Why do I binge eat?

Binge eating and dieting – or even making up restricting food rules for yourself – go hand in hand. I know. I used to do it! Here’s how it works, and how to begin to react differently. 

binge restrict cycle

This is not really a cycle, it’s more of an ever -tightening spiral. But binge eating has a hidden message. Laura Lloyd 2015

I’m talking to you now as someone who has both a) invented a diet for herself based on eliminating all foods beginning with the letter C, and b) slipped off the wagon of that diet via Cherry Crumble Cake and then binged on a dogfood-sized tin of chickpeas. Believe me, if you sometimes eat forbidden food in frightening quantities, it doesn’t matter if it’s a wholefood or a junk food or one that you’ve censored for arbitrary lexical reasons, I know the self-loathing to be equally potent. That. Is. Rock. Bottom.

“But I never diet!” (At least, never successfully!)

I would have said I’m not a dieter, and certainly not a chronic dieter, since I’ve only once or twice officially been on actual Diet diet. I would have just said I’m a binge eater, an overeater: I didn’t really notice that I had a diet mentality.

But the fact is, even trying to eat less/ or eat less frequently/ or self-judging for what you eat/ or resolving to only eat icecream on Wednesdays is self-restricting. I’m pretty sure I’ve done a lifetime of that. And this attempt to get a grip on yourself, to rein in your appetite and put some self-discipline into the process, is exactly what fuels caving in and bingeing.

But what else are you supposed to do, other than try even harder to get a grip?

I also speak as someone who doesn’t binge any more. Well, very rarely.

I’m cool with ‘rarely’. I wish it to be ever less and less. It’s better than saying solemnly “I will never ever…” That’s another rule, another way to fail in fact.

It might be that, in an ideal world, we reach 98% free of binge eating. But maybe we still find when we get really controlling in life we revisit that old behaviour. It’s not a disaster: it’s just a reminder. It keeps us honest.

Good news!

If you binge eat, you do not have a willpower problem. You don’t even have a problem with food. You have an eating challenge that is coming direct from your body and from your inner, deepdown emotional self, and from the way you treat yourself: your inner wisdom is waving a flag, trying to get your attention.

Binge eating is fascinating! What’s the message your body wisdom is trying to communicate?

Problems are a kind of solution

That’s the thing with body wisdom. It talks to us through bodily challenges. The binge eating is your body’s way of solving something, it’s not the problem. And appetite is one way the body can challenge us: The body roars at us, screams: “OWWW! Hungry!!!”. Poor appetite. We fear it and try to beat it into submission.

But that appetite, it’s not a monster at all, it’s a big friendly gruffalo that only knows how to speak in grunts.

It’s terrifying

There’s a huge bestial power in binge eating. It comes upon us quickly, and we eat wildly, secretly, without hunger, very fast.

Whoa! What just happened to me? Why did I do that?!

And we’re left feeling shame, fear, deep confusion, and powerlessness. It feels like the primal energy of the binge is a power that’s rampaging through us; a desire that could not be stopped.

You’re full of potential

That’s actually interesting: where there’s power, there’s inner energy. In you! That energy, that unstoppable binge force, is coming from YOU! What is that energy? How can it be put to better use?

These aren’t questions we yet know the answer to. The trick is to get curious, and carry your questions with you on your journey of wondering what it all means.

Learning to listen

Life is asking you, if you have a binge eating challenge right now, not to summon up lava-level reserves of willpower or try to fix your food, but to learn to listen to the  gruffalo, to pay it enough attention that you eventually learn to speak gruffalish.

Once again: What’s the deeper message your body wisdom is trying to communicate?

It’s unique to you

As a pop-psychology-discussing teenager, people always used to say blithely about pretty much any disorderly behaviour: “It’s about control”. That really annoyed me: it’s too simplistic. Lazy.

What does ‘control’ mean, anyway? It’s like those other words, ‘love’, ‘stress’, ‘soul’… they take a little personal re-languaging before you can even recognise them as relevant to your life. For me now, for example, control can personally mean expectations, ambition, pressure, planning, parenting, attempting to fix, perfecting and beautifying, trying to manage others’ impressions of me… That’s just how it reads in me, though.

The fact is, we are unique as eaters. We make our own relationship with food, and that’s why it is ourself, in our capacity as a kind, curious detective, who is best placed to search for the answers.

Instead of listening and learning from our binge eating behaviour, we just punish ourselves for it

Dieting culture has taught us that the solution to bingeing (bingeing, overeating, snacking, distracted eating – diet culture just labels the whole lot as ‘greed’) is to be stricter with ourselves. Get some self-discipline! Get new rules! Get a new milkshake pouch and eat nothing but that!

There’s a pride element, in society, to how hard we can push ourselves to achieve; to perfect our bodies like projects we’re entirely in control of. If appetite is greed, then to listen to it is shameful, lazy and weak willed, irresponsible.

So we start dieting (many of the women who make enquiries to me for eating psychology coaching started dieting around age 11 or 12), and in the process, we divorce ourselves from our appetite, and subsequently we can’t even hear it any more. We can only eat by rules, and have to be continuously vigilant.

One of the best cases for understanding the damage that dieting does to your body’s natural homeostasis is in a book called Health at Every Size, by Linda Bacon, PhD.

The thing about rules is…

When we just try harder to follow rules about food amounts, food types, good foods and bad foods, we feel like a good person when we’re within the rules and a bad one – a real nobody – when we’ve slipped. All of our positive efforts don’t matter at that moment, it’s all or nothing, now we’ve failed. That’s the thing with perfectionism: it makes hard rules, and that makes it really really easy to fail.

The good news is, being a perfect isn’t actually very lovable. Think of what you share with your good friends: your consolations and shortcomings, the struggles that make us human. That’s vulnerability! You wouldn’t even like them if they were so perfect, their armour would be impenetrable.

There’s nothing to lose

Sometimes, if we’ve broken a rule, we think we’ve failed and have screwed up everything, so then we really binge. That’s when the industrial-strength overeating sets in: we’ve failed already, so we might as well ride the failure bus all the way to its destination.

The thing that derails you is actually a gift

Of course, we all fail at diets because they are really hard to maintain, as habits go. Habits get derailed for all kinds of reasons: changes in routine (eg. a party!), our own forgetfulness (whoops didn’t shop for the right food), fatigue, life events. But that’s not the only reason we can’t maintain it.

If that were all, we’d just get it right next time.

We think it is the only reason, though, so we just try again, (this time I’ve got the habits thing nailed!) and try not to get derailed again. But there’s something deeper at work too.

Like..?

That thing that wells up one day and makes it impossible to keep restricting? That’s the thing your body wisdom is trying to point you towards. That’s where you can, with time and patience, make a change.

  • Sometimes it’s your metabolism screaming for missing nourishment: “Hey! Enough of the carb-free diet! I need carbs!”. Or whatever you’ve been eliminating: fat! Or protein! “Oy! stop skipping meals! I need calories throughout the day to survive!”. And by bingeing, it reclaims that nourishment in spades.
  • Sometimes it’s a backlash against pressure, uptightness and control in some other area of life: you’re forcing yourself so hard at work, or putting such high expectations on your life plans… SNAP! something has to give in your life to restore a bit of balance.
  • Sometimes it’s hopelessness, overwhelm and victimhood gripping us – perhaps there’s a part of our life where we can step into our personal power more (and use some of that inner binge energy for our own, and the world’s, good!).
  • Sometimes it’s emotions that are awaiting our acknowledgement. Waiting for the time when you’re compassionate towards them rather than pushing them from your awareness the whole time, and maybe even to be given some expression.

What’s the solution? 

Everyone’s different, remember?

There are a whole host of solutions that add up to lasting change. Where’s life calling you to change?

  • We can start to drop the rules and pick up positive lifelong habits instead: choose high quality food; match our biocircadian rhythms by not loading most of our nourishment into the end of the day; organise our world so that our shopping and eating are enough of a priority…
  • We can start to include movement (ie exercise, but more fun) in our schedule, and that will naturally open up a channel of communication between our body wisdom and our appetite.
  • We can change our food focus from how much we eat to how we are as eaters: be slow; be conscious and deliberate; be pleasured by food; relax.
  • In doing so, we raise our metabolism, so that we get the full nourishment we need, are healthier, are more satisfied, and in full calorie-burning capacity too – so we don’t need to artificially manage our weight. A more detailed description of this process can be found, if you’re curious, in Marc David’s book, The Slow Down Diet.
  • We can make it harder to fail, by changing our goals from small, surface, perfectionist ones to ones that are more based in deeper philosophical ideals – for example, instead of pinning it all on losing 5lb, we can wish for a life of befriending our own bodies, of fully expressing ourselves, our love and our happiness (that absolutely doesn’t mean we can’t and won’t lose that weight along the way).
  • We can lose our deadlines and give ourselves as long as it takes to learn our life lessons and evolve. After all, what would you rather have: the quick-fix weightloss promise, or the lifetime of freedom from binge eating?

Maybe you have some ideas of things you’d like to reframe in your life, too.

We can start here:

We can accept that there will be slip-ups if we are to unlearn a behaviour that has been challenging us, sometimes, for many many years, and use that ‘failure moment‘ as an opportunity, instead of getting harsher to ourselves, to start to teach ourselves self-kindness. Instead of wasting energy on being unproductively stuck in the cycle of “Make it go away”; on being so mean to ourselves that we “teach ourselves a lesson once and for all”; on new diet schemes – we can activate our curiosity.

We can ask questions we don’t know the answer to, and be with the unknowns, knowing that one day, as Mary O’Malley says in The Gift of our Compulsions, asking those questions will be like throwing stones that make ripples that eventually reach the shore.

What is my body wisdom trying to communicate?

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Have you come across useful resources to help with binge eating? Has this post been helpful? Pitch in in the comment thread below, I’d love to hear from you