Reflections of a former binge eater and how to kick the habit for good
Updated: Sep 28, 2022
You start a"diet". Do good for maybe a few weeks and then BAM a binge happens. It often happens so fast you are left wondering, "what just happened" and "omg I feel so sick now." You feel guilty and so full of shame. Not to mention you feel lethargic and gross from all the food you ate during the binge which was most likely not with healthy food.
You eat "good" all week. You do your food prep, drink all your water, go to the gym. Then Friday evening comes around and freedom!! You are so beyond exhausted from the monotony of your schedule and eating the same boring food all week. You go home, order a medium pizza with cheesy bread and a liter of soda and without any second thoughts you have polished it all off. WHAT JUST HAPPENED???
You had an extremely stressful week at work. You come home and the kids are constantly demanding from you. You feel empty and just want something, anything to make you feel better. As soon as everyone is asleep, it's just you and Ben & Jerry. Game on. A whole pint of ice cream is gone within one episode of Netflix.
You finish a diet. You may have lost the weight, but you end up gaining it back, plus some. You have this goal number of what you want to weigh and what you want to look like. Maybe you have gotten so close to the goal or have even gotten as far as achieving it, but once the diet ends you go right back to where you were when you started. Going to a dietician or other nutrition professional to be told what to eat is futile. They aren't telling you anything that you don't already know.
Any of this sound familiar?
Let me first note that there is a clear distinction between the occasional overindulgence and a diagnosed eating disorder based off of the American Psychiatric Association DSM V criteria. This post is not meant to treat eating disorders. Rather, it is written to bring awareness to what is actually happening during a binge so that it can be prevented in the future.
What exactly is a binge? Binge eating involves consuming large quantities of food very quickly past the point of hunger to a point of being uncomfortable.
When a binge happens it is usually with very calorically dense foods that are high in fat and sugar. When these foods are ingested, dopamine is released which is a "happy" hormone. For a short period of time the body will experience the rewards from the release of dopamine. But that quickly wears off and then you experience the discomfort from eating such a large amount of food in a short period of time.
When this happens repeatedly over time, food no longer holds its original purpose of nourishing the body and instead becomes a crutch. A dysfunctional coping mechanism. Food becomes a drug.
If you are reading this and it resonates with your current or past situation please know that you are not alone. This is much more common that most people think. In a 2007 study, a cohort of 9,282 men and women were asked about a variety of mental health disorders. The results found that 3.5% of women and 2% of men had a binge eating disorder during their life. This percentage make binge eating disorder 3 times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined (1).
My long history of eating disorders started with bingeing and purging when I was 14 years old (see more on this in my first blog: Who is Kimberly Holbert?) I abused laxatives to purge and also exercised in excess. I persisted to do this all throughout my under graduate degree. I was in nursing school full time. I would go straight from class Monday through Friday to care for my grandmother who was slowly dying from Alzheimer's disease and I was working as a waitress on the weekends. I was overwhelmed by my life and bingeing and purging bought me so much satisfaction from having control. My self destructive behaviors also manifested in the codependent relationships I had. I dated a drug addict who constantly cheated on me. But I stayed because I thought I could fix him.
My life was in this continuous spiral of hating myself because I thought I was fat and unloveable, punishing myself with purging and staying with a lying drug addict because that's all I thought I deserved. Unfortunately I didn't break the cycle until there was a traumatic event and said drug addict boyfriend ended up in jail. It was a wake up call that I wish I didn't have to go through.
It has been a continuous journey since that moment. I had a few short relapses with purging and still today have to be very conscious of my emotions so that I don't fall into the bingeing cycle again. Therapy, meditation, church, supportive friends, travel, solitude. All of things have led to healing of the deep wounds within me that led me to start bingeing and purging. The most impactful step I took was getting a nutrition coach to walk through this with me and force me to face my actions which led to me healing my relationship with food. Food is no longer a drug. Food is nourishment. Food is one of many ways I love my body and respect it for all that it does for me.
Breaking the binge cycle begins by recognizing that it is happening before it actually happens.
Find out what the true desire is- what is your body and mind really craving?
A broad answer would be wanting comfort and pleasure. Feeding your emotions.
Emotions have biochemical roots. "Eating your feelings" really means that you are eating based off of emotions because your emotional needs are not being met elsewhere and you don't know how else to cope. When feeling these negative emotions like fear, abandonment, discomfort, heartbreak etc., you look to what's familiar even if it is slowly killing you. This could be in the form of binge eating, alcohol, drugs, toxic relationships or whatever other dysfunctions that have been your only comfort through the trauma.
Steps to prevent a binge
Be aware of the cravings when they appear, allow their presence and then add “I’m having the thought about this craving” That thought is separate from yourself.
Don’t fight it. Let it rest in your brain and be conscious of it. The more you try to fight it, the more attention you are actually giving to the thought.
Find out what your body and mind is really desiring- comfort, mental pleasure, entertainment, affection, love etc. Depending on what your body and mind is craving, you can replace binging behavior with something else like going for a short walk, calling a friend, reading a book, drinking hot tea, or meditating.
Instead of shaming yourself for giving into a craving, say to yourself what you would say to a friend who told you they had a “slip up”. Have compassion and grace to forgive.
By establishing a strong awareness of our emotional state and being intentional with our actions, we can make choices that are more aligned with our values regardless of the external environment. This means that a bad day at work wont lead to you going home and downing in a pint of ice cream. Or going through a breakup wont result in a 3 day bender. Take a moment to step back and do a scan of what you are feeling physically, emotionally, spiritually.
When you are having the thoughts of going on a binge, really ask yourself- what void are you trying to fill right now? Are you stressed about how you are going to pay your bills this month, are you anxious about an upcoming exam or project, are you heartbroken and looking for comfort in any form? These are all valid emotions. Emotions that do not get resolved by a binge that will later make you feel even worse. The binge never fixes the problem and leads to further self hatred. The shame and self hatred leads to poor self esteem, poor body image and in severe cases, body dysmorphia. It's all a vicious cycle.
I have come to deeply appreciate the struggle of finding a sense of security within one's self. My own journey of struggling with my body and mental health allows me to have the honor of helping people who also feel this dichotomy between what they want to accomplish and the struggle of why they can't show up for themselves and align their actions with their goals (to be continued in an upcoming post on cognitive dissonance). If this is you and you're wanting to know how to feel better and accomplish what your soul desires through healing your relationship with food, talk to me. I'm ready to listen.
1.Hudson JI, Hiripi E, Pope HG Jr, and Kessler RC. (2007). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3):348-58. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.03.040.