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Nutrition for Overcoming Binge Eating

Nutrition for binge eating

For the first few years of my career as a dietitian, I tried to avoid anything to do with disordered eating. This was due to a combination of not really having the training, experience or desire to effectively help somebody in that position.

Early on though, I still was getting some level of exposure. I was working in a business, for somebody else, where I would receive referrals for people who either had anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder. And as much as I wanted to avoid it, I kind of had to see them because 1) It is not encouraged to turn away $$ when it is not your own business (as uncomfortable as that idea makes me) and 2) I was in rural locations and it was not exactly like I had the option of referring to other specialists in the area, assuming the client wanted a dietitian in person.

This initial exposure forced me to develop some level of interest and ability, since at the end of the day, I legitimately want to help people.

Over the last few years though, I have been getting more and more clients, specifically in the binge eating disorder space. And although I do not necessarily seek out clients in this space, I have attracted a lot and have gotten a lot of experience due to this.

One of the big shifts for me though was that I had some clients straight up telling me things like “you’re my guy; I trust you to help me solve this and I am committed to seeing this through with you as my dietitian for the whole process until this is solved.”

That kind of line really pushed me to do a deep dive into binge eating, because I do not like letting people down. So, I went massively down that rabbit hole to learn as much as I could.

I have now been putting those learnings into practice with clients for multiple years and getting good results, so I wanted to finally share some of my thoughts in blog post format. Hopefully it helps some other people as well.

Defining Binge Eating

I am not a stickler for definitions, but I think in this case it is important to have a loose definition of binge eating.

Some people overeat in a way that could really be considered “normal eating” and describe it as binge. The word can get thrown around quite loosely.

For this post, I am referring to binge eating as:

“Eating a larger than normal amount of food over a short period of time, while also feeling that eating behaviour is out of control.”

It also involves 3 or more of the following:

  • Feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating excessively quickly
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Feeling guilty, disgusting or sad
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment

And to meet the criteria of binge eating disorder, this needs to occur once per week for at least 3 months.

But that is where I become less of a stickler for definitions. If any form of binging occurs on a semi-regular basis, even if it does not meet that criteria, I think it is worth addressing.

Committing to the Process

The first step to beating binge eating, is committing to the process and prioritising it.

I do not want this to scare anybody off, but I think setting the expectation of a 3+ month timeframe of prioritising overcoming binge eating over other goals is a helpful step. That’s not a research-based number or anything, it is just my thoughts on the topic based on what I have seen.

This means that you should not be actively trying to lose weight during this 3-month period. I am going to talk through that below. But for this phase, the goal is just to beat binge eating.

This is hard, because it is probably the last thing you want to hear if you are struggling with binge eating. I will also talk through why that is the case below as well. But something that resonates with me is the concept of “tick this box first.”

What I mean by that is that if you are somebody who is motivated and always wanting more, you might struggle with JUST focusing on binging. You might want to focus on addressing the binging AND getting lean AND also trying to do other challenging things in your life too.

I get that. But my solution for that is “tick this box first.” Want to get leaner? Cool, try get to the point where you have not binged for 3+ months first before you attempt that. Think of it almost as a non-negotiable.

Tick Box

We have clear research indicating that striving to restrict while struggling with binge eating DRAMATICALLY increases the likelihood of binges occurring. And binging also makes it hard to get leaner, which can increase the desire to restrict. It’s a vicious cycle.

Focusing solely on beating the binge eating, and ticking that box, actually sets you up for success down the line. It might feel slower, but in reality it is probably the most efficient way to achieve your long-term goals.

Eat Enough Calories

From a nutrition standpoint, the best thing you can do to help over come binge eating is to aim to eat enough calories.

Undereating calories dramatically increases your hunger and desire to eat as it is. Combine that with the emotions/stress and other factors linked with binging and it sets up the perfect storm.

Hunger is not THE thing that leads to binging, but it is a factor.

Another factor is that the literal act of trying to restrict your intake is something that contributes to binging.

Do Not Restrict Post-Binge

After a binge, most people instinctively try to restrict their calories. This is partly to compensate for the “damage” that has been done.

It is also partly because almost everybody who is a binge eater is actively trying to get leaner. And often there is a feeling that the restriction will help lead to the desired outcome.

But re-read the above section if needed. We know that restricting calories significantly increases the likelihood of binging. Restricting after a binge literally increases the chances of binging again, prolonging the cycle.

This is where I encourage having confidence in yourself. If you genuinely want to stop binging, and you acknowledge that restricting intake contributes to it, the goal should be to NOT restrict post-binge.

I can imagine that is incredibly difficult to do when you are in that position. But doing so actually moves you closer to your goal. It helps you beat binge eating. And if you desire to get leaner, beating binge eating also indirectly moves you closer to that goal as well.

Avoiding Restriction in General

Beyond calories, you also want to avoid restriction in general.

Using macronutrients as an example, you do not want to limit any individual macronutrient.

You want a relatively good balance of protein, fats and carbs.

You might have an urge to avoid foods that are high in fat and carbs. But restricting that too far significantly increases the chances of binging.

In a lot of cases, adding more carbs and fats to what you consider a “good” or “normal” day is one of the best things you can do for fuelling yourself better and overcoming binge eating.

Do Not Track Macros

Tracking Macros Pros and Cons
Image via @eleatnutrition on Instagram

On the topic of restriction, it also is probably a good idea to NOT track macros.

Trust me on this one. I actually am a fan of tracking macros in general. I do it myself at times and I have some clients do it. But if you are committed to beating binge eating, it is important to avoid tracking calories and macros.

Firstly, we know a large percentage of people who use apps like MyFitnessPal develop some forms of disordered eating.

MyFitnessPal

If you track calories/macros and have some form of disordered eating, I think it is a fair assumption that there is probably some form of correlation.

The reason why I say to trust me on this one is because every binge eater I have spoken to LOVES control when it comes to food. It is such a common theme.

Tracking macros is a way to have that control. But the fact that is a common theme also tells me that addressing it is a bit of a solution too. Becoming comfortable with eating without tracking is an important step.

And this can also be a “tick this box first” moment too. Want to track? Go 3+ months without binging first and then consider it again after.

See a Psychologist

Psychologist in chair in an appointment

This one is not a nutrition tip, but I also see it as a bit of a non-negotiable.

There are multiple psychological methods that can be used to help overcome binge eating.

But basically, there is such a mental component behind WHY binging occurs.

All these nutrition strategies I am talking about work and reduce the frequency of binging. But they do not necessarily address the underlying cause.

Like eating frequently and avoiding restriction works. But what happens when you get in a situation where that is not possible? Somebody who is not prone to binge eating does not binge in that situation. But if there is still something underlying to contributes to binging, then it could be a different story.

Commit to the process. Commit to it until you have well and truly overcome binge eating. We also have the expectation of it taking >20 sessions as well. If you see a psychologist and did not find it helpful, I encourage you to see another one.

Aim for 5-6 Eating Occasions Per Day

breakfast cereal and other ingredients in a wooden box
breakfast cereal and other ingredients in a wooden box, horizontal

Eating more regularly reduces the likelihood of binging.

People will talk about mechanisms for this. But I think it is simple.

If we get two groups, each with 100 people.

Group A: Eats 2x per day

Group B: Eats 3 meals per day and 2-3 snacks, evenly spaced out

Which group binges more?

It is very much more likely to be group A.

Doing this means you are also more likely to be consuming a sufficient amount of calories and avoiding any extreme form of restriction. And you should also avoid getting particularly hungry too.

This concept can seem scary if you have always been focused on restriction, but for this phase of addressing binging, it is one of the best things you can do.

Avoid Going 4+ Hours Without Eating

Obviously while we are trying to avoid restriction, we are also trying to avoid rules. But if you want some form of structure, a good guideline is to avoid going 4+ hours without eating, while you are awake.

While you do not want to be following a strict meal plan or anything, one principle that is important to remember is to prepare.

If you know you are going to be out for the day, plan out when you will eat, to a certain degree.

Do not be overly rigid or anything. But if you know you are eating at ~12pm and then will not be home until 7pm, try to make sure you have some food lined up during that gap whether it is meal prep, or creating time to buy food, or organising snacks.

This preparedness can help avoid binges. After having clients track their binges, it is clear that a lot of them binge when they have not eating for 4+ hours. It is another super common theme.

Body Image Stuff

Woman struggling with body image

I am not some body image guru. But this is one of the clearest things that has stood out to me over the last few years as another common theme.

I personally started lifting weights and caring about nutrition partly because I wanted to change my body. I am all for having the desire to change things about your body.

But what I find fascinating is that I actually do not spend much time thinking about my body. And I do not think negatively about it. Yes, I would like more muscle mass while being a bit leaner. But even though it is something I want and actively work towards, I do not spend any time thinking negatively about my body.

And the reason I find this fascinating is because almost everybody with binge eating disorder does think negatively about their body.

There are guys I see who are leaner than me and literally call themselves “fat pieces of s***.” Meanwhile I am looking at their arm veins and thinking “wtf, how do they think that?” Even just typing a phrase like that makes me feel uncomfortable in general.

There are girls I see who are so lean that they have visible abs, and have similar thoughts. Which is insane, because for a lot of females, that is TOO lean. A lot of females (not all) no longer get their period at that point and it leads to a whole host of other issues.

And obviously there are people who I see who are not that lean. But the point of that above section is to highlight that people who binge legitimately seem to see themselves in a different light to how others see them. Typically, they have what I consider to be quite bad self-talk, when thinking about their bodies.

This then feeds into other issues. It feeds into the desire to restrict, which feeds into the binging. Another vicious cycle.

So even though I am no body image guru, it is clear that it would be worthwhile addressing that to.

Another point on that topic is that a lot of people with poor body image also seem to want to cling onto it. It is like thinking that these negative thoughts are part of what MOTIVATES you to strive for getting leaner. And you think that addressing it and feeling comfortable in your body would demotivate you and make you not want to get leaner because you are content.

I do NOT think that is true. Why can’t you be comfortable in your own skin, but still want to change things? Just like you can be happy with how your business/career is going, but still striving to make improvements. Just like how you can enjoy your life and be truly happy, but still try to change things. Being happy/comfortable/content =/= not having motivation. They can be separate concepts.

Trigger Foods

Ice cream being scooped

Most people with binge eating disorder also have trigger foods. There are sooooo many different examples of this. But some classic ones are chocolate, chips and ice cream.

And what I mean by that is that there can be a fear of opening a packet/tub because every time you do it when you are by yourself, it turns into a binge where you have the whole thing (and maybe more of other stuff after that).

One strategy I like for addressing this is to build up good experiences with these foods in a controlled situation.

This can be easier if you are somebody who finds they only binge when alone, and also if you have spoken with friends/family/partner or anybody about your binging.

The first step is to create a “hierarchy of trigger foods” in order of which are the most to the least feared options.

For example, this could be:

  1. Chocolate (most likely to turn into a binge)
  2. Ice cream
  3. Chips (least likely of the 3, but still a feared food)

Then trial the least feared option in a controlled situation.

The best example of this I have is to have a friend/partner/family member with you in your house when you have a small/moderate serve of that food. Then directly after, go for a walk with them, or do something else outside of the house.

That way there is zero chance of it turning into a binge, and you get to have a positive experience with the food.

Dietary flexibility is super important anyway, so there is no real downside of doing this either.

I would encourage doing this a couple of times per week, in a structured way, slowly reintroducing more and more foods.

The more varied and flexible your diet is, typically the better success you are going to have with overcoming binge eating.

This process also takes time. I view it almost like rehabbing after a big injury as an athlete. You likely need to put in 1000s of reps in certain exercises in the process of a full recovery. But you can’t do it all at once. To build up to those 1000s of reps, it takes time. It takes weeks/months of consistent commitment.

These individual occasions of reintroducing trigger foods are a similar process – just trying to build up these positive experiences over time.  

Sitting with Emotions

Another thing I am not an expert on is feelings, stress and emotions. But I can appreciate the importance of them.

One of my most successful strategies for addressing binge eating is the following:

When you feel a binge coming on, wait 2 minutes.

That’s it. Nothing magical.

Most people will hear that and think the goal is to wait 2 minutes and maybe the feeling will pass.

Sometimes that is true. But that’s not necessarily the goal of this intervention.

The goal is to just sit there and experience your emotions. Feel them. Acknowledge them. Sit with them.

You are not trying to do anything with them. You are literally just sitting there and feeling them.

This is not easy for a lot of people, but it is important.

What if binging is a strategy you use to avoid dealing with emotions? If that is the case, waiting 2 minutes can be a game changer for reducing/avoiding binging in the long term.

Summary

While focusing on overcoming binge eating, it should be your top priority from a nutrition perspective. Even just having the goal of any form of restriction throughout the process dramatically reduces the likelihood of positive outcomes.

Focus on fuelling yourself well, eating enough food, eating relatively frequently and avoiding overly restricting any individual macronutrient.

Statistically speaking, the vast majority of people who are diagnosed with binge eating disorder overcome it completely. It takes time, but beating binge eating completely is a realistic goal. Implementing some of the strategies in this post can significantly speed up the process too.

Also, if you want another perspective that mentions a lot of factors I have not mentioned here – I also recommend reading this blog post too! It’s by Dr Jake Linardon who is a dietitian specialising in binge eating and although I do not know him personally, I’ve followed his work a bit and can vouch for it.  

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