unsplash-logoFlemming Fuchs

binge eating disorder

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.

A Rant About Calories

When oh when will we stop with the demonisation of calories? Products on the shelves loudly and proudly proclaim - “Only X number of calories per portion!”, “Low in calories!” or my biggest pet peeve – “Guilt free!” (implication – low in calories).

Since where are we supposed to feel guilty about needing to eat food and for that food to contain calories?! Gah! Calories are energy and energy is necessary for, well, just about everything!

People fear consuming too many calories and in today’s environment of easy-access, high energy food I recognise that this might be a legitimate fear for some but worrying about getting your calorific levels ‘right’ may simply create a lot of internal chatter that makes it difficult to really know what your body wants at this moment in time.

You have probably been there - standing in Pret or Tesco, comparing sandwiches and pre-packed salads and trying to find the fewest calories to trick your body into thinking this is enough for your lunch. Your body is smarter than you are when it comes to calorie usage.

Also, we don’t absorb all the calories we eat, did you know that? Yep, some of those calories pass right through you and there is no way of knowing how many you absorb. Did you know that if two people consume a 100kcal banana, one could absorb 95 calories and the other 85 calories? FROM EATING THE SAME THING!

You don’t know with your thinking mind how many calories you need and the body’s caloric requirements change from day to day based on numerous factors from activity levels to the weather to how many calories you consumed the previous day.

So please, let’s start appreciating those humble calories, the building blocks of our body, the unsung heroes of our life.

Ending the Nightmare of Binge Eating

First published on the Counselling Directory https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/ending-the-nightmare-of-binge-eating.

We have never had greater access to nutritional information than we do today. We also know more about how our bodies function than ever before, but it seems that we have never had a trickier relationship with food or greater dissatisfaction about the size and shape of our bodies.

More and more clients are approaching me because they are fed up of struggling with what they perceive is their out-of-control appetite. Are our appetites more out of control these days? This is often the reported experience but all may not be as it seems...

Our relationship with food and appetite is complex. We have many cues and triggers that encourage us to consume food, and these engage all the physical senses - sight, smell, taste, touch and even sound. Ever spotted that green Starbucks sign and suddenly wanted a caramel latte? It wasn’t even on your mind until you spotted the green mermaid in her circular frame!

Experts have termed our environment as ‘obseogenic’, and this simply means we are living in a culture that continuously primes us to eat.

Here lies the cultural paradox. Thin lean taunt bodies and “clean” disciplined eating is celebrated as a sign of success and bestowed with greater social value. Soft, squishy bodies are often judged as undisciplined and an example of what we shouldn’t be. The pressure is on to sculpt your body into a more acceptable shape.

The solution to this becomes a diet. Diets these days are often masquerading as wellness programmes, or healthy clean eating. Sugar is the enemy; we should be eating low carb, keto or paleo. There are long lists of what you should or shouldn't be allowing yourself to consume, and with each new bit of research more things are added to these lists.

The problem with this solution is that it requires you to ignore your body’s signals and hand over the decisions about what and how much to eat to a prescribed set of rules. People crave freedom, it’s a basic primal need, and for many the restriction imposed by dieting triggers rebellious eating, or binge eating.

Binge eating is much more than eating “too much”. It’s a sensation of completely losing control around food. It’s very scary to experience. Unfortunately the common response when people start to binge is to try and exercise EVEN MORE control over food, which sets up the next binge and so the cycle continues. This is how people get trapped in the cycle of bingeing and dieting.

Also, dieting causes emotional eating. As soon as you restrict food you like, you increase its emotional value. Eating and deciding what to eat becomes a more emotionally-charged experience, which confuses your hunger signals even more. Food can then become a way to manage your emotional state.

So what’s the solution?

Understanding some of the emotional reasons that perpetuate your eating is a good start, and counselling will help you gain insight into this and assist you to develop tools for managing your emotions without turning to food.

The emotional work is only part of the picture though.

I like to use the analogy of Newton’s third law, which states that each action has an equal and opposite reaction. Bingeing is the natural reaction to restriction. Even restrictive thinking can trigger the binge response. Ever planned to start a diet on Monday and ended up eating your way through the weekend before?

To break free from bingeing requires a rejection of diet culture and a re-learning of how to respond to your body’s signals.

When people stop believing their bodies aren’t acceptable as they are, they can begin to reconnect with the subtle sensations and signals in their bodies, and regain their sanity around food.

If you are struggling with binge eating, you may be interested in joining a binge eating therapy group. The group meets on Tuesday evenings in Ealing. For more info, click here.