8 Tips to Stop Binge Eating

In case you’d rather watch the video.

Today's article is going to cover some effective tips to keep binge eating at bay.  While binge eating is admittedly a much larger problem with deeper roots than a superficial treatment of the matter such as this might allude, it nevertheless is helpful to have some solid and actionable strategies so that you actually know how to recover from this scary cycle.

If you have not read my story, it details my severe battle with this monster, something that was spurred on for me by competitive bodybuilding.  You can check that out to both read the article and watch the video in which I detail how I gained 30 lbs in one week and how some of the darkest points of my life came about. 

I mention this because I want you to know that not only have I recovered, but you can, too.  Recovery is made out to be some complex, confusing process you need a treatment team of medical professionals just to decipher.  But it's not that at all.  It's actually incredibly simple.  Difficult? Yes.  Long and bumpy? Totally.  But still way simpler than you might think.  And above and beyond all that, it is the best feeling in the world to be recovered.  You are worth it; don't give up on yourself.

RELATED: 3 Essential Keys to Recovery from Your Eating Disorder

With that out of the way, let's get down to it.

Tip 1. Keep these foods out of your home

You've almost certainly heard this one before, and it probably comes first in most other lists, too.  Nonetheless, there's a reason it's so often cited, and that's that it's an indispensable tactic that is almost necessary in order to fully beat the binge behavior.  

The reality is, our brain's urge to binge is insanely intense, and the willpower we can muster up is usually no match for it.  For this reason, it's imperative that we don't have to constantly exercise willpower in our own homes and have to fight the urge to binge whenever you walk by your pantry.

If the foods are there and your binge eating is still a problem, you know what's going to happen.  Be honest with yourself here.  Forgiving, yes, but also honest.  

One caveat

Okay, with that said, there are times when it might be smart to purposefully keep these foods at home, though this should be done intelligently.  Let's say your binge habits are almost entirely characterized by going out to convenience stores on your way home from work and buying as much as you can before binging in your parked car.  In this case, and especially if you find you rarely binge at home anyway, it could make sense to keep [a sensible amount of] the binge foods in your home.  That way it's easier to keep yourself from going to the familiar spots and then falling into the same old behavior chain.

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Tip 2. Plan ahead

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

If you don't regularly keep your kitchen stocked up, or you have no sense of structure to your days, it will be all too easy to fall into the trap of binge eating when urges come to the surface.  Because it's much harder to detect disorder in a disorderly world than an orderly one (to be sure, the goal isn't to be overly orderly here).

Even if this just means keeping a PB&J or protein shake in the fridge, like I've been known to do, do whatever it's going to take to convince yourself you don't need to buy anymore food during this familiar trip.  Once you come home and then can finally decide to eat, you'e now effectively delayed the behavior chain, which means the brain is learning it can't always get what it wants right away.

And separating the trigger from the behavior is everything.  Oftentimes you will come home to the food you've prepared for yourself and realize you're not even that hungry.

Tip 3. Practice mindfulness (don't skip this one!)

Certainly many of you have tried bouts of meditation before, maybe because your therapist prescribed it or a self-help book you read called for it.  And it is all too frequent for people to dip their toes in, never give it a real chance, and then convince themselves it's not worth it.  If I had a nickel for every time someone told me, "Oh, trust me, I've tried meditation.  I'm just one of those people it doesn't work for; my brain's too busy," well... I guess I'd have enough money to create some intricate app that finally solves the problem of poor adherence to meditation/mindfulness habits.

With that said, why is this important in the first place? Well, at its core, meditation - and mindfulness in general - works to make us see our thoughts (without judgment), let them pass (without judgment), and, from time to time, confront them (without judgment).  This is so important when it comes to mitigating binge behaviors, because of how inherently mindless they are.

This doesn't even have to be seated, breathing meditation.  Maybe you want to do it standing, or outside, or in a group, or while walking, or to a guided meditation.  Or maybe you want to try another means of eliciting mindfulness, such as visualizations, mindfulness check-ins, progressive muscle relaxation, or mind-body scans.

Hell, it could even just be sitting with the urge, realizing that the hunger comes in wave.  Granted, this can sometimes be too intense for people, depending on how debilitating their binge eating is.  Sometimes what it takes is starting in super small increments and then building up from there, at your own pace.

Tip 4. Eat binge foods in public

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Eating your so-called "binge foods" in public, possibly surrounded by friends/loved ones, in a comfortable setting, at the table is a completely different experience than eating these foods, say, in your parked car in an empty parking lot, as fast as possible, straight out of the packaging, before hiding the evidence and lying about these behaviors to loved ones.

(And, to be sure, even though those behaviors might feel shameful and embarrassing, it's important to remember this is not you.  This is a disturbed brain-gut connection with genetic, environmental, and social influences that is totally reversible.)

With that said, the problem with eating these binge foods by yourself, in secret, is that it reinforces the binge behaviors.  It teaches your brain to see, say, Oreos and not think "a cream filling sandwiched between two chocolate cookie layers" but instead "a substance that takes the pain away and is easily accessible" (also "something nobody can know you're eating").

By eating these foods in a public, social setting, ideally around friends, family, and loved ones, we flip the script a bit.  You can relearn to see these foods as foods, not fixes.  That is an instrumental step in regaining a healthy relationship with food, where binge eating no longer feels inevitable.

Tip 5. Water intake

"Drink more water" is probably the most frequently given advice for almost every single problem.  However, it has special importance here.  

Not only can it be helpful in the moment to make sure you're drinking water, but ensuring your fluid intake throughout the day is sufficient carries its own recovery-specific benefits.  We tend to confuse dehydration, hunger, and binge urges.  This makes sense intuitively.  How often do you stop and think to yourself "Is this hunger? Is this dehydration?" We often just respond viscerally to these gut signals and hope for the best, and in today's food-centric, "cafeteria diet" atmosphere, this almost always means eating.

And it's not just a matter of accidentally eating when you're in fact thirsty.  It's the compound effect of gradual dehydration, hunger, and binge urges, which create a monster of a sensation it is nearly impossible to identify the true origins of.  In my experience, all I could tell when that feeling surfaced was that "it's time to binge."  

Making sure fluid intake is on point (shooting for 5-6 clear urinations a day is a pretty good guideline) is a great way to take out the dehydration portion of that equation.  That leaves just hunger and binge urges.  And if hunger is being addressed with mindful eating, hunger check-ins, etc. and binge urges are being addressed with behavioral interventions, stimulus-substitution, and the like, your bases are at least theoretically covered.  Of course, it takes a well thought-out, organized plan of action to make any of this work.

It should be noted that this tip does not mean you should be chugging water all day long.  Resupply fluids sufficiently, but don't try to go too far above this.  Anyone with purging inclinations will know this is an especially risky line to tread.  This also can be a problem for those of us who stop at binging, because the inappropriately full feeling that you get when you've consumed water in excess distorts true hunger/satiety cues.  And while a distended stomach is certainly one strong message to the brain that we've reached fullness, keep in mind it's not the only one, and in anyone who binge eats, this signal is already screwed up.

That's all to say, chugging water in hopes that you'll fill up and won't want to eat more is fundamentally misguided.  The disordered brain will still signal for you to binge; it's just that now if you act on this binge, you will be exponentially more uncomfortable.  

Tip 6. Eliminate food rules and cheat days

Food rules and the "corporate" analogy

This is a biggie.  A "food rule" by definition is an externally imposed restriction which does not take into account biological hunger patterns, certain cravings, memory association ("This food reminds me of Granny's Christmas dinners!"), or hormonal/neural/immunological messages the body has to make sense of.

Here's an analogy.  It's a little weird but it checks out pretty well; bear with me.  Imagine you've been working somewhere for 10 years and then one day someone from Corporate is sent in to take over for a week.  This individual plays by the book, follows national company policy, and is a stickler for doing things "the right way."  While sending this person in might seem like a good way to set things in order, what it really does is create tension.  This corporate executive knows nothing about that office's culture, the people who work there, what has and hasn't worked, or really anything about what goes on inside.  

When we set rules like "no carbs after 6pm" or "only protein and vegetables at each meal," we're basically bringing in Corporate in hopes that things will straighten out.  But we know from anecdotal, personal, and empirical evidence that this is never the case.  The body is smarter than that and will override these decisions in a heartbeat.  Or, alternatively, we send in a boot camp sergeant when Corporate doesn't work and just bully the employees into submission.  Sure, this produces results on paper, but it also leads to insane amounts of stress, self-hatred, and eventual burnout.  

Don't send in Corporate.  Don't send in Sarge.  Send someone in who cares and is willing to work with the employees and truly understand where they're coming from.  

Photo credit: Flickr user Jaime

Photo credit: Flickr user Jaime

Cheat days: Who are you really cheating?

Cheat days are an interesting topic.  There are a wide range of views out there on whether or not they have any place in a successful diet.  But most of these views miss the point entirely.  Whether you "get a much-deserved break" or "set yourself back" is neither here nor there.

Regardless, cheat days inherently imply that what you're doing is so unnatural and difficult that you have to purposefully "break the rules" every week.  The fact that there are any rules to be broken in the first place, as that wacky "Corporate" analogy hopefully elucidated, is a problem.

Not to mention, cheat days far too closely emulate the restrict-binge cycle.  You're "good" during the week and then get to be "bad" one day.  This often leads to eating in excess of what you're actually hungry for come cheat day, and then restricting during the week out of guilt (even if you don't realize you're doing so). 

For example, it's not unheard of for someone to eat an entire pizza on their cheat day (in fact, a client just told me about this a couple days ago).  But if you were to instead just allow that pizza whenever you'd like it, chances are you might have a slice here, a slice there, and maybe 2-3 slices one day; far from an entire pizza, even as they add up throughout the week.  Not to mention, eating such massive amounts of food in one sitting carries its own host of health problems.

So, moral of the story: Throw out the food rules and cheat days.  Eat in a manner that lets you enjoy yourself every day of the week and never have to feel guilty for doing so.

Tip 7. Eat your food on a plate or in a bowl

Similar to the sentiment in Tip 4, we are using this strategy as an effort to normalize eating these foods.  Binges are usually carried out in a characteristically mindless style (chips eaten straight from the bag, ice cream straight from the pint, using the incorrect utensils or none at all, not putting the utensil down between bites, etc.). 

So if you can make a change as small as moving from having your ice cream straight from the pint to having it out of an actual bowl, at the table, you're training the brain to process this eating experience differently.  This has the immediate benefit of regulating how much you actually eat in this period and the long-term benefit of rewiring the association your brain draws when this food is presented.  In other words, when you pull out the bowl and scoop your ice cream into it, sit down, and mindfully eat, the brain does not go "Okay, it's binge time" but rather "This is ice cream.  This tastes good."

To expand more on that immediate benefit, one of the reasons we emphasize sitting at the table is that it pumps the brakes on how much we'll actually eat and allows you to feel comfortable and content during the process.  Think about it logistically - what are you doing when you eat food out of the proper tableware while sitting at the table?

  • You're sitting upright in a chair, an appropriate distance from the food.

    • This allows the peristaltic motions of the GI tract to go on undisturbed, breaking down the food properly and sending an appropriate signal back to the brain as to how hungry/full you are.

  • You're using the proper utensil.

    • So, to stick with the ice cream example, this might mean using metal silverware rather than the plastic spoon you got from 7-11. This allows you to scoop out more realistic portions, rather than having to jab at the ice cream and scrape out what you can, thereby eating at an unnatural and uncomfortable rate.

  • The amount you eat is limited by the size of the plate/bowl.

    • It's incredibly easy to eat a pint of ice cream when you eat straight from the pint, as this mentally reinforces the idea that you are not really done until you get to the bottom. But with a bowl, which is literally designed to hold appropriate serving sizes, you stop after a helping and then must make the [somewhat more mindful] decision as to whether you'd like to get more.

While all of the above may seem to be reading too much into this, these are actually incredibly important variables in the eating experience.  More importantly, this is less about, say, how much less you eat when you use a bowl, and more about the precedent this sets (psychologically), as we teach the brain how to view and process the eating experience.

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Tip 8. Don't intermittently fast

Now, admittedly, this is actually quite the departure from where I used to stand, up until only recently.  For the past year or so, intermittent fasting has crept up into my life.  It started out innocently enough - as a style of eating I felt fit perfectly into my lifestyle and allowed me to monitor my eating a bit more closely.

However, it was not long before some of the suspicions and worries I'd been ignoring became all too clear.  So, what's actually wrong with IF?

First and foremost, it way too closely mimics the restrict-binge cycle.  Furthermore, it dichotomizes this cycle and ingrains the "good" and "bad" labels.  When you're in the fasted state, ostensibly alert, getting work done, exercising (with the help of some stimulants of equally deceiving innocence), and being energetic and social, life is good.  But then you get to the "feast" portion, which often gets confined to a smaller and smaller window, as the addicting effects of the fast lead to a more extreme approach.  During this time, when you get to enjoy your big meals, you might feel lazy and gluttonous, which is reinforced by the feeling of lethargy that accompanies a big fast-breaking meal.

And beyond this, it really isn't much more than another fad diet.  There may be some slight advantages for insulin sensitivity (which are debated and would only really have relevance for the diabetic population anyway), cell repair, immune function, and some other metrics.  But these are all backed by some less-than-confident empirical conclusions that need much, much more time to understand.  And, not to mention, the strictly physiological benefits of any intervention mean diddly squat if there are negative psychological ramifications at risk.

A little bit of autophagy and blood glucose improvements going on? Cool.  Psychological distress and learning to feel guilty just for letting yourself eat? No thanks.

Where to go from here

Hopefully these 8 tips resonated with you on some level. If you are unsure of how to organize these into an effective plan toward recovery, I’ve actually written a book on this exactly. It’s based on science; it’s based on my own anecdotal experience trying tons of different treatment plans only to finally find something that helped me now be 2 years binge-free; and it’s based on what has worked for my clients. It’s helped tons of people completely take control of their binge eating… for good.

If you’re interested, you can check that out here: 100 Days of Food Freedom: A Day-by-Day Journey to Self-Discovery, Freedom from Dieting, and Recovery from Your Eating Disorder.

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