How to Deal with Post-Contest Binge Eating
Okay, if you’re reading this (which isn’t really a conditional, because you obviously are reading this), you’ve most likely competed in a physique show. It might have been a bodybuilding, physique, figure, or bikini contest, and it might have been your first, second, or 83rd. But now is that crucial period where the temptations to binge are through the roof and you just want a simple, step-by-step plan to ensure the dreaded “post-contest binge” does not consume you. Well, you’ve found that plan, so keep reading!
But wait, before you continue, if you haven’t already read my article on why bodybuilding (and, in the same respect, any other physique contest) is not much more than a glorified eating disorder, definitely read that first. My ensuing thoughts might be a little confusing if you don’t already know where I’m coming from.
The post-contest binge
After the extremely stringent and restrictive dieting practices physique competitors will use to get lean enough to step on stage, there is suddenly a newfound sense of freedom. You are able to eat whatever you want, in whatever amounts you would like. While this sounds nice on the surface, anyone who has been through this knows how unbelievably terrifying it can be (especially with those for a propensity to engage in disordered eating behaviors).
You see, after months and months of what your brain perceives as a “famine,” this new food availability (again, as your brain sees it) triggers the drive to “feast” in a compensatory manner. In essence, you’ve been telling the brain “we’re starving and need to find food,” and once that food is available again, the brain responds, “alright, time to stock up on as much as possible to both restore energy and hormones and make sure we have enough fat stores for this to never happen again.”
In fact, Tabitha and I discussed this very side of bodybuilding on the podcast episode I was featured on. In it, I discuss what it’s like for males with eating disorders and how they can open up about this; my story and how I went from competitive bodybuilding to binge-eating to full recovery; and what my new book, 100 Days of Food Freedom, offers.
So, with this scary situation set in place, where you realize the capacity to eat insane amounts of food and disproportionately store lots of fat, how does one go about preventing (or managing) this?
How to deal with post-contest binge eating
I’m going to outline 4 major steps to dealing with this post-contest binge eating period. Employ these four and you’ll be well on your way to a healthier relationship with food and a post-contest period not marked by seemingly endless and shameful eating patterns and body hatred.
1) Plan something
The absolute first thing is to plan something for after the show. Whether that’s a vacation or some other event, it just has to take you out of your element. You don’t want to just sit around ruminating on thoughts of what’s available to binge on.
And, most importantly: do not plan on a second show. In fact, and I’m unapologetically repeating this, consider whether competitive physique sports are even worth your time and mental energy (hint: they’re not).
Planning on a fun, relaxing vacation accomplishes two major things. First, it lets you relax in a non-food way. This is not to say there’s anything at all wrong with “comfort foods,” but instead that when the body’s in this disproportionately compensatory “feast” state, it’s not thinking straight and will take whatever it can get to initiate bingeing.
Second, it allows you to indulge on some of the foods you’ve been craving, but in a healthy environment. As an example, compare and contrast these two scenarios:
A) Eating pizza at a restaurant in Rome with your friends and family, and then having a slice or two of chocolate cake for dessert.
B) Eating a personal pizza alone in your car outside of your house so no one can catch you doing it, and following this up with grocery store-bought cake.
Same foods, same amounts, but totally different mindsets and mental associations here. The first one fosters a positive relationship with food and allows you to enjoy yourself without the shame or guilt. The second one perpetuates the dangerous binge cycle, which threatens to snowball over time into truly habituated binge eating patterns.
Now, to be sure, I’m not saying if you want pizza after your show, you have to go to Rome (really hope that wasn’t your takeaway from this). For whatever you choose to indulge on, having it in a relaxing environment separate from home, where you can eat it socially with others is going to ensure your relationship with those foods is healthy.
This is why I recommend turning binge foods into “normal foods.” It’s important that you’re able to eat all these foods you’ve been craving in a normal setting. More on this in a bit.
2) Don’t cut, don’t bulk, don’t maintain
This might sound paradoxical, but hear me out. There are so many opinions on what to do after a show, but they almost all boil down to - in some way - one of these three: Cut, bulk, or maintain. Here are the problems associated with each of those:
A) Cutting: You have to count calories
B) Bulking: You have to count calories
C) Maintaining: You have to count calories
In case my message isn’t clear here, what I’m trying to say is: stop counting calories. Sometimes people rationalize a strict calorie-counting approach with “it’s okay, because I’m trying to gain weight” or “it’s okay, because I’m trying to maintain weight.” But calorie-counting isn’t only a problem when it’s used for weight loss.
To understand this concept even better, and really see where I’m coming from: Read CDR: The One Concept I Teach All My Clients
And I know it might sound a little wacky, if you’re new to my site and are used to advice from the fitness world, but there’s a reason I’m saying this.
Think about it like this. The entire reason you’re in this place to begin with is because you’ve been enforcing these externally imposed diet and food rules. You’ve been telling your body “you can’t have this” and “you can’t have that” for so long that, once you tell it “okay, you can have a little bit of this,” it’s going to take the whole arm and, in scientific terminology, go ham.
So the solution is not to return to restriction, even if that restriction is mental and not caloric. Obsessing over calories after a show is going to do more harm than good for most people.
WITH that said, and I’m definitely going to be in the minority here in saying this, some people might still benefit from calorie-counting post-show. However, even these people (basically anyone who is not in a mental place to even begin to approach an intuitive eating style) need to eventually transition to an intuitive eating approach.
So, if not calorie-counting, then what?
Enter intuitive eating. Intuitive eating refers to eating without food rules or conditions, with an emphasis on listening to your body. In ultra-simplistic terms, it means: eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. This is a super important paradigm shift for anyone coming out of a physique competition or recovering from an eating disorder (which, I’d argue, are the same thing).
Intuitive eating in its truest form is what I call Food Freedom. It’s an amazing place it took me a long time to get to, but getting there has inspired me to help everyone suffering from an eating disorder to achieve the same thing. And that’s why I wrote 100 Days of Food Freedom: A Day-by-Day Journey to Self-Discovery, Freedom from Dieting, and Recovery from Your Eating Disorder. For only $8.99 (for Kindle version; $14.99 for paperback), you can read this detailed, step-by-step guide to achieving full recovery. No abstract sensationalism or empty feel-good phrases. Just simple instructions for what to do every single day for the next 100 days.
Though achieving Food Freedom, and becoming a true intuitive eater, requires a well-planned strategy, we can largely say that it comprises these factors:
Awareness of hunger and satiety cues
Permission to eat whatever you want whenever you want, and however much of that you want (yep, really)
Not trying to change your weight
Including a varied selection of food choices
Using non-food coping skills
You might be skeptically reading this and wondering “But if my body’s yelling at me to eat everything in sight, do I really have to listen to that?” Keep reading, my friend!
3) Normalize eating
This is how we make this intuitive eating approach work for you, since it’s hard to go from this mental state of “I need to eat as much as possible!” to “I’ll just eat this food mindfully.” We need to focus on normalizing your eating.
To do this, a simple way to start is by having a breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and optional snacks) daily. Make sure these meals are somewhat planned out (you don’t have to - and probably shouldn’t - obsessively meal plan, but at least give it some thought the night before or morning of, since “in the moment” decisions might be difficult right now) and normal (i.e. they offer something of substance and contain the various food groups, and you refrain from weird combinations, like a protein bar and pasta).
So, have these normal meal combinations, but tell yourself you can have as much as you want. Put some work into making this food, so that it’s an enjoyable eating experience. You don’t necessarily need to cook three masterpieces daily, but make sure there is some element of crafting these yourself. This simple act (cooking or even just preparing your foods) can be totally instrumental in healing your relationship with food. It won’t do the trick on its own, but it certainly plays a huge role.
Whatever you eat, eat these meals at the table, on a plate, alongside a glass of your choice of fluids. Eat slowly and intentionally and let yourself really enjoy what’s in front of you. Remember, you’re not enjoying this food because it’s “good for you” or “healthy” but literally just because it tastes good. You owe it to yourself to taste delicious food without needing an excuse.
Implement a brief delay before getting seconds, if you decide you’re still hungry afterwards (don’t just keep grabbing for food). If you can do this, something interesting happens. You see, there’s a hunger mismatch going on in you right now that, left to your own devices, will encourage the binge eating patterns we’re trying to steer clear of.
By delaying and taking stock of your true hunger/satiety levels, you grant your body a much-needed buffer period during which appetitive hormones and neurotransmitters can do their job, and your food can start to digest. Give this no more than a few minutes (although, if the urges are really bad, it may take closer to 5 or 10 minutes) and then, if you’re still hungry, get more!
Eating normally teaches the body it can eat to fullness and that’s totally okay. This was actually one of the first truly helpful pieces of advice I got when I recovered from my second bout of post-contest binge eating. I was looking all over for strategies that helped me eat less or “restrict without restricting,” when all along the answer was just to teach my body what true, appropriate fullness feels like and then help my brain become comfortable with that idea.
Earlier I said to grant yourself permission to eat whatever you want. While that still holds true, there is a slight caveat here when it comes to “fun foods” (by this I mean foods that provide more of a neurological reward than they do satisfaction of biological hunger… in colloquial, less appropriate terms, junk food). You can have these at any point in the meal, but my recommendation, at least while you’re in the early stages of recovering from contest prep, is to have them as desserts.
In other words, if you want a donut for breakfast, you might consider eating the rest of your breakfast first, implementing this delay we talked about, and then assessing whether you want it still. If you do, go for it! You’re under no obligation to adhere to arbitrary “clean eating” rules. You’re eating how normal human beings were meant to eat!
The point of this is just to make sure any foods you might have a propensity to binge on are included in normal, healthy ways. The point is not to try to get you to not eat those foods. Read this next sentence, write it down, and then read it again. The goal after a show is not to “return to clean eating”; it’s to see eat whatever you want and break out of the binge-restrict cycle.
4) General and applied mindfulness
Okay, okay, mindfulness is often used as a cop-out, one-off answer, so let the eye-rolling commence. But I can’t overstate how important this has been in my own recovery.
Binge eating comprises a disgustingly overpowering sensation (i.e. the thought that you are going to binge, and there’s no question of whether it’ll happen or not). The mindful aspect of sitting with those feelings helps you realize they’re not going to hurt you or do anything to you. The more you can implement this mindset, the more you internalize the belief that you are safe and okay when you don’t binge. The goal should never be to “not binge,” but rather to “be okay with not bingeing.”
Now, to get us there, there are two ways we can use mindfulness:
General mindfulness: This is the conventional sense of the word, and it comprises such practices as seated meditations, deep breathing, mind-body scans, progressive muscle relaxation, etc.
For a guided meditation specific to ED recovery, check out my video Guided Meditation for Eating Disorder Recovery
Applied mindfulness: As the name implies, this has to do with applying mindfulness cues in the moment. So, it could mean grounding yourself when you feel an intense urge to binge eat; it could mean mindful eating; really anything that brings the elements of mindfulness (active awareness, nonjudgment, self-compassion and forgiveness, grounding, etc.).
There’s a reason I use some element of mindfulness when working with almost all of my clients, and there’s a reason it’s one of the first habits you work on building in 100 Days of Food Freedom.
Let me leave you with these 4 actionable steps laid out clearly.
Plan something for after the show (i.e. a vacation or getaway)
Don’t cut, don’t bulk, don’t stick to maintenance - just stop calorie-counting altogether. Give yourself permission to eat until you’re full.
Eat “normally” and make sure to eat a breakfast, lunch, and dinner composed of multiple food groups and no weird food combinations.
Practice general and applied mindfulness.
And if you’re currently fighting through an eating disorder yourself, and you feel trapped in the cycle, without any hope of recovery…
I’ve got some good news for you.
100 Days of Food Freedom: A Day-by-Day Journey to Self-Discovery, Freedom from Dieting, and Recovery from Your Eating Disorder is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.
This is recovery made simple. 100 days of tasks, habits, exposures, and “Adventures” that are guaranteed to bring you to a place of Food Freedom.
Already ranked in the Top 100 books on eating disorders and body image (for both paperback and Kindle categories!), this is not an opportunity you want to pass up. To get the book, click below: