Breaking Free from the Binge-Eating Cycle

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Binge-eating.

It’s a word that for some reason is so often associated with guilt and shame in our culture. We joke about “binging on ______” after a hard day at work or a fun weekend social event. We admit that here in America we love to eat and that we are “always hungry” for anything that is put on a plate in front of us. While some people are simply emphasizing their enjoyment of food, many people are suffering in silence from disordered eating patterns.

I think that there is honestly less judgement placed on individuals who restrict food because they are seen as “having self-control”. Our culture likes us to be fit and toned; it encourages dieting no matter what your shape or size it; it likes skinny.

An individual who binge-eats, on the other hand, is often seen as having no self-control and discipline in their diet.

Some view anorexia as a sad, devastating disease that affects adolescent women, while simultaneously believing that individuals who can’t control themselves around have food have no discipline in their diet, and that they simply aren’t trying to be healthy.

If only it were that simple.

Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder among U.S. adults, however, it is often the least talked about.¹ It is also common for individuals with bulimia and anorexia to get on binge-eating cycles. The main difference between these disorders is that individuals who have binge-eating disorder don’t use compensatory methods to counteract the food that they just consumed. A binge can be characterized by “recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterward-eating”.² Binging is one of the most difficult things to face during recovery from an eating disorder because it is often one of the hardest things to break free from. It isn’t simply over eating. Almost a year ago I began treatment for anorexia-binging/purging type. This means that I would restrict food and deprive myself of food for a day or week at a time, & after so long my body couldn’t handle the restriction anymore. I ate anything and everything in site only to feel horrible afterwords. I then “purged” away the calories so that I was able to eat again and not gain weight. I felt like I was a slave to my eating disorder. I particularly hated binging because it left me feeling absolutely horrible afterwards. After binges, I was physically, psychologically, and emotionally distraught. I was ashamed of myself. I didn’t know why I didn’t have more self control. I was embarrassed and frustrated. I can’t count the number of times I have sat in my bed weeping and asking God to forgive me for hurting myself. I repeatedly told him that I didn’t mean to binge, and I don’t know why I did it.

This post only offers a brief overview of binge-eating. There were many days where I never thought that I was going to recover from this part of my eating disorder. It seemed to have too strong of a grip on me. As an individual who has broken free from the binge-eating cycle, I want to offer some insight and practical advice that may help you on your journey.

  1. It is very difficult to normalize eating patterns when you are on a binge-eating cycle. It is normal for an individual who struggles with binge-eating to lose touch with his or her hunger/fullness cues. The issue becomes so much more complex than “eating when we are hungry and stopping when we are full.” Many of us literally lose that ability. It was only after following a meal plan written by my registered dietitian that I was able to break free from the cycle. However, it was anything but easy. It takes time and patience to win the battle. There were so many days where I thought , “Alright, this is the last time that I will ever binge” and then the next day or week fall back into the same habits. As hard as it was, I had to learn to be gracious with myself and let go of the things that I couldn’t go back and fix. One of the things that helped me the most was to follow my meal plan and to not let myself go too long without eating. When I eat consistent meals throughout the day, my blood sugar remains regulated and I don’t have sudden urges to eat everything in my pantry. Additionally, cutting back on exercise also helped me develop the ability to read my hunger/fullness cues more effectively.
  2. Dieting and restricting food lead to binge-eating. I know it sounds crazy. My recovery team has been adequate in telling me that restriction is my number one enemy, and for so long I didn’t believe them. I honestly questioned their intelligence when they told me that I sometimes binge-ate simply out of a physiological response to hunger. I often felt so pulled by the desire to binge-eat because I wasn’t consistently nourishing myself throughout the day. Sometimes we binge because our body literally needs food, however, when we get to a point where we are so hungry that we have stomach pains, it is often a lot harder to identify when we are actually full. Have you ever been on a diet that somehow made you seem to crave carbohydrates more than if you weren’t on the diet? I know I have. This happens because carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source. When we restrict carbs, our body starts using energy from our fat stores to keep is moving all day long. However, our bodies are incredible smart and pro-active, & when we cut out carbs, the brains actually stimulates hunger-related hormones within the body, increasing our appetites and urgency to eat. This is why yo-yo dieting is so common. If you want to get serious about giving up binge-eating in your life, you also have to be serious about fighting the diet mentality.
  3. We binge because we are numbing ourselves to our emotions. Although it is sometimes hard to identify which emotions we want suppress/avoid, emotional binges are often a response to a situation that makes us sad, angry, upset, or uncomfortable. For example, what does every girl do when her boyfriend breaks up from her? Buys a tub of ice-cream and eats it out of the tub as she watches her favorite Netflix series. Personally, I binge ate the most when I was lonely, anxious, or upset. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I am now able to look back and identify situations that I simply wanted to escape from. Over time, binging to numb your feelings becomes a habitual, automatic response to our emotions. It got to a point where the majority of the time when I was upset, frustrated, sad, etc. I used binge-eating as a way to coop. It became my default comfort, not matter how illogical it was. One of the most important things that I have learned in recovery is that we can’t pick and choose which emotions we numb ourselves to. When we numb anxiety we also numb excitement; when we numb sadness we also num joy, when we numb feelings of loneliness we also numb our dreams and passions. As hard as it is, it is essential to find enjoyable, healthy cooping methods to the emotions that make you the most uncomfortable. Sometimes it means simply sitting in bed, feeling the weight of the emotion, and crying. I like to listen to music, journal, read, pray, or watch a movie when I am tempted to get rid of my emotions with eating disorder behaviors.
  4. After a binge, it is essential that you make the conscious effort to do the next right thing. Binging feels horrible. I get it. It is the most suffocating, enslaving, horrible thing that I have ever felt in my life. The urge to do something about it and control the situation is so strong. I am not going to discuss specific behaviors because I know that it could be triggering for some people, however, I must say that you can’t recovery from a binge-eating cycle by purging or restricting food the next day. Those actions perpetuate the cycle and make it worse. I absolutely hated the first few times that I didn’t try to micromanage the effects of my binge. It was so so difficult, but my mom always reminded me to do the next right thing. I couldn’t change the fact that I had just binged on food that I wasn’t really hungry for, however, I could change the trajectory of my recover by taking a step away from my eating disorder and towards a life without ED. Sometimes this meant simply sitting in my living room with my family and watching T.V. It also was helpful to go out with friends even when I felt like I didn’t deserve to spend time with anyone. Other times, I just needed to be along, process things, do some recovery reading, and go to sleep. Whatever your cooping mechanism may be, it has to be something that doesn’t stem from your eating disorder. Those behaviors have no place in our lives and hold us back from full recovery. The more you practice doing the “next right thing” it will become easier and easier until it is natural.
  5. Isolation is a dangerous thing. It is common for individuals to binge in secret when no one is watching. This could be due to a restrictive mentality, one that tells you that this is the “only opportunity that you can enjoy as much as you want of ________(insert your favorite food), so you might as well take advantage of it.” It could also simple be out of habit, boredom, or again, restricting food throughout the day. One of the things that has been the most helpful for me is to eat meals with other people. Good conversation is a great way to begin to step away from your eating disorder. It’s easier to be conscious of what you are eating when you are dining out with a friend rather than standing alone in your kitchen. I also make the conscious effort to spend time with other people throughout the day. Even if I am simply doing homework, I like to go to the library or coffee shop so that I am not tempted to binge out or boredom, or as an escape from the reality that I don’t want to do my homework. I know that some people enjoy more alone time than others and that’s fine. However, if there are certain places/situations where you binge more often when you are alone, I would encourage you to spend time with other people (even when it’s the last thing that you want to do) until you are farther along in your recovery. Relationships are a great safeguard against eating disorder behaviors.

This post was far from comprehensive, but I wanted to give you guys some practical help related to fighting the binge-eating cycle. If you want to go into a more in-depth discussion, please comment or contact me! I would love to hear how you have overcome binge-eating & any additional tools that you have felt that were helpful in that process.

References:

  1. http://www.healthline.com/health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder-statistics
  2. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/binge-eating-disorder

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