Note from GGS: The line between disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders can be a tenuous one, and disordered eating is the greatest predictor of developing an eating disorder, such as (but not limited to) Binge Eating Disorder. If you suffer or suspect you may suffer from Binge Eating Disorder, we encourage you to seek professional help through the resources shared at the end of this article.
In the previous article of this series, I went through six essential tips to help you stop binge eating behaviors. Today, I’m sharing six more tips to help you deal with difficult emotions, feel back in control, and stop letting food rule your life.
Plan for Pleasure
If, at the end of a meal, all you’re planning on doing is the washing up, then you’re not really going to want to stop eating. Eating is pleasurable — washing up isn’t.
So once you finish a meal, it’s a great idea to put any leftovers out of sight, then move straight into a fun activity. What are a list of (low energy) activities that you enjoy and can do right after eating? Here are some examples:
- Look at images of cool stuff on the internet.
- Watch your favorite comedy show.
- Go for a walk, feeling your feet on the ground, and the wind flowing through your hands. Really take in and notice the surroundings.
- Listen to funny, interesting podcasts.
- Play an instrument (your own voice is an instrument, I promise you).
- Write, doodle or draw.
- Spend time with someone you love.
- Listen to some seriously epic music while breathing deeply.
- Take a shower or a bath.
- Read a book. (I recommend something truly healing and inspiring.)
- Listen to the sounds of breathing, gentle rain or heartbeats.
If you’re anything like me, then you may struggle with resting and giving yourself downtime, but it’s super important that you do.
For instance, I like drawing, so I used to start drawing after dinner. But then, of course, I put all this pressure on myself to actually achieve something each evening, or to improve my technique. Before I knew it, I was back in the kitchen eating, trying to deal with the difficult emotions of procrastination, fear of failure, never amounting to anything, and… yeah, you get the idea.
Give yourself permission to chill.
It might be useful to write out a plan or checklist for the evening. For example:
- Straight after dinner, I will _____________ (e.g., listen to loud music and breathe deeply. This will get you out of the inertia of wanting to keep eating.)
- Then, I will ______________ (e.g., draw, putting no pressure on myself.)
- When I feel the urge to binge, I will ________________ (e.g., hold my breath for 10 seconds and remind myself that I am safe and I will never have to restrict.)
Don’t expect the urge to binge not to arise. Come up with a plan so you can deal with it in the most effective way possible, and actually write it down. Don’t just think it. Ink it.
Step Off the Bathroom Scale
Every week, I’d almost cover my eyes, terrified of what the number was going to say. Whether it was “good” or “bad,” it would affect my entire day. And in response to whatever the scale said? That’s right: I’d eat.
The scale is full of emotion for so many people. Maybe it’s time to stop creating a time of day where you brutally judge yourself. Maybe it’s time to stop putting your self-worth into a number. Maybe it’s time to stop using an external measurement to gauge “how you’re doing.”
Stepping off the scale means you can focus on what actually matters: how you feel.
It means that, instead of using an external number, you can adopt a well-being mindset:
“I eat in the way I want to take care of this body. I’m sleeping better. I’m seeing my energy and strength go up. I feel happier, and more at ease in myself.”
Personally, I set up a Google form with a series of questions, and emailed it to myself each week. The questions were:
- How light and energetic have I been feeling?
- Have I been eating lots of colorful vegetables?
- How is my overall happiness?
- How is my peace around food?
- How frequently do I feel joy in my life?
- What is the quality of my self-talk?
This way, I could focus on important things while tracking my progress without any of the emotions that are tied into weighing myself. After all, how you’re feeling is what really matters. The number on the scale is meaningless.
Make Sure You’re Eating Enough
“Woah, woah, Maria, you’re crazy! I’m definitely eating enough… have you seen the amount of food I binge on?”
I hear you, but if you aren’t eating adequately in between those binges, then your body will continue to want to binge. Is it possible to get three decent meals in per day? Try not to overthink it, just try to get a good mix of protein, carbs, fats, and veggies. Use a 1 to 5 hunger scale to guide you, where 1 represents feeling very hungry and 5 represents feeling stuffed.
Restricting after a binge only perpetuates the cycle. Try to be kind to yourself, no matter what has happened.
Pop Open the Hood
Eating when you’re not truly hungry means you’re eating because you’re trying to manage some kind of emotion. Boredom, procrastination, happiness, anger, disgust, tiredness, sadness, these are all reasons people eat.
If you’re finding it difficult to just “will yourself away” from food, then be prepared to do some internal work.
Emotions are completely human and natural, and they need to be felt to run their course. I know: you want to be happy all the time, but that’s just not how life works.
By acknowledging how you’re feeling, and by communicating it in a healthy way, you can reduce the intensity of difficult emotions, and the desire to eat in response to those emotions.
Have you ever walked into a dark room, and you thought you could see a shape in the darkness… you thought it was a person, that there was someone in there with you? Then, you switched the light on, and you realized it was just a coat, or some other, harmless object?
When you can’t see your emotions clearly, they become this scary shape in the darkness. But when you turn on the light, you actually realize that they aren’t as scary as they seemed. You realize you’re stronger than you thought, and you can manage whatever is happening. It might not be pleasant to sit with sadness, and pain, but it is manageable.
So take a long, deep breath. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Then ask yourself:
- What emotions are present right now?
- What sensations are here in my body?
You might begin to notice that your emotions aren’t permanent. They come and go. And the more you can pay attention to them, the less scary they are.
Another way of becoming aware of what’s going on for you is to take a piece of paper and write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Don’t judge it, just get it down on paper.
I often find out that if I write down all my thoughts and worries in the moment, they don’t seem as scary on paper as they did unsaid and unheard in my mind.
Reaching out and talking to others is also a great way to let your emotions be heard.
There’s a ton of studies showing that dieting is highly correlated to binge eating. This quick overview of one of those studies was eye-opening for me.
During the Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment , the top 36 mentally and physically fit males were hand-picked from 400 Civilian Public Service members (the CPS was an alternative to military service in the U.S. during WWII). These guys were followed for three months before the experiment started to make sure they fit the criteria. Each man was then put on a strict, 1,540 kcal diet for 24 weeks.
Here’s what was reported:
At first, the men noticed some physical changes, before constantly complaining that they felt cold, tired, and hungry. They began to have trouble concentrating. They felt dizzy. They had headaches.
Food Was Always On Their Mind
The men became obsessed with food. They talked about it, daydreamed about it. They spent a ton of time planning what they would eat and how they would distribute their calories throughout the day. Food became the most important thing in their lives. They started collecting cookbooks, hoarding, sneaking food, and bringing it to their beds at night.
As the study continued, these guys didn’t just become tired and irritable (which all of us have experienced when we’re slightly hungry). They completely lost their sense of humour, their ambition, as well as their interest in their work and their friends.
They became anxious and apathetic, and started to experience depression, hypochondria, as well as a decreased sex drive. They felt inadequate, and they couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything but food.
Two of the men had to spend time in a psychiatric hospital, and one began to physically harm himself. Each one of them grew self-critical, and began to experience distorted body images. These deprived, starving men actually reported feeling overweight.
Binging and Blaming
Several participants binged on food, and then immediately blamed themselves. One man ate multiple ice cream sundaes and chocolate malts, then stole some candy. He finished off the binging episode by eating several raw swedes (the root vegetable, not the people from Sweden… though it’s fairly grim either way!). When he confessed to the experimenters that he’d broken the rules, he began to verbally demonize himself in front of them.
While others stole food from the trash, some of the men had to quit the study because their binging became so frequent they simply couldn’t stick to the diet.
When the experiment ended 24 weeks later, the men were allowed to go back to eating normally. Except, most of them couldn’t. Many of them had lost total control of their hunger signals, and “ate more or less continuously.”
One reported eating massive five- or six-thousand calorie meals, and then snacking only an hour later. Another man ate so much the first day after the study, he had to be taken to hospital to get his stomach pumped. They reported not being able to satisfy their psychological hunger, no matter how much they ate.
One went on a year-long binge, putting on substantial weight. Just months earlier, this man had a healthy relationship with food. He was hand-chosen for being exemplary, and yet in 24 weeks, he had been completely changed.
This kind of study would not be allowed to take place today, for the “unethical, inhumane treatment of subjects” and yet many of us do this to ourselves, year after year.
I hope this study highlights to you that diets don’t work because they:
- Intensify cravings
- Make you preoccupied with food
- Disconnect you with your natural hunger cues (making you eat when you’re not hungry, and eat more than you need)
- Increase emotional, physical, and psychological distress, and the likelihood that you’ll eat in response to that stress.
It’s time to stop restricting. Give yourself permission to eat any food you want. Give yourself permission to eat any time you want. Instead of counting calories, start using the hunger scale as a guide to start listening to your body again.
I know this sounds like a scary step, but it is the best, and fastest, way to end binge eating. Since you have permission to eat anything, any time you want, the cravings for your kryptonite foods will decrease to a manageable level.
No matter what happens, you must forgive yourself, over and over again. What would you say to a friend who was going through the same thing? There’s no way you’d call them the names you’ve been calling yourself.
You’re learning, and you’re trying to change behaviors. Change is hard. You will fall down, but the sooner you can get back up again, the quicker you’ll be able to move forward. Instead of beating yourself up about failure, could you use it as a learning experience?
So when you’re lying in bed, stuffed to the stomach, cursing yourself for “blowing it yet again,” is it possible to soften? Can you say:
“Actually, this is a great reminder that I don’t want to be doing this anymore. In the moments leading up to this, I didn’t use the skills I’m learning, but it’s OK. My body will forgive me, and I’ll be hungry again at some point. And when I am, it’s another opportunity to listen to that hunger, and to nourish myself and fuel my body in the way that I choose.”
That’s the brilliant thing about the human body: you’re going to get hungry every day, so you get the opportunity to practice these skills every day! And, like anything, if you practice enough, it will eventually become second nature. You’ll be able to eat intuitively, listen to what your body needs, and start living your life again.
To Sum It Up
You’re always in control of your actions, even if it doesn’t feel like it. By stopping any food restriction, you can accelerate this feeling of control.
Be prepared to do some internal work on your emotions: acknowledge how you’re feeling by observing your thoughts (and how they feel in your body), writing them down, or talking to someone.
And remember: progress isn’t linear. You’re practicing something new, and trying to change a behavior. Change is hard, so forgive yourself, no matter what.
Binge Eating Disorder is a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, and warrants professional help. If you find yourself unsure about your own behaviors and would like to learn more or find help, please consult the resources below:
- Keys, A., Brožek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O., & Taylor, H. L., The Biology of Human Starvation (2 volumes), University of Minnesota Press, 1950.