unsplash-logoFlemming Fuchs

eating

Why dieting isn’t the answer to overeating

I am pretty vocal about being anti-diet. Diets do not work for the majority of people. Our behaviour is driven by how we are thinking and feeling. Going on a diet usually involves trying to create a behaviour change without making any other changes. Diets will insist that you just have to be disciplined enough and if you don’t manage to stick to the diet, you must be lacking in willpower.

As Kelly McGonigal writes in her book Willpower! You only need willpower if there is a conflict of will. Diets create a conflict and no-one can thrive while living in a conflicted state. There are three things that could happen when you go on a diet.

i can't stop eating binge eating weight loss

You might lose weight and be a “success” story.

Firstly, you might lose weight and keep it off. This is very much the exception not the rule but it does happen in a tiny percentage of cases. When it does happen, these people have created a shift in identity. They develop a new attitude to how they eat and move their bodies and that attitude is integrated into their personality. Usually these are people who didn’t have a great deal of emotion around their eating or body image to begin with. They are not people who have tried dozens of diets and have had the experience of feeling like a failure around food. Because the emotions are not particularly heightened, they are not working with the same resistance that so many of us are. Not fair? Perhaps, but we can’t change our emotional history with food. We need to accept where we’re starting from.

The rebound effect of diets.

Secondly, you may stick to the diet for hours, days, weeks or months - maybe you even hit you goal weight but at some point most people will throw off the shackles and resume eating, usually more than before and usually with a sense of feeling out of control until you find yourself back at your starting weight or higher. How distressed you are by this experience will predict how disordered you could start to become around food the next time you try and exert control over your eating.

Dieting triggers eating disorders.

And lastly, you restrict and maintain your restriction through tolerating the conflict of wanting to eat but not allowing yourself to. This one can be dangerous because it’s the feeding ground of eating disorders. In anorexia tight restriction is maintained but at enormous cost. Obsession, fear, anxiety, isolation and deteriorating health all follow this type of restriction and once you’re gripped by it, it’s incredibly difficult to fully recover. Perhaps you manage to restrict but with periods of bingeing, well this is a slippery slope into binge eating disorder and once you start making “amends” for bingeing (purging, exercise, laxatives, fasting) you slide into bulimia territory.

How do I stop overeating?

You may be thinking this all sounds a bit hopeless. What are you supposed to do if dieting isn’t the answer? I think we need think about what we can learn about the first group. They changed their identity around how they were with food. Their conflict and emotionality around food isn’t as high. In order to change how we eat, we first need to reduce our own conflict and emotionality around food. I know you want to jump straight into making the changes. Of course you do, this has become so incredibly important to you but the challenge may be to make it LESS important. This is why ditching the diet mentality is crucial. It’s not just about not dieting but about shifting the mentality. This is the mentality that you carry around day-to-day and it influences every single food choice you make and turning food decisions into a minefield.

This is how so many people get stuck, the desperation to lose weight through controlling what you eat is what will keep you feeling out of control. Like a spiders web, the more you struggle, the more stuck you become. We need to end the war to find peace and then rebuild from the debris. This means surrender, not destroying ourselves through trying to win against our appetite for it is a fierce and non-compromising opponent.

 

Want to stop binge eating? STOP compensating.

First let me preface this by saying that this blog post is not going to be aimed at everyone who is struggling with overeating but if you struggle with binge eating and your weight stays within a 10lb range then read on and listen up.

Weight and binge eating

Now this may sound a bit controversial but if your weight is not climbing up then you are probably not eating more than your body needs over the long run. “No way,” I imagine you thinking, “Have you seen how much food I can put away on a binge?” I hear you, it doesn’t seem possible that you could ever need that amount of food and you know by how terrible you physically feel afterwards that it was more than you needed in the moment. But that’s the point, it might have been more than you needed in the moment but perhaps it was what you needed in the long term.

Most of my clients who come to me for help with binge eating are not in what most people would call big bodies and yet they are consuming large amounts of food and feeling utterly out of control of their eating. So what’s happening?

Compensation. From the moment the binge is over you start plotting and planning how to compensate for the excess of food. This usually involves planning exercise, promising to eat less/healthier tomorrow, skipping meals or purging, and what does this do? It ramps up cravings and the desire to binge again soon.

bingeing compulsive eating stop

Compulsive eating and caloric deficits

I often ask people to describe a bad day of eating and a good one. This invariably produces similar answers - the bad days mean bingeing on sugar and processed foods and the good days go something like, porridge for breakfast, soup for lunch and fish and vegetables for dinner. The good days are invariably days of caloric deficit, so then the compensatory behaviour to for this is a binge.

You see? Restriction compensates for bingeing but then bingeing compensates for restriction. It’s not so much of a vicious cycle, more like a pendulum swinging one way and then the other. Even thinking about compensatory behaviours can trigger more bingeing. It’s that moment mid-binge where you feel a bit sick and fleetingly consider stopping, it’s often that compensatory belief about what you’ll do later that will lead you to continue the binge. You tell yourself that tomorrow you’ll be so “good” that you don’t want this food left around anyway so you’d better just eat it all now.


binge eating stop compulsive overeating

Clients then point out to me that some people seem to be able to maintain strict and even restrictive diets. They use this as evidence that they just need to try harder and that the answer must be to find a way to control their food intake. This is a tricky one but I do think people’s brains are wired very differently when it comes to eating and appetite. We don’t all experience our hunger or our cravings in the same way. You don’t have the same brain as that fitspo model with the million+ Instagram followers and you don’t have the same biochemistry either.

Binge eating recovery

So while this post has focused on the physical side of bingeing, the psychological component is a massive factor that we can’t ignore. I think it’s important to briefly touch on identity. Often binge eating, once it becomes a regular experience, starts to integrate itself into your identity. You start to believe you are a person who is out of control with food, you are a person who cannot trust their body’s signals, you are someone who keeps failing. These beliefs start to bury themselves in your psyche and they are driven in deeper each time they are compounded by strong emotions such as guilt or shame.

This is why we cannot separate the physical (stopping the compensation) with the emotional (the way we feel about ourselves). A focus on emotional health, while stopping compensatory behaviour planning is the path or recovery.