Humans need to eat to stay alive. And nature made sure we wouldn’t forget to fuel our bodies by connecting eating to pleasurable rewards, such as delicious flavors and feel-good chemicals being released in the brain. But as with any behavior, engaging in it beyond its intended purpose repeatedly can have a negative impact on our health.
If we frequently eat large amounts of food until we’re uncomfortably full, nauseated, or upset, we may have a binge eating habit. And this can seriously impact our health and quality of life.
If you binge often, it’s important to know that there’s nothing wrong with you. And with the right tools, we can start overcoming binge eating, redefine our relationship with food, and create new, healthier habits–without restrictive dieting.
Read on to learn why and how binging can become a habit, and how to break the cycle for good.
What is Binge Eating?
Binge eating is the consumption of a large amount of food over a short period of time. It may be accompanied by difficult emotions and a sensed loss of control over our eating.
Many of us have binged at some point in our lives. Maybe we’ve had seconds or thirds at a buffet, finished a bowl of popcorn while watching a movie, or finished a tub of ice cream–because it was delicious, we lost track of how much we were eating, and sugar overrides the body’s hunger cues. But for some of us who chronically binge eat, our eating may feel out of control. This is a very common habit that affects people of all different ages, genders, sizes, and backgrounds.
So even if we binge eat often, we’re far from alone. And importantly, there is hope. With the right tools, we can explore our habits associated with binge eating and rewire our brain to create new habits that feel good. And we can do this without punishing or restricting ourselves.
Let’s discuss some common signs of binge eating.
Binge Eating Signs
What is considered binge eating may differ from person to person. But these are some common signs to look for:
- Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, such as one or two hours.
- Feeling as though our eating is out of control.
- Eating when we’re not physically hungry, or beyond when we’re already full.
- Eating rapidly during a binge.
- Eating until we’re uncomfortably full, nauseated, bloated, or lethargic.
- Eating alone or in secret.
- Feeling distress, embarrassment, shame, sadness, or other forms of upset about our eating.
- Engaging in circular, frequent dieting.
When we have a binge eating habit, we may feel so embarrassed about our eating that we sneak food to eat privately, hide food in strange places, or eat very small amounts in public and binge once we’re alone. We may vow to ourselves repeatedly that we’re going to stop this behavior. We continue to feel such a strong urge to binge eat, it seems we can’t resist.
Many of us who binge eat will put ourselves on very restrictive diets to try to control our eating habits. Then, if we break our rules and have a treat, we may tell ourselves we’ve already messed up so badly, we might as well eat everything we want, get it out of our system, and go back on the diet the following day. This is called the Last Supper Effect, and it often perpetuates the cycle of binging. Because often, after we’ve had our “Last Supper,” we wake up the next day feeling so sad, ashamed, or disappointed that only the temporary pleasure of another binge can make us feel better–albeit, very temporarily. And so the cycle continues.
The good news is we can address these root causes beneath our learned behaviors, rewire our brain, and change our relationship with food, permanently. And the process can be surprisingly nourishing. Let’s discuss some common reasons we may have developed a binge eating habit.
Causes of Binge Eating
Binge eating may become a pattern for different reasons for different people. Some common factors are:
- Family history, home environment, and childhood role models. We’re more likely to develop binge eating patterns if our parents, siblings, or other family members binge eat. Perhaps our parents were bingers, so we grew up thinking that was a healthy way to relate to food. Or maybe a neighbor or family member made repeated negative comments about our weight, and we felt stressed, ashamed, or otherwise upset and learned to find comfort in food. We also may have learned to find comfort in food for no apparent reason. And over time, repeating these behaviors led to forming habits.
- Restricting ourselves through dieting can exacerbate a binge eating habit, especially if we have other emotional or mental health issues. Maybe we were put on a restrictive diet at a young age–or we started one earlier in our adult life–which led to increased cravings for high-sugar, high-fat foods, prompting us to feel deprived and eventually binge on our favorite treats.
- Emotional and/or mental health issues. Binge eating may affect those of us who feel negatively about ourselves, our bodies, or our lives. Stress, depression, anxiety, or the availability of preferred binge foods can also be triggers.
While these factors may trigger binge eating behavior, we’re not locked into these habits forever. To better understand why we repeat these patterns, let’s take a closer look at how we form habits in the first place.
Understanding The Cycle of Binge Eating
Binge eating is a habit, and our habits become hardwired in the brain through repetition. The brain uses a reward-based learning system to consolidate information and form memories. We can break down the formation of habits into three components: trigger, behavior, and reward.
Maybe we had a traumatic experience in our early formative years that led us to seek comfort in our favorite high-sugar, high-fat foods. The traumatic childhood experience was the trigger, eating the food to try to regulate our emotions was the behavior, and the temporary relief and pleasure we felt after eating was the reward. Once our brain learned that food could make us feel better, it stored that information away in an area called the basal ganglia for future use.
Now, anytime we’re tired, stressed, or anxious, our brain prompts us to reach for food to soothe those feelings. This is especially true with sugary foods, which cause the brain to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and bliss. On top of that, sugar hijacks our brain’s reward system, making it harder to tell when we’re full. So it’s especially easy to overindulge and perpetuate a cycle of binging, cravings, and negative emotions with high-sugar foods, despite the fact that, afterward, we usually feel worse.
We may feel as though we can’t stop binge eating, despite feeling guilty or ashamed. This can lead to obsessively criticizing ourselves, thoughts of low self-worth or shame over our weight, or obsessing over starting another restrictive diet–all of which can trigger the cycle of binging. And the more weight we gain, the more we may obsess and beat ourselves up.
Over time, binge eating can affect all areas of our lives. Let’s discuss some of the issues commonly associated with habitual binge eating.
Effects of Binge Eating
While binge eating occasionally is normal and can be harmless, over time, this habit can cause serious problems. Frequent binge eating can lead to:
- Chronic indigestion or bloating.
- Trouble functioning in daily life, at work, or in social situations.
- Social isolation.
- Obesity and related medical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and some sleep-related breathing disorders.
- New or worsened mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.
- Overall lower quality of life.
If you’re experiencing any of the above issues, remember: it’s not your fault. It’s easy to feel like everything is wrong and there’s no way out, but with the right tools, we can rewire our brain and create healthier habits that feel good. And it doesn’t have to feel like a punishment. In fact, it can be deeply nourishing.
Let’s discuss some ways we can begin overcoming binge eating and changing our relationship with food–and with ourselves–without force.
How to Stop Binge Eating with Mindfulness
We can recover from binge eating–and surprisingly, it doesn’t take as much effort as trying to stick to a restrictive diet. A helpful tool for habit change is mindfulness, which can be very nourishing to practice.
Mindfulness involves focusing intently, openly, and non-judgmentally on the present moment. This helps increase awareness around our immediate experiences and habits, and in time, we begin to relate and respond to those experiences differently. From there, we can make new, more mindful choices without force or willpower.
When we get really present to the results of our habits, we become increasingly disenchanted with the ones that don’t feel good. And once we build up enough disenchantment, change happens naturally because our habits lose their power over us. We’re free. Soon, we can simply observe the results of our habits, notice the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that come with them, and make empowered choices rather than feeling controlled by our automatic behaviors.
Habits are formed by small moments, many times, so it’s important to take each moment at a time. Don’t try to rush into changing unwanted habits; that can feel like more restrictions and perpetuate the binge eating cycle. A more helpful and nourishing thing to do is commit to experiencing the present moment fully, curiously, and without judgment. We can pay close attention to everything that’s in our present-moment experience and ask ourselves, “What am I feeling? How will I feel tomorrow morning if I give in to the binge? How will I feel if I ride it out?” From this place, we can make empowered choices instead of acting out our old habit loops.
With time, patience, and persistence, we can dramatically change the way we relate to our triggers and experiences and create a new, healthier relationship with food. Read on for some more tips on how to overcome binge eating.
Tips For Overcoming Binge Eating
When we’re just learning how to break the binge eating cycle, kindness is key. Try to be as gentle and compassionate with yourself as possible. It may be helpful to keep a journal to help you explore any observations you make while becoming more aware of your present-moment experiences to rewire your brain.
Here are some tips for increasing awareness around your habits. You can use these tips in the moment, and they can help you remain mindful while you eat. Alternatively, you can use these tools to think back on the last time you binge ate and assess what the experience was like. Either way, this helps to update the relative reward value in your brain, which begins to dismantle the habit cycle.
- Recognize your habit cycle. Curiously and nonjudgmentally, can you notice when you get triggered to binge eat? Was your trigger an upsetting thought, difficult emotion, or stress? Did you have a stressful experience, such as an aggravating day at work or heated conversation with a loved one? It’s ok if you’re not sure. You might consider using this worksheet to map out the stages of your habits.
- Explore the result of the habit. With kindness and openness, drop into your immediate experience to notice all the results of your habit. Maybe you feel pleasure while eating but then your stomach hurts or you feel sad, guilty, or lethargic for hours after. Note all the thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Tuning into all of the unpleasant effects of our habits helps us become disenchanted with them. And over time, we’re empowered to make new, mindful choices that feel better.
- Work with habits to make new, empowered choices. Once you’ve built up enough disenchantment with habits that cause unpleasant effects, you can use mindful awareness when a craving strikes, notice the thoughts, emotions, and sensations in your body, and make a new, mindful choice. You can choose to eat whatever you’re craving slowly and mindfully just until you’re satisfied, or you can do something else that doesn’t involve eating, but which also helps you feel better.
Over time, your brain will store the rewards of your new mindfulness habits and that becomes your automatic behavior. This is how you can create new, healthier habits that stick without force, restriction, or willpower.
This may sound challenging at first. But with practice, it gets easier. Take each moment at a time. It took time to develop a habit of binge eating, and it may take some time to rewire your brain and develop new habits that feel good. But you can do it, and every moment of mindfulness adds up to major change. And it will likely feel much better than pressuring or restricting yourself–and produce better, longer-lasting results.
Eat Right Now: Get Help with Binge Eating
Even if you’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with binge eating for years, you can learn to enjoy a healthy relationship with food–without punishing or restricting yourself. A science-based, clinically-proven mindful eating program can help.
Eat Right Now is an evidence-based program developed by neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Judson Brewer. It’s a unique mindfulness training program that teaches you tools to change unwanted eating behaviors, create a new relationship with food, and get off the yo-yo dieting rollercoaster for good. With daily lessons, craving-specific tools, journaling capabilities, and a supportive online community–complete with live weekly calls and expert facilitators–you can learn to differentiate between real hunger and emotional craving, break the cycle of binge eating, and build new healthier habits that last.
Ready to feel more at home in your body? Start the Eat Right Now app-based program today.