This article was written by registered dietitian – Ariana Rodriguez.
Binge eating in the colloquial use of the term is actually more common than we think, with
studies estimating that up to 13% of the population struggles with it (1). Whilst for some, a ‘binge’
refers to an over-indulgence that happens every now and then and has very little impact on their
life; for others, it can be a problem that permeates into various areas of their day-to-day and
impacts their quality of life.
What is binge eating?
Binge eating has two main features; “the amount eaten is seen as excessive, and there is a sense of loss of control at the time” (2).
Other characteristics of a binge include:
- Feelings of pleasure or relief in the early moments, followed by guilt, shame or disgust
- Eating very quickly
- Feeling agitated or emotionally heightened
- Experiencing numbness or a trance-like state
- Eating in secret
- Feeling a loss of control
A binge eating episode can be classified as either objective or subjective, and is dependent on the
amount of food consumed and the person’s perception of what has occurred. In an objective binge, the person truly has consumed what would be considered a significant amount of food; in a subjective binge, the amount of food consumed feels significant to the individual experiencing it, but would be considered ‘normal’ by someone looking in. Both are equally distressing to the person.
What causes a binge?
Binge eating is theorised to have several causes, including restrictive eating patterns, poor emotional regulation, low self-esteem, and disordered beliefs around food (3). Restriction is thought to be the biggest predictor of binge eating and can show up in three different ways:
- Delayed eating – this might look like pushing a meal back by a few hours or your first
meal of the day being more than four hours after waking up to limit the amount of food
eaten in a day.
- Reduced portions – this involves intentionally restricting the amount you are eating orollowing set portion sizes rather than honouring your hunger.
- Avoiding specific foods – this occurs when you consciously or subconsciously assign labels to food such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, leading to you either entirely avoiding or limiting your intake of particular foods.
All of these forms of restriction increase the risk of binge eating, with the research showing that
restrained eaters are more likely to overeat at mealtimes and feel less satisfied after a meal. 4
How does restriction lead to bingeing?
The body is unable to detect the difference between starvation and semi-starvation (also known as dieting). Even though you may have food available to you, the body doesn’t know this and thus initiates the same survival mechanism it would if you were indeed facing a famine.
When we experience a binge, we may feel guilt or shame or perhaps even feel like a failure because of a perceived lack of willpower. However, binge eating has nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with your body’s innate biological drive to survive!
When we restrict, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus detects insufficient energy in the
body and triggers the increase of our hunger hormone ghrelin, which signals us to find food. At
the same time, the brain releases an orexigenic compound called neuropeptide Y (NPY), which
stimulates appetite. More specifically, NPY stimulates our appetite for carbohydrate-rich foods,
which is why you may be more inclined to reach for biscuits, crisps or sweets after an extended
period without food. Simultaneously, our satiety hormone leptin is signalled to decrease, thus
lending to us feeling more hungry and less satisfied. Consequently, this increases our risk of
eating larger amounts of food and not recognising our fullness until much later.
How can I reduce the likelihood of a binge?
When we are learning to heal our relationship with food, we must first start by making sure we are eating adequately and regularly throughout the day. A top tip is to use the “Rule of Three” – three meals and three snacks a day, approximately three hours apart. Avoid engaging in any type of restriction.
Once we have considered our physical hunger needs, we should then turn to investigate our emotional needs – we all have them and that’s a good thing (it’s what makes us human!).
A vastly disregarded part of nourishment is the impact our emotions have on our food choices and intake. We must first acknowledge that food is an emotional activity at its core. From the moment we are born, we are fed as a way to soothe and regulate our nervous system. Consequently, we often continue to use food to manage our emotions throughout later childhood and adulthood. We may also create rich associations with food – for example, lasagne may remind us of our grandmother’s home, while birthday cake can make us feel nostalgic for our childhood.
The problem arises when food becomes the primary, if not only, coping strategy we have to manage our feelings. It’s like having a hammer as the only tool in your tool box – they’re a useful tool to have but they’re not the only one you need.
To effectively cope with our emotions, we need to first start by labelling them.
- What are we feeling?
- What tells us we are feeling that emotion?
- Where do we feel it in our bodies?
Next, what are we truly hungry for? What do we actually need? Sometimes, when we perceive the urge to eat despite a lack of physical hunger, what we are really hungry for is a sense of connection, belonging, soothing or something else entirely.
Try to identify what you are really seeking, and engage in a practice to help you to connect your mind and body, such as meditation, going for a walk outdoors, letting in fresh air, sensory stimulation… The alternatives are many and they’re backed up by the research!
A recent meta-analysis (which is a scientific comparison of the results from a number of studies researching a similar topic) found that mindfulness practices are an effective way to reduce binge eating episodes (5).
Finally, show yourself some compassion. Healing your relationship with food takes time and is not linear. It’s common to feel critical of yourself for engaging in binge eating, especially with diet culture running rampant in our society. However, the research shows that building self-compassion is key to preventing and managing disordered eating. 6 So spend a little time showing yourself some kindness!
- Mitchison D, Touyz S, González-Chica D, Stocks N, Hay P. How abnormal is binge
eating? 18-Year time trends in population prevalence and burden. Acta Psychiatrica
- Fairburn C. Overcoming binge eating. 2nd ed. New York: The Guilford Press; 2013.
- Burton A, Abbott M. Processes and pathways to binge eating: development of an
integrated cognitive and behavioural model of binge eating. Journal of Eating Disorders.
- Polivy J. What’s that you’re eating? Social comparison and eating behavior. Journal of
Eating Disorders. 2017;5(1).
- Godfrey K, Gallo L, Afari N. Mindfulness-based interventions for binge eating: a
systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2014;38(2):348-
- Kelly A, Vimalakanthan K, Carter J. Understanding the roles of self-esteem, self-
compassion, and fear of self-compassion in eating disorder pathology: An examination of
female students and eating disorder patients. Eating Behaviors. 2014;15(3):388-391.
How to cope with binge eating was last modified: April 13th, 2022 by