Diets Don't Solve Binge Eating, and Here's Why
It seems like a good idea. You overeat, or binge, and decide to make up for it tomorrow by eating 'clean', fasting, or hauling out your old Weight Watchers book to start counting points again.
The diet-binge-diet cycle is a classic loop that any binge eater, overeater, emotional eater or dieter can relate to. You overeat in a way that triggers you emotionally or physically and are left feeling a lot of discomfort and regret. In order to escape that discomfort, and quickly, you decide to make up for it by making a plan to get back on track, skip your next meal, vow to stay away from xyz food forever, or perhaps just keep on bingeing until a new day gives you another chance to eat 100% perfectly.
But dieting or controlling your food intake to solve for binge eating is leading you down the wrong path. The problem is, it feels so useful- if overeating is the issue, then controlling what you eat should be the solution. But it's not so easy. If it were only a matter of eating the right food and avoiding the junk, ending binge eating would be simple. But there's a physiological, emotional, and habitual pull to binge eating that overrides your desires to eat clean. What and how you ultimately want to be eating is a totally different subject than dealing with binge urges, discomfort, and ending habits, and the first does nothing to heal the second.
Binge eaters need to solve for the reasons behind why they overeat, and for most people, that reason isn't accessible because they can't stop believing that another diet, clean eating, or more self-control will one day resolve their overeating struggles. Dieting or the desire to lose weight is the most common reason that women initially find themselves binge eating, and if it's the reason they got into this problem, it's definitely not the way out.
Luckily, there is a way out of this cycle, and it start with some basic awareness over how the brain works.
1) The diet mindset includes the belief that eating less is more, and that willpower is all we need to control what we eat. But the truth is, we have little control over how our physiology reacts to dieting. Much of how we regulate food intake comes from internal brain mechanisms and hormones that aim to maintain homeostasis in the body. Cutting calories and eating less than your body requires on a daily basis triggers your body to adjust hormonally to protect against perceived starvation. The hormone we can blame for this is called leptin. When leptin is in balance in our body, it regulates our energy and tells us when we've eaten enough to satisfy our needs. But leptin levels go down when we lose weight or cut calories, and this increases cravings and desires to eat, and also makes it harder to sense when we are full. This is a very complex system that basically ensures your survival and creates a pretty compelling desire to eat, and to keep eating, when it senses lack.
2) When you limit food intake, even for a short period of time such as skipping a meal, you're also limiting energy to the pre-frontal region of your brain. That's the area that is responsible for your free choice, your willpower, your ability to control impulses, and a general conscious self-regulation. Without powering up this area of the brain with energy from food, you'll be less likely to access these important controls, or even remember what your true will was, which ironically was to have more control over your food intake. That's the same reasoning behind the adage 'never go grocery shopping hungry', and it's true. If your brain is running on empty, you'll be struggling to remember why you shouldn't buy everything you desire and eat it on the way home.
3) When trying to control what you eat, and expecting nothing less than perfection, there's a natural tendency to get into the trap of labelling yourself or the food you've been eating as good or bad. You know how that sounds, "I've been so good all day" or "I was so bad at the meeting because I ate two cookies." This good/bad labelling of self and how we eat, creates a black/white, on/off mentality. That shows up when someone who has been 'good' ends up eating something 'bad', they'll often see it as a huge fail which can trigger a lot of guilt and regret, and a "might as well eat it all now since I've already blown it" thought. This puts you back in the frame of mind that believes you just need to control yourself more, which sets you up again to label your choices as good or bad, and accept nothing less than perfection.
So if expecting 100% perfection leads to binge eating, and dieting actually revs up our brain to encourage us to eat more, and skipping meals limits our pre-frontal brain's ability to make good choices, then what?
The first step is to commit to eating enough for your energy requirements throughout the day (re: three square meals), while consciously stepping away from the diet or restriction mentality that demands 100% perfection. In fact, go for a 70% average. Allow a variety of foods and experiences to be part of your goal of 70% and accept the discomfort that will ensue as part of the journey to growth. Only when you allow yourself the space to be an imperfect human, and also stop restricting your food, will you calm the part of the brain that perpetuates binge urges, and find more peace around food. It's not easy, and it comes with discomfort as you consciously do not look for a way out of those feelings of regret or remorse. But it's the start of one road that will eventually lead you to a peaceful relationship with food, and yourself.