Everyone overeats sometimes. Maybe it was an amazing buffet where you had to try more than you needed, or Thanksgiving dinner. Binge-eating is different. It involves eating a large amount of food in a short period of time.
As a registered dietitian, I have clients who binge-eat to deal with stress or boredom or after over-restricting their diets, and then berate themselves. These aren’t necessarily people with full-fledged eating disorders, but people who may develop a disorder if they continue this cycle of bingeing and shame.
Binge-eating disorder (BED) was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. It’s by far the most common type of eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men and is characterized by recurrent bingeing accompanied by feelings of lack of control and stress. It differs from bulimia because there isn’t any purging behavior to get rid of the food or calories eaten. Anyone diagnosed with BED should consult a doctor, a psychiatrist or therapist, and a dietitian. For those who worry that they could develop binge-eating disorder, here are some tips I’ve found especially helpful for my clients with bingeing tendencies.
Dieting is a common risk factor for binge-eating. Most diets don’t teach you sustainable healthy-eating patterns and typically ban certain foods or food groups. And diets are temporary, so when you eat something that’s not on your diet, you may feel a sense of failure and shame. With many of my clients, these uncomfortable feelings, combined with feelings of deprivation and hunger, can lead to a binge. After a binge, people typically feel even worse about themselves and try to “undo” the damage with more restricting. They allow themselves to get too hungry and end up bingeing, and the vicious cycle continues.
Instead of dieting, allow yourself to eat the foods you enjoy, but try to keep the less-healthy options to smaller amounts. With many of my clients who binge, we work on including portions of “forbidden” but desirable foods into their day so they don’t feel deprived.
Hunger is the enemy when you’re trying to prevent binges. Stay well nourished and keep your blood sugar stable by eating every three or four hours. It’s best if each meal and snack contains: 1) protein; 2) healthy fats; 3) carbohydrates; and 4) fiber. The protein, fat and fiber help you feel full, while the carbohydrates increase serotonin levels for a mood boost. Including plenty of vegetables and some fruit can also help you get key nutrients and feel full for fewer calories.
Keep one-ounce portions of nuts and seeds in your car, purse, briefcase, etc., so you’re never stuck feeling overly hungry. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can also help by preventing you from mistaking thirst for hunger.
Binge-eating is typically done quickly and without really tasting or enjoying the food. Each time you eat, slow down and notice the flavors, textures and aromas of what you’re eating. This can help you eat less and get more pleasure from eating.
Meditation can help you practice refocusing your attention. When you’re feeling the urge to binge, your mental muscle will be stronger when deciding to focus on something else. Try just five minutes a day of sitting and focusing on the feeling of your feet on the floor. Each time your mind wanders, gently redirect it back to your feet without judgment.
Make a list of pleasurable activities you can do to focus your mind on something other than the urge to binge. It could be anything — going for a walk, gardening, calling someone and catching up. Exercise is a fantastic way to not only refocus from the urge to binge but to manage stress; it is essential self-care for your body and mind.
What are some of the reasons you eat? Physical hunger is just one of them. In her book “Mindful Eating,” Jan Chozen Bays describes different types of hunger based on parts of the body, such as heart hunger and nose hunger. For example, you might eat because you’re feeling lonely (heart hunger) or because you walk by a bakery and smell fresh doughnuts (nose hunger). Before you eat, ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry, or is this a different type of hunger?”
Another helpful way to tune in to your hunger is to evaluate your fullness on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being ravenous and 10 being painfully stuffed. Staying between a 4 (starting to get hungry) and a 7 (satisfied) before and after you eat is the goal.
You can and should still have some of the less healthy foods you crave, but I find my clients do better when they keep foods they are tempted to binge on out of the house. Do enjoy these foods in controlled settings — such as sharing dessert with a friend at a dinner out. It’s also helpful if you plan something with other people for the rest of the evening so you won’t be alone and binge afterward.
The key to preventing binge-eating is developing a healthier relationship with food and learning to manage uncomfortable feelings in healthier ways. If you’re struggling, seek out a psychiatrist or therapist with expertise in binge-eating disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are the most well-studied approaches in treating binge-eating disorder. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease bingeing and emotional eating. Along with counseling, your psychiatrist may also prescribe medication to help you manage the impulse to binge. And a dietitian can help you plan nutritious meals and snacks that will help keep you feeling full and satisfied.
Bingeing is a term that’s used loosely and incorrectly to talk about a wide variety of things, including overeating and watching too much Netflix. It’s a label we need to get serious about. Binge-eating disorder not only takes a mental toll but increases the risk of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Less than half of people with binge-eating disorder receive help. As our weight-obsessed culture slowly shifts its focus toward health and wellness, hopefully binge-eating and BED can be better prevented and treated.