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.
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.
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.