Binge Eating Breakdown: What it is, What it isn’t, and What to do About it

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As I write this blog post, much of the world is under social distancing orders.

Here in the United States, grocery store shelves are emptying, businesses are closing, employees are being sent home with questions about continued pay and job security, and countless people are finding themselves isolated– wrestling with the uncertainty of these unprecedented times.

For many with a history of eating disorders, diet mentality, and body dissatisfaction, they’re also wrestling with something else  – an upsurge in disordered thoughts and behaviors.

And social media isn’t helping.

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are filled with supposedly humorous memes and commentary about quarantine weight gain, calories burned per cough, emotional eating, and carb “binges.”

These posts are irresponsible. Not to mention, shame-inducing, fatphobic, and factually flawed.

We don’t need any more “I’m-trying-to-stay-relevant-through-coronavirus” diet culture rhetoric during this pandemic.

What we need is for people to be considerate, stay home, wash their hands, follow other nationally and locally communicated precautions, and circulate helpful and accurate information.

Which is precisely what I’d like to do when it comes to the topic of binge eating – in these unfamiliar times and beyond.

What Binge Eating Is Not

You’ve probably heard statements like, “Those brownies were so delicious, I totally binged on them.”

“I binge ate a second bowl of cereal this morning.”

Or, “I need to get out of this house and away from the tortilla chips. Otherwise, I’ll binge.”

Maybe, you’ve even said them yourself.

But, were the eating experiences in question really binges? Or were they something else entirely?

Thanks in large part to diet culture, there are plenty of misconceptions about binge eating.

So, let’s start by taking a look at what binge eating isn’t.

Binge eating is not:

  •       Eating beyond physical fullness or arbitrary comfort level sometimes
  •       Consuming beyond a particular calorie count or macro ratio
  •       Breaking arbitrary food rules such as “off-limits,” “off-plan,” or “off-schedule”
  •       Eating more than you think you “should”
  •       Eating when you aren’t physically hungry (for practical need, boredom, desire, or a special occasion)
  •       Consuming food shortly after a meal or snack
  •       Eating larger quantities than your co-worker, friends, or family members
  •       Emotional eating
  •       Eating atypical or unfamiliar foods that aren’t regularly a part of your intake

Essentially, eating outside of your regular plans or preferences does not constitute a binge.

And it’s not about consuming foods or eating meals and snacks that conflict (in quantity, ingredients, or timing) with diet culture advice, “wellness” sensationalism, or eating disorder thoughts.

It’s certainly not what many are experiencing now, in this time of global crisis, with schedule disruptions, shortages or surpluses of particular food items, desires to soothe anxieties by comfort eating, and forgoing food rules.

That’s all just normal eating.

Recovery Eating is Normal Eating, Too

When recovering from restrictive eating disorders, it’s not uncommon for individuals to experience extreme hunger and, accordingly, consume more food than usual.

If that’s you, I want to be clear that refeeding a malnourished body is not synonymous with binge eating disorder.

You see, when you were depriving yourself of caloric energy through disordered eating behaviors, your body interpreted the restriction as famine.

Now, as you begin to practice unlimited, unconditional allowance of food in recovery, you might feel as though your hunger is insatiable.

It makes sense.

Not only is your body working hard to gather energy in case of future “famine” (restriction), it’s also desperate to restore nutritional deficiencies and meet other unseen needs for physical repair and renewal.

Responding to this hunger, without judgment, is an essential part of returning to an intuitive relationship with food.

And though one might label this experience as bingeing, the term (as it’s commonly understood) does more to stigmatise refeeding than it does to explain it.

So, What Is Binge Eating?

Binge eating, or reactionary eating, is a psychobiological response to restrictive thoughts or behaviors around food, over-exercise, or other causes of prolonged and consistent physical energy deficits.

In other words, binge eating isn’t simply what you do with food. It goes beyond behavior to include your thoughts and feelings, and demonstrates the intimate connection between body, mind, and emotion in response to restriction.

It’s the act of eating food in a manner that feels compulsive and urgent in the absence of (or ignorance to) physical sensations of satisfaction and fullness. Often, resulting in feelings of shame and physical discomfort.

While many binge definitions include specifications around quantity and frequency of food consumed, mine does not.

That’s because, in my practice with clients, those details are not nearly as significant as the catalysts and responses to these primal, “out-of-control” eating experiences.

More often than not, binges go hand-in-hand with participation in diets, restrictive eating disorders, fitness obsession, or other threats of malnourishment and exhaustion.

They’re marked by guilt around certain food choices, which often leads to self-inflicted punishment through future deprivation.

What’s more, characterizing a binge based on quantifiable features like amount and duration can prove confusing to individuals who are recovering from a season of dieting or disordered eating and regularly consuming large amounts of food as a part of their healing process.

Binge eating, then, is not defined by “excessive” eating (a highly subjective concept), but by what comes first.

Contrary to popular belief, a lack of willpower doesn’t cause it. Instead, bingeing is the result of mental or physical restraint around food (whether intentional or not) that incites both a psychological and physiological compulsion to eat.

While it might not feel “normal” to throw back an entire pizza (or two) after weeks of going low-carb, the event makes sense when you dig deeper into the reasons why your body is scrambling for food in the first place.

A binge eating body is a body deprived of (or afraid to be deprived of) nourishment.

So then, is it any wonder such bodies clamber to find and consume food – often highly-palatable, quickly digestible food – in an effort to absorb and store energy for optimal functionality and survival?

Of course not.

If you think about it, attempting to limit your food intake is a lot like trying to avoid the restroom when your bladder is full. You may be able to forgo the toilet for a short period of time. But, eventually, you’ll have to go.

And just like wet pants are an unpleasant symptom of evading the restroom, binge eating is an unpleasant symptom of controlling food.

Sooner or later, biology wins. Eating is no exception.

How to Beat the Binges

If what you’re experiencing fits this definition of binge eating, and you want to put an end to the compulsive episodes, it’s important to go to the source and examine your thoughts and behaviors around food.

Here’s how:

  • Get curious. The next time you binge, take some time to examine the restrictive thoughts or behaviors that came first. Ask yourself, “Have I been undereating or over-exercising? What fears and judgments do I have around food and body? What needs or desires am I denying? And what action or inaction would best support me in this moment?”
  • Ditch the diet dogma and abandon your rules and restrictions around food. Most of us know by now that they rarely “work” to produce the advertised results (weight loss, fat loss, physical health) in the long term anyway.
  • Practice allowance. That means making room for all foods, portions, combinations, and mealtimes. Not only in deed, but in thought too. Embrace the act of feeding yourself.
  • Accept and honor your body. Binge eating is almost always the result of restrictive food rules. And restrictive food rules are nearly always the result of desires to manipulate body shape or weight. So then, it’s essential to work towards body neutrality and trust if you want to beat the binges.

Of course, this list of solutions to binge eating is only a start. It’s neither comprehensive nor specific enough to speak to your unique circumstances. And it does little to address other contributing factors like habituation or trauma.

Still, it’s a powerful tool in acknowledging and addressing the primary cause of binge eating: restriction.

But, What about Food Scarcity?

Unfortunately, the body can’t tell the difference between real and perceived threats of food scarcity.

So, whether you’re dieting with the hopes of losing a few pounds or experiencing a decrease in your food supply, making it difficult to satisfy your hunger – your body may feel deprived and more prone to binge.

For those who regularly experience food scarcity as a result of limited geographic or financial access, and those who are currently facing it (in fear or actuality) due to the coronavirus pandemic, feelings of being “out of control” around food aren’t all that uncommon.

In these moments, it’s important to recognize that many of the experiences you’re having are just variations of normal eating.

Though the ingredients, timing, amount, frequency, and environment of your meals and snacks may be different than what you’re used to – that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re binge eating.

It could just mean you’re eating normally under new or unfavorable circumstances.

So, as much as you’re financially and physically able, continue to prioritize disordered eating recovery.

Challenge restrictive thoughts and behaviors, keep ample amounts of food around, and schedule regular times to eat and check in with your body despite the disruption to your regular life routine.

Placing arbitrary limits on eating experiences and constructing unnecessary boundaries around food is counter-productive to finding peace with it.

But sometimes, we’re left with no choice.

When food options are limited for reasons outside of your control, try to be as intuitive as you can as often as you can. Acknowledge the choices you do have around your eating experiences and focus on them.

Even when certain food items are scarce, or you’re eating non-preferred meals, you might still have options around things like seasoning, temperature, food combinations and portions, beverages, dishes and utensils, eating environment, and pace.

While life circumstances may limit the expression of food freedom, your intentions can remain the same – to honor your hunger, trust your desires, and care for your body regularly.

Responding to a Binge

Should you experience reactionary binge eating as a result of intentional or circumstantial restriction, it’s important to offer yourself compassion.

And remember that “this too shall pass.”

Though it may be tempting to withhold food later to compensate for the binge, the best thing you can do is move on and approach subsequent meals and snacks with curiosity and care, not condemnation.

Withholding food post-binge only leads to future binge episodes and a cycle of eating that feels overwhelmingly chaotic.

So, relax.

Take a deep breath (or ten).

And remind yourself that binge eating isn’t immoral, it’s informative.

Because where there’s a binge, there’s almost always restriction.

Originally posted at Seven Health, HERE.

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