Have you ever found yourself standing at the pantry, wrist deep in a jar of extra-crunchy peanut butter with a pile of king-size candy bar wrappers at your feet?
If so, you’re not alone.
Binge eating is a relatively common experience characterized by the intense and immediate urge to devour food. Sufferers frequently report feeling powerless and ashamed during and after this unwanted eating behavior.
As an Eating Psychology Coach and Body Image Mentor, I work frequently with clients who binge. Although complex and challenging to reform (due in large part to the compounding emotional, cultural, nutritional, behavioral and biological triggers that influence the “out of control” drive to eat) one tool that I’ve found invaluable for reducing binge episodes and regaining sanity around food is inquiry.
Curiosity during compulsive eating experiences offers gentle, real-time opportunities to investigate beliefs, identify needs and modify behavior. So, the next time you find yourself sprinting to the kitchen with dreams of devouring BBQ chips by the fistful, stop and take this quick survey instead.
1. HAVE I BEEN RESTRICTING OR OVERWORKING MY BODY?
2. AM I PHYSICALLY HUNGRY?
3. WILL EATING SATISFY ME?
4. IS THAT TRUE?
The first four questions may seem redundant, but they’re absolutely essential. Sometimes, eating is initiated by reasons other than physical hunger. And that’s OK! Many people peruse their cabinets in search of entertainment, comfort or peace of mind – none of which are satisfied by food in the long term. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with emotional eating (everybody does it), it’s important to distinguish it from binge eating before proceeding through this inquiry.
Emotional eating is a coping mechanism that’s less associated with biology than it is habit. But binge eating is quite often physiological in origin, the result of restrained eating and/or over-exercising. That is why taking a moment to investigate whether or not you are experiencing physical hunger (or something else) is vital in determining what to do next.
5. WHAT DO I REALLY NEED IN THIS MOMENT?
If physical hunger is not at the root of your desire to eat, you may benefit from shifting your energy towards other forms of self-care. So, go ahead and grab that snack. But then, be sure to dig a bit deeper. What’s below the surface of your emotional eating experience and what else might prove helpful in moving through the feelings you’re having or addressing the root problems you’re facing? Do you need a nap or a good cry? Do you want to call a friend or get outside in the fresh air? Would it be more beneficial to take a temporary break from your feelings or process them immediately? Would it help to express yourself in writing or ground yourself in prayer or meditation? Do you need a hot shower? Do you want a hug? Should you clear your schedule, take time off of work or reach out to a professional for help? Do you need to set boundaries or adjust relationship dynamics? These are just a few of the questions to ask yourself if you’re eating to soothe or supress emotion.
But let’s say you have been restricting (either mentally or physically) and find yourself in the midst of an actual reactive eating experience (binge) as a result psychobiological triggers. These next questions can help to neutralize the experience.
6. AM I SITTING DOWN?
7. HAVE I PUT MY FOOD IN A DISH?
8. AM I UNDISTRACTED?
9. AM I WILLING TO EAT SLOWLY AND MINDFULLY?
Assuming that you are, in fact, hungry or responding to deprivation – the above four questions will help to deflate the “out of control” aspects of bingeing and bring a level of peace and relaxation to the experience.
Can you recall a time when you stood scarfing leftovers in the chill of the open refrigerator, feeling no less hungry with every passing minute? That’s because the brain plays such a large role in metabolic function and appetite that distracted consumption rarely proves satiating. However, sitting down, slowing down and using beautiful tableware helps to activate and engage the senses, making it much easier to tune into your body and enjoy the pleasures of nourishment without becoming uncomfortably stuffed. Allowing yourself to eat whatever it is that you want with awareness and dignity often leads to decreased binges and decreased stress levels too.
10. AM I STILL HUNGRY?
At some point during a binge take a moment to assess whether or not you are STILL hungry. You don’t need to polish off the bag of chips or scrape the bottom of the cookie jar to declare an end. Instead, consider stopping when you no longer feel the overwhelming impulse to munch.
11. HOW DOES MY BODY FEEL NOW?
Is the roof of your mouth sore from downing salty snacks? Is your stomach feeling bloated? How is your head? Are you feeling jittery or sluggish? For many people, binge eating is an out-of-body experience. Checking in with yourself and intentionally evaluating your physical symptoms can help to increase awareness and end a binge before it gets too uncomfortable. When you take time to pause and notice unpleasant sensations, it’s much easier to put down the cereal box and move on.
For even more insight and added recovery power, continue with curiosity AFTER a binge by asking:
12. WHAT, SPECIFICALLY, AM I RESTRICTING?
As I’ve already mentioned, binges are the direct result of restriction – either mental or physical. So, get honest with yourself and inventory your food and fitness rules. If your thoughts around eating include judgment and guilt, you’re trying to compensate for calories with exercise or you’ve vilified certain foods and macronutrients in an effort to manipulate your body, binges are probable. Thus, ending these reactionary eating experiences begins with acknowledging and ending restriction.
13. WHAT CAN I LEARN FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?
After recovering from a binge, stop to consider what you’ve learned. Does this eating event reveal patterns or common elements that could be investigated further? What body scrutinizing thoughts, toxic dietary beliefs or unsupportive behaviors might be contributing to “out of control” feelings around food? And how might I work through those catalysts in order to minimize future binges?
Inquiry is certainly not an immediate cure for binge eating. But, when practiced regularly, it transforms reactionary eating into an act of personal discovery and becomes an empowering step towards food freedom that significantly decreases the duration, frequency and volume of binges.
And when you learn to surrender to the eating experience and elevate questions over condemnation – there’s bound to be much more self-compassion and way fewer candy bar wrappers at your feet.