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  • Writer's pictureSam Finkelstein, RD

Why Am I Bingeing?

I'd bet a good 90% of my clients come to me with these questions: why am I bingeing, and can you help me stop? Most are surprised to find out the reason why they can't seem to control themselves around food.

What Is A Binge?

A binge is marked by feeling immense guilt or shame after a period of eating which feels out of control. This can happen whether the person has consumed an objectively large amount of food or not. Binges can happen with all foods, but often tend to be foods which provide a good source of carbohydrates (find out why next...).

So, Why Am I Bingeing?

To the surprise of many, bingeing is actually not a result of inadequate will power or having no self control. It's also not caused by food addiction or addictive components of certain foods. It's caused by restriction. Most clients, upon hearing this fact, look at me like I'm crazy, because they've come to me to stop OVEREATING, not "the opposite problem". It's a common misconception that bingeing and restricting are "opposite problems" at all. In fact, they are deeply connected.

This relationship is often described as the Restrict/Binge Cycle. But the metaphor I like even better is the Restrict/Binge pendulum (see both images below). Notice what happens when the restriction end of the pendulum gets pulled back -- once it's let go, it causes a chain reaction, pushing the eater further in the binge direction. What keeps this cycle so baffling for people is that once bingeing happens, the tendency is to try to overcorrect, and pull the pendulum back to the restrict position. When that position inevitably gets let go of--by smelling a baked good, or being at a meeting with donuts, or having a sandwich at lunch--it swings all the way back to the binge position, and the cycle starts all over again.

Borrowed from Kelly O'Donnell, LCSW

No wonder people are feeling so stuck in these behaviors!

People stuck in this cycle often associate carbohydrate-rich foods with bingeing, because of the heightened awareness the body has around these foods when it's not getting enough. Remember, your body loves to use carbs for energy, and is really good at it.

So What's The Solution?

When hearing about this phenomenon, it may feel tempting to work even harder to not let the pendulum swing to the binge in the first place. However, your body just will not allow you to do that. The body's primary job is to keep you alive and well fueled. Therefore, its ability to sense energy-dense food becomes heightened when you are starving. Physiologically, it is nearly impossible to avoid bingeing after restricting.

What this means is that the solution lies not in controlling your binges, but in stopping the restriction. Once your body starts to get all the food it needs without a threat of it being taken away, bingeing resolves on its own, and self control is not required. Remember, too, how sneaky restriction can be. This behavior can look varied from what people typically think it looks like. While it can be going all day without eating, it can be much more subtle -- like skipping a meal or snack, delaying eating when hungry, ruling out a food or food group, limiting portions, not exceeding a certain daily calorie or point total, or telling yourself "after this, no more [fill in the blank with banned food]". I'm sure more could be added to this list, but hopefully that gives you an idea of what sneaky disordered voice to look out for as you work on permission to eat.

What ways have you noticed yourself restricting which went unnoticed before? What's been helpful for you in breaking this cycle?

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