I wrote the first version of this article in 2014. Since then, the article and its various syndications have been read by a few hundred thousand people. I actually encountered someone on Reddit who carries around a physical totem (one of the strategies that I discuss below) as a reminder to himself.
After lots of feedback and hundreds more clients and hours of research under my belt, I believe it’s time for a more comprehensive update.
I’ve dealt with binge eating my entire life. In fact, only in the last few years have I felt that it’s been under control.
My binge eating “sessions” came in a variety of forms. There were humorous sessions, like competing with friends to be the first person banned by our local sushi buffet. There were also sessions that weren’t so humorous…like the ones that led to me gaining 50 pounds in two months immediately after a bodybuilding show.
When Overeating Becomes “Binge Eating Disorder”
“Binge-eating disorder” was officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM) of Mental Disorders as a psychiatric disorder in 2013. This wasn’t without controversy, and many rolled their eyes and claimed that the official classification was simply another way to justify an inability to “eat less, move more.” (I call people who reduce the problem of obesity into these four words “eat-less-move-morons.”)
The tricky thing about disorders like binge eating, however, is that it is absolutely natural to engage in milder episodes. Yes, much like pooping, everyone overeats at some point (when the resources are available of course).
There are additional criteria that must be present in order to classify as “binge eating disorder,” which you can find here. Two important criteria that I would like to highlight are:
- Binge eating must occur once a week for three months.
- Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
We’ll discuss why these two are important when it comes to breaking the binge eating cycle.
Binge Eating and the Mind-Body Intersection
Before moving on to specific recommendations, I wanted to touch on the intersection of the body and the mind as it relates to dieting and eating disorders.
As a coach, binge-eating disorder fascinates me for a few reasons. Despite being a psychiatric disorder, in certain cases the root cause might be completely physical. For example, I’ve found that given enough of either of these, especially together, you will eventually experience uncontrolled hunger.
- Excessive cardio. (For some reason, this seems to impact women more than men.)
- An overly-aggressive calorie deficit.
This is a great reminder that when it comes to diet behavior, the body and mind are inextricably linked. It’s why weight loss seems so damn difficult (the way that most people approach it, at least)–your body’s regulatory system will encourage binge eating behavior in order to compensate for weight loss.
This can be good news for many, however. Despite being a “psychiatric disorder,” I’ve found that in cases where clients start binge eating because of things like excessive cardio or a prolonged deficit, removing these factors will clear things up.
As you go through the following steps to stop binge eating, try to keep in mind how it relates to the body and/or the mind.
Fix the Physiological Causes First
Ironically, despite being a “psychiatric disorder,” the only way to stop binge eating for good is to eliminate the physiological factors first. Binge eating needs to be handled at its root–not at the point where urges occur.
Step 1. Eliminate Cardio
If you find yourself binge eating constantly, my first recommendation is to drop all cardio. Yes, even if you like running (or have convinced yourself that you like running), I highly recommend that you discontinue. This is only temporary, and you can always add it back later. If you find that the urge to binge becomes less frequent–or disappears altogether–then you know that it’s part of the issue.
Step 2. Adjust Your Daily Caloric and Protein Minimums
If cardio is not the issue, then the next step is to make sure that you are consuming enough calories and protein. As a rule of thumb, work your way up to 12-13x your weight in calories for women and 13-14x your weight in calories for men. You should be consuming at least your weight in grams of protein and slowly increasing your carbohydrates to hit your caloric goals after that requirement is met.
Step 3. Add Dietary Fat Into Your Meals
If you still feel the need to binge eat after the above recommendations, try adding some additional dietary fat into high-protein, medium carbohydrate meals. (e.g. Add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil on top of 8 oz of chicken breast, 1 cup of rice, and broccoli.)
This recommendation contradicts existing research around macronutrients and satiety, but I have seen it work repeatedly with clients and am convinced that current research is still lagging.
Low-carbohydrate zealots will frequently cite the fact that “fat makes you full.” Actually, the existing body of research around macronutrients has found that while increased protein and fiber lead to higher levels of satiety, carbohydrates increase feelings of fullness more than fat, assuming calories are equal.
I believe this research to be flawed, or at the very least, incomplete. Here’s an excerpt from a Reddit AMA that I did explaining my thoughts:
Actually this is an excellent question. You are actually correct–a majority of research shows no benefit to satiety from dietary fat over carbohydrates when protein is held constant. (I try to find the right balance of simple messaging with making sure I explain fully and probably erred a wee bit too much on the former this time.)
That being said, there are a few reasons that I promote dietary fat’s properties re: satiety for a majority of my clientele.
- For some reason, people who are overweight/obese act differently than other groups of people. Replacing carbohydrates for fat may be beneficial for this group from an appetite perspective. Obesity researcher Stephan Guyenet (who’s actually very pro carbs-for-satiety) talks about this here.
- I’ve tested different ratios of fat/carbohydrates with a fixed amount of protein. The larger the client, the better their satiety seems to fair when fat intake is higher. To be honest, I’d say this is still a bit too inconclusive at the moment for me to say something definitive.
Third reason is fairly anecdotal/bro-y, but I’ve seen this enough to think there’s something there. Most fat people/former fat people have appetites different than your average person. When hunger strikes, they’re often insatiable and will eat past the point of physical discomfort. There’s a much larger disconnect between physical satiety and mental satiety.
I’ve found that dietary fat seems to be the only thing that can actually quell this feeding frenzy. Any other people with insatiable appetites out there know that feeling of having too much fried chicken and just feeling kind of gross? That gross feeling is the only thing that is capable of flipping the off switch. In particular, the next time you feel ravenous, try to consume a meal of whole foods with 50g protein/40g carbs and then add 20g of fat from olive oil.
Again, probably not an issue with those who don’t feel that physical/mental hunger disconnect–i.e. people with normal appetites lol. Anywho hope those thoughts help!
Fix Your Psychological Binge Triggers
Strategy 1. Plan to Fail
Whenever I travel home to my family’s house, I always feel the urge to binge. I haven’t figured out exactly why, but I suspect that it has something to do with going from my New York apartment’s paltry pantry to my sister’s cooking – which, if I had to use one word to describe, it would be “crack.” (My sister runs epicureanbb.com)
About a dozen times over the last three years, I tried to will myself to abstain from binging. Almost all dozen of those times, I failed. It took far too much willpower to abstain. Each time that I failed, my self-esteem took a bit of a hit.
The last few times, I tried something different. I planned to fail.
I dieted perfectly the week leading up to my trip home and then fasted all the way up until I got home. Once home, I binged on as much as I wanted and tried to practice moderation. (Tried being the key word.)
The result? A much lower intake in overall calories (There was barely a blip on the scale. Compare to the usual five-pound increase in water weight.) without needing to dip into my precious willpower stores, as well as the feeling of control throughout the entire trip home.
There is a world’s difference in planning a binge vs. attempting to abstain from binging and losing self control. The latter will tax your motivation and willpower far more than the former.
You should always err towards planning to fail for a special occasion, rather than leave adherence to chance. In particular, birthdays, holidays, and big feasts should be planned. Don’t assume that you’re just going to will yourself to get through these events unscathed.
Strategy 2. Use a Totem
I want you to think about the phenomenon of dreaming for a second. In particular, the fact that when you’re dreaming, you never know that you’re in a dream.
Think about just how incredible this is. Seriously. Your dream might contain pink elephants walking around, pigs flying, and Quest protein bars growing on trees, all while you’re trying to finish your last exam to graduate from school, and you still won’t know that it’s a dream.
Binge eating is no different. Before every binge begins, it is preceded by a psychological trigger. Think of this trigger as a little voice inside your head saying something along the lines of:
“It’s ok to eat one more pistachio, Dick. It’s just one more.”
“You had a great week of dieting, Dick. Time to gorge yourself with cake.”
“I know that you’re super hungry now, so go ahead and binge. You can always fast the next day.”
If you take note of the thoughts that precede every binge, you’ll only end up with one or two. These are binge-inducing thought patterns.
If you examine the times that these thoughts have occurred, you’ll realize that their rationale is completely false. Examine them objectively; historically, you’ve never benefitted from giving in to these thoughts.
Guess what. These binge-inducing thought patterns are no different than dreams in that you don’t know that they’re occurring while they’re occurring. That is, your binge will seem just as rationally justified as stopping at a red light or taking out the garbage when it smells too much.
So how do you stop these thought patterns from occurring? You can’t. You can only disrupt them.
In the movie Inception (which, by the way, might be the best movie of all time, and I will fight you to the death if you disagree with this statement) the characters all have a “totem” which tells them whether or not they’re in a dream. A totem might be something like a spinning top or a Rubik’s cube. Characters are extremely familiar with their totems and can sense the difference between their totem within a dream vs. their totem in real life.
Similarly, I want you to create a “totem” around these thought patterns. Rather than an object, your totem will be a checklist of characteristics belonging to a particular thought pattern.
For example, I’ll often feel the urge to binge when I accidentally go over my caloric maintenance during a diet. This urge/thought pattern has the following characteristics which I will use as my “totem:”
- It’s triggered when I’m approaching caloric maintenance on a day that I should be at a caloric deficit.
- It’s justified by the notion that I can just fast the next day.
- I’ll feel the thought pattern start to “egg me on.” It will tell me that I could benefit from binging, because if I have a mini-binge then fast the next day, I’ll consume less overall calories.
- It’s usually accompanied by the feeling of anxiousness, loss of control.
- I’m usually with someone else.
Let’s say that I feel this urge coming on. I mentally go through this checklist and objectively think about whether it meets the characteristics. For the most part, I realize that this thought pattern matches my totem. Aha!
I then objectively examine the historical results by giving in to this thought pattern and see that binging will leave me feeling worse off overall. The sheer examination of this thought pattern acts as a disruptor, and I am less likely to binge because of it.
It’s important to realize that urges to binge eat may never completely disappear. The important thing is that you make improvements and decrease the frequency in which binge sessions occur. Just like weight loss–or fitness in general–this may be something that needs to be constantly managed at some level throughout your life, and that’s okay. You can still make progress and the fixation over food from impacting your quality of life.
Image by Daniela Brown.