Binge Eating Disorder can be a debilitating and overwhelming eating disorder. BED consists of periods of binge eating that then often followed by a period of food restriction. We try to stop our binge eating, by putting in control around food, this makes us feel good for a while, but then this lack of food leads to us feeling deprived. Eventually, we inevitably end up having another binge eating episode and thus we are stuck in this binge-restrict cycle.
The trouble is we can stay stuck in this restrict-binge cycle if we are not aware of it. Quite often, we are not aware of it. We are only aware of what we eat and the amounts of food we eat when we binge and this makes us feel a lack of control.
So how can we stop bingeing? How can we escape this harmful cycle and finally have a healthy relationship with food?
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Further Reading – The signs and symptoms of Binge Eating
What is the Binge-Restrict Cycle?
The Binge-Restrict Cycle is a pattern of disordered eating, where one action leads to another action. Each action/stage that follows the last stage, are compensatory behaviors that we think will break this binge-restrict cycle, only unfortunately each action keeps us stuck in this vicious cycle. We stay stuck in this cycle because we cannot see our behaviors in each part of the cycle and we do not know how each part leads to the next part, so we stay stuck in this endless cycle. With each cycle though, it can lead us to feel inadequate and even more debilitated because the more we try, the more frustrating and stuck we become.
The Restrict-Binge cycle closely resembles the addiction cycle. The addiction cycle applies to substance abuse and food addiction.
Stage 1. Emotional Trigger
Before this stage, A person will be experiencing difficult feelings or deeply held flawed beliefs. Such as I am not good enough. I am not loveable, there is something wrong with me. There may be an overwhelming sense of anxiety and or depression. These intense feelings or beliefs may not be visible to the person. They could be suppressed as a way to protect us.
We may have good days and not-so-good days. It is on the not-so-good days, that we get triggered emotionally. This is where we start the cycle. Something inadvertently causes us pain. We make a moral judgement about this event to mean something about us. It could be someone who appears to be in control of their eating, they are thin and this triggers our body image issues to surface. I’ve heard the acronym, TABLE. We are Tired, anxious, Bored, lonely, enraged/angry. At that moment we make an unconscious decision to say ‘oh sod it’ and we find ourselves craving our favorite foods. This takes us to the next stage
Further Reading – How childhood trauma could be causing your binge eating
Stage 2. Food Cravings
These intense cravings fester within us and we become obsessed about the types of food we want. We think this food, usually unhealthy food will make us feel better. This obsession gets the better of us because we try as hard as we can to stop thinking about our binge foods, but ironically the more we tell ourselves to stop thinking about food, the more we want the food. Our brain gets the better of us and we find ourselves giving in and binge eating.
Stage 3: Binge Eating
In that brief moment of binge eating, it gives us such a sense of relief. The eating is frenzied and it hits all the right spots. It helps us to feel calm, contented and loved, all the feelings we want to feel. Our unconscious brain does not realise that we have made poor food choices or that we have an unhealthy relationship with food, it is purely acting out its primal hunger which is to have our emotional needs met and to feel good.
In that moment of a food binge, comfort foods, usually foods high in sugar, fat, and salt, cause our blood sugars to spike. They also give us a hit of dopamine, which makes us feel good. This is why it is called emotional eating.
Many of us in that moment of pure bliss, find a part where we don’t like the comfort food and quantity of food we are eating, we just can’t stop. Of course we can’t stop in that moment, our natural biological and psychological responses are taking over. Which leads us to the next stage.
Further Reading – How to stop binge eating with these 9 helpful tips
Stage 4: Guilt and Shame
That feeling of contentment from a food binge gives in to feelings of shame, feelings of guilt, and often feelings of regret. The feelings come in two folds. First the feelings of shame and guilt over what you have just done. The feeling of a lack of control causes us to feel disgust. We feel bloated and not good physically. Then the feeling of not being able to stop ourselves causes us further admonishment towards ourselves.
In a bid to right our feelings and behaviours. We tell ourselves we are never going to binge again. We tend to be harsh with ourselves, berating ourselves over what we have just done and that we are weak and not strong enough to stop ourselves. We bring in more compensatory behaviours, usually in some form of a diet. This leads us to the next stage.
Stage 5: Food Deprivation
We are not feeling good about ourselves. Actually, we could be feeling worse about ourselves than before we had a binge eating episode. To help us with weight loss and to get back on track again, we go through periods of restriction. Diet culture has led us to believe that this is the only way. We reduce our food intake. We might do fad diets or impose food rules on us. To begin with, we might feel in control of this mental restriction. We say we are being good. Over time this leads to a feeling of deprivation.
Understanding the effects that these fun foods have on us, helps us to understand why we stay stuck in this cycle. These foods make us feel good and for that moment we feel relief and comfort. When we take these foods away, then the original underlying feelings surface again. This gives rise for us to be triggered and the cycle starts all over again.
Further Reading – How your diet is causing your binge eating
5 Tips to Break the Cycle
1. Bring in kindness and compassion
The binge-restrict cycle is stopped by learning mindful eating which is supported with kindness and empathy towards yourself. Many of us do not know where to start with being kind. We commonly think that we are eating bad foods and have no control with food, so why would I be kind? Being kind means that I can carry on with these behaviors. Note – kindness does not mean you will continue to binge eat, but rather you are helping the underlying feelings to feel better within yourself.
Start noticing the positive things about yourself. Start noticing how you talk to friends when helping them and try talking to yourself in that supportive kind way.
2. Stop the restrictive eating
We naturally think the place to stop this binge-restrict cycle is to stop binge eating. Stop having a binge before it starts, but you can see from the cycle that is it the restrictive diet that keeps us in this binge-restrict cycle.
Rather than starting all over again, start to allow yourself some of the binge foods that you have cut out. We want to limit the feelings of deprivation and by allowing a little of something, you are using a sustainable approach to having your needs met by these foods.
Further Reading – How to stop the comfort eating and gain control of your eating
3. Mindful eating
Mindful eating is the place to start when breaking this binge-restrict cycle. Bring in awareness to our feelings and our thoughts. Rather than bringing in judgement, just observe yourself through your eating patterns. Emotional eaters tend to eat to cover emotions or to feel better, so it is helpful to start to investigate your feelings. Practising Mindful eating will improve your awareness of your hunger cues or lack of hunger. We are coming away from diet culture and finding peace with food by listening to what you need and what purpose food is serving you.
4. Meal planning
To escape this binge-restrict cycle, we want to learn to eat more balanced meals and eat regular meals. That means not skipping meals. To make this easier it helps to meal plan in advance. This is so you can have the right food in your cupboards and fridge. You are not trying to prevent the TABLE. Being tired, hungry, anxious, or angry is a dangerous combination. Planning ahead gives you the comfort of knowing what you will eat and when. You can also manage your portion control, however, do not start calorie counting at this stage. We want to get into a practise of eating regularly and sustaining your energy levels.
5. Get professional help if you are struggling
The journey to food freedom means being able to ask for help. You could have been stuck in this cycle for a long period of time, even years. A mental health professional could be a good place to start or a therapist specialising in Binge Eating Disorder and food addiction. The therapist will help you to understand where and how you are stuck in this cycle and will help you improve your relationship with food and gain healthier relationships with yourself and others.
The therapist may start introducing elements of intuitive eating, which include being mindful of what you are eating. It encompasses kindness and compassion for yourself. The therapist will ideally support you through all aspects of what is contributing to you being in this binge-restrict cycle. They will introduce healthy approaches to eating but really address the underlying causes.
Further Reading – How CBT helps your Binge Eating