, and so-called “forbidden” foods.
- Feelings of immediate pleasure followed by immense guilt and shame.
- A sense of secrecy, by which people go to great lengths to hide this behaviour2Grilo CM, Ivezaj V, White MA. Evaluation of the DSM-5 severity indicator for binge eating disorder in a community sample. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2015;66:72-76..
It is equally important to understand the factors that are maintaining the behaviour. Why? Because the strategies presented in this article have been designed to address these factors, and targeting them will have a “flow on” effect in terms of reducing the binge eating behaviour.
There are three broad “maintaining factors”3Fairburn CG. Cognitive behavior therapy and eating disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press 2008..
Shape and weight over-concern
Shape and weight over-concern refers to judgements of self-worth that are based largely on your weight or shape, and their control.
So, whereas most people without binge eating problems evaluate themselves on a variety of life domains (e.g., work performance, friendship groups), people with binge eating problems usually evaluate their self-worth largely on how much they weigh or how their body shape looks and feels.
This is a problem because it causes maladaptive body image behaviours (e.g., obsessive self-weighing, unrealistic social comparisons) and it also encourages extreme dieting behaviours4Fairburn CG, Cooper Z, Shafran R. Cognitive behaviour therapy for eating disorders: A “transdiagnostic” theory and treatment. Behavior Research and Therapy. 2003;41:509-528..
Dietary restraint refers to the multiple specific and demanding “diet rules” that dictate what, when, and how much we can eat.
This can come in the form of (a) food avoidance, (b) fasting, and (c) calorie deprivation.
How do these dieting tendencies influence your binge eating?
Because these diet rules (“avoid chocolate at all times”) are so hard to sustain over a certain period, and the [inevitable] breaking of them (“oops, I ate a tim tam!) tends to elicit an all-or-none reaction (“might as well finish off the packet and start fresh tomorrow”?)5Polivy J, Herman CP. Dieting and binging: A causal analysis. American psychologist. 1985;40(2):193..
This reaction is the cause of binge eating. You’re left feeling so guilty, ashamed, and worthless about your failure in self-control and the implications it will have on your weight and shape, so you make a conscious decision to follow your diet even harder tomorrow! And then the cycle continues. 6Fairburn CG. Cognitive behavior therapy and eating disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press 2008.
Sudden mood fluctuations
Sudden mood fluctuations (e.g., sadness, loneliness, stress etc.) also have a direct impact on your binge eating behaviour7Stice E. Risk and maintenance factors for eating pathology: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. 2002;128:825-848..
Why? Because when our emotions get the better of us, we find it too difficult or exhausting to keep on top of our diet rules, and, as a result, we tend to abandon these diet rules temporarily. Abandoning these rules makes people prone to disinhibited and binge eating.
Another reason why sudden mood fluctuations leads to binge eating is because eating tasty foods is a mood regulator – it makes us feel good temporarily and helps us forget for a brief moment why we are feeling a certain way. Some people take it to the extreme, though, so we need to help people come up with more adaptive ways of coping with negative mood states (without resorting to binge eating).
Let’s now take a look at the 5 evidence-based steps you can implement to break your binge eating.
Step 1: Monitor, Observe and Understand
Carefully monitoring your eating behaviour is the fundamental first step for stopping binge eating. This is because monitoring provides you with important information about the precise nature of your eating behaviour, in terms of when you binge, why you binge, what you binge on, and any other patterns you may not otherwise recognize.
Without monitoring, it is very likely that you wouldn’t be able to remember these precise details.
Understanding the what, when, and where is very important for addressing the main issues that are promoting your binge eating.
How to do it? Diaries! In your diary, ensure to record: the time and date; the food/beverage consumed; where you were; whether you viewed it as a binge; and any other comments that may help you better understand your current eating behaviour. Some examples could be how you were feeling at the time or what your energy levels were like.
Remember, if you’re serious about this, you will have to monitor consistently until you’ve regained control of your eating.
Step 2: Don’t Skip your Meals!
Aim for eating at least 3 meals and 3 snacks per day, no more than 3-4 hours apart.
The reason for eating regularly is that it will address two forms of dangerous dieting behaviors – delayed eating (e.g., fasting, skipping meals) and caloric restriction (e.g., undereating). Both of these dietary behaviours have been shown to independently predict many negative health outcomes, including binge eating, psychological impairment, depression symptoms, and anxiety symptoms.
Implementing a pattern of regular and flexible eating will help you gain more control over your eating, eliminate those problematic forms of dieting, and therefore reduce your frequency of binge eating. It’ll also give you sustained energy throughout the day!
How to do it? Plan Plan Plan! Each night plan and write down when you’re going to eat your meals and snacks. Don’t stress about what to eat, because the initial focus is on gaining momentum, stability, and regularity.
No, don’t eat [yet] based on your body signals – these signals are typically disrupted in those who binge, which means that you’ll find it difficult to distinguish between hunger and satiety. That said, once you’ve adopted a consistent pattern of regular eating, then these cues should eventually return.
Step 3: Solve Your Problems
Finding it tough to handle a bad situation effectively? If so, learning effective problem solving might be a good idea.
Recall that binge eating is predictable; it usually occurs either after (a) an all-or-none reaction to a dietary rule break and (2) our mood fluctuates and intensifies.
Working through these tough times effectively and healthily will help prevent these predictable binges.
How to do it? There are 4 steps to effective problem-solving. Let’s use an example:
- Identify the problem: My partner and I always fight – I’m home alone left feeling so frustrated all of the time.
- Think about a range of possible solutions to the problem: I could either: eat, watch TV, go on social media, or go for a walk.
- Carefully think through each solutions implication:
- This isn’t a good idea because, in the past, when I eat I usually go overindulge to help soothe my frustration.
- There’s nothing really on TV at the moment, so I’ll probably get bored and have an urge to eat instead.
- Not really feeling the best about myself at the moment, so jumping onto Instagram and seeing other people having fun would probably worsen the situation.
- A walk will remove me from temptation and well help blow off some steam.
- Pick the best solution(s) and act on it: I’m going to go for a brisk walk – 45 minutes at least!
Step 4: Tackle Your Food Anxiety
First up, generate a list of your own tasty “forbidden foods”?
Ask yourself why you have a “forbidden food” list? After all, no food in isolation causes weight gain.
Perhaps it’s because these foods are binge-eating trigger foods that cause you considerable grief and anxiety.
Gradual exposure to these foods and re-introducing them into your diet (in moderation) will get rid of the anxiety around certain foods and their potential to trigger a binge.
How to do it? Create a list of your forbidden foods. Rank them in order from “most forbidden” to “least forbidden”. Slowly reintroduce the foods from the “least forbidden” list into your diet.
For example, if cereal is on your “least forbidden” food list (but you’re still concerned about eating it), put a small handful of cereal in your regular breakfast smoothie. Gradually, you’ll realise that nothing catastrophic happens if you eat the cereal.
Fear will cease. You’ll live a better life!
Keep it up for the other foods until there’s no more anxiety. They won’t be a binge eating trigger for much longer. Remember, this will take time. Don’t expect success over night. The anxiety around eating these foods if you gradually implement them into your diet will go away – I promise.
Step 5: Get Moving
It’s now time to place less importance on your weight and shape and instead increase the number of life domains by which you evaluate yourself.
Remember that people who binge eat usually place most or all of their judgement of self-worth on how they look or how much they weigh.
So, if you can broaden your scheme of self-evaluation by increasing the importance of other life areas, then you shouldn’t feel the need to diet and you should, therefore, reduce your binge eating.
How to do it? Think about activities that make you happy, bring you joy, and that interest you.
Some examples could be….
- Competitive power lifting
- Joining a footy club
- Taking dance lessons
- Taking up yoga
- Building puzzles
Make a list of these – as long as possible. Be creative !
Which one are you going to commit to trying?
The point of these activities is to give more meaning in your life, independent of weight and/or shape cues.
Eventually, if you devote enough energy to these activities, then over time you’ll realize what the more important things are in life, and your craving to control your weight and shape will diminish. Once it does, this will undoubtedly have a positive effect on your eating behaviour.
The previous five steps come from evidence-based cognitive-behavioural treatment manuals for binge eating.
It is better to follow the steps in order, particularly because there is good evidence to show that focusing on modifying your behaviour before your thoughts is a good determinant of future success.
Implementing these steps will take time, so be patient.
Now I’d like to turn it over to you.
What are you finding most challenging regarding your eating habits?
Let me know by leaving a comment below right now.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Fairburn CG. Overcoming binge eating. London, UK: Guilford Press 2013.|
|2.||↑||Grilo CM, Ivezaj V, White MA. Evaluation of the DSM-5 severity indicator for binge eating disorder in a community sample. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2015;66:72-76.|
|3, 6.||↑||Fairburn CG. Cognitive behavior therapy and eating disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press 2008.|
|4.||↑||Fairburn CG, Cooper Z, Shafran R. Cognitive behaviour therapy for eating disorders: A “transdiagnostic” theory and treatment. Behavior Research and Therapy. 2003;41:509-528.|
|5.||↑||Polivy J, Herman CP. Dieting and binging: A causal analysis. American psychologist. 1985;40(2):193.|
|7.||↑||Stice E. Risk and maintenance factors for eating pathology: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. 2002;128:825-848.|