“I can’t stop eating. I’m out of control, and I don’t know how to stop.”
I hear ya. These are difficult times. You’re not sure what’s going on, why you keep doing this to yourself, or if you can stop.
Let me tell you: you absolutely can stop binge eating. I know you don’t believe me yet, but thousands of people have gone through this and have moved past it. I’m one of them, and I know you can do it too. That’s why today I’m sharing with you my essential tips to stop binge eating for good.
1. Realize That Binge Eating Is NOT Your Identity
Yes, you’ve binged in the past, but that doesn’t mean it defines you, and it doesn’t mean you’ll be like this forever.
I’ve done loads of stuff that goes against who I actually am, and I’m sure you have too (my teenage years were a mess!). But all that means is that your actions in that moment didn’t align with your values. It doesn’t mean that’s who you are, and it doesn’t mean you won’t ever stop.
I know, you keep telling yourself you’re lazy and disgusting but — think about it — if you actually were lazy and disgusting, then you’d feel fine. You’d even be proud of it:
The very fact that your actions are bothering you shows what a mismatch it is for the person you actually are. The fact that you’re beating yourself up about it shows that this is not what you value.
If you define yourself as unfit, out of control, or having no willpower, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. So rather than labelling yourself as “a binge eater”, rather than telling yourself “I’m out of control”, realize that there is nothing wrong with you.
In fact, you’re actually trying take care of yourself.
It’s natural and normal to want to feel better. It makes sense that you want to feel better if you’re feeling shitty. So, even though binge eating might not be your ideal response to a tricky situation, or difficult emotions, what you’re doing is actually valuing your existence by trying to make yourself feel better. And that is both normal and human.
So, there is nothing wrong with you. You’re not lazy, or disgusting, and you are not a “binge eater”. It’s just an action you’ve done in the past, and it won’t be forever.
2. Find The Diamond In The Turd (Then Celebrate And Emulate)
No matter how bad it seems, there are ALWAYS things that are going right. The trick is to find those diamonds and clone them so their awesomeness take up more space in your life.
Maybe you only binge when you get home after work. Maybe there’s only actually 2–3 hours each evening where there’s a strong urge to binge. Right now you’re focused on that time, because it’s the behaviour you want to change, but think about it: for 21 hours of the day, you don’t want to binge.
That’s awesome. Seriously. That. Is. Awesome. Give yourself credit.
I mean it. Celebrating every win, no matter how small, is going to be the quickest way to end binge eating.
This guy is celebrating making a fort out of cardboard boxes and CD cases. Be more like this guy.
Once you’ve found a diamond and fist bumped the air, ask yourself:
- What’s different about the times where I’m not binge eating / don’t want to binge eat?
- Where am I when I don’t want to binge?
- What activities am I doing?
- Is there some way I can emulate these conditions?
For me, it really helped to be around other people. So a way to emulate those conditions might be to invite people over for dinner more often, or go to their house. Or, maybe, instead of going straight to the cupboards when you get home, you could make a plan to take a bath, talk to a friend, listen to loud music, take some deep breaths, or do whatever it is that you enjoy that will help you interrupt the pattern when those binge urges would normally take over.
Maybe you notice that you feel more prone to binge after you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, or when you’re stressed, anxious, or worried. Is it possible to get more sleep? Can you plan to get more time in for your wellbeing in general?
Yeah, I know, it sounds soppy, but this shit is important. No one ever binged when they were feeling at ease and at peace. Dedicating time just for yourself is going to be crucial to stopping binge eating for good.
If you’re not sure where to even start, try making a tally chart of the number of times you catch yourself daydreaming about food. This will make you more aware of your thoughts, which means you’re more likely to be able to catch yourself and say:
- “OK, I’m thinking about food. Does this mean I need something else right now?”
- Or maybe just “OK, this isn’t helpful right now. Let’s focus on something else”.
It will also make you aware of how often your food thoughts aren’t occurring:
“OK, so today I caught myself fantasizing about food 37 times, but how many thoughts go through my mind throughout the day? I’m not thinking about food ALL of the time. So when am I not thinking about food? Can I do more of that?”
So, no matter how shitty and hopeless it feels, there are ALWAYS diamonds to find in the turd. Once you find them:
- Celebrate. You’re living with your values for the MAJORITY of the day. You didn’t binge yesterday. You got out of bed today. Boo yeah!
- Emulate. How can you clone these diamonds so there are more of them in your life?
3. Watch Those Hunger Games
When you aren’t sure if it’s real hunger or fake hunger that’s calling you, that’s what I call Hunger Games.
A hunger scale is a simple but effective way of tuning into your body’s internal hunger cues. Along with that tally chart I mentioned in the previous step, whenever a food thought popped into my head, I’d rate my hunger using this scale:
The hunger scale:
1 I’ve gone way past my initial hunger cues. (HANGRY territory.)
2 Pleasantly hungry. (This is a great place to start eating.)
3 Not hungry, not full. Neutral.
4 Pleasantly satisfied.
5 Stuffed. I feel sick.
If a food thought pops into your head, try rating your hunger. This will give you a better idea of when you’re experiencing real hunger, or when it’s fake hunger that’s calling you. Remember that fake hunger arises suddenly. There is an urgency to eat, and eating never actually satisfies it. If you’re not sure what kind of hunger you’re experiencing, just set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes, then reassess.
I know, the thought of being hungry can be scary, but hunger is not actually scary, and it’s not an emergency. If you’re reading this then you have plenty of food around you, all the time. You are completely safe. It is never an emergency to eat. Take a deep breath and try to tune into your real hunger. Once you do this, you’ll see for yourself that it’s not as scary as it seems. In fact, it’s a totally natural human experience: your body is gently letting you know that it needs some fuel. You might even find that food tastes even better when you allow yourself to be slightly hungry.
And if you eat when you’re not hungry, don’t judge yourself for it. You’re getting used to being back in tune with your body, and that takes time. This is not a “eat only when you’re hungry diet”. People who are “naturally lean” don’t eat only when they’re hungry. It’s just not realistic, and there is absolutely no need to feel bad about it.
4. Make A Plan For Your Kryptonite Foods
Kryptonite foods. We all have them. They’re the foods that drive you wild, make you weak at the knees. For me, it was peanut butter, brazil nuts and chocolate (and especially chocolate covered brazil nuts. OMG STFU.)
While the effect these kryptonite foods have on you will lessen over time once you stop any restriction (see tip #11), it’s a good idea to lay out some boundaries for your relationship, until you can start seeing each other on equal terms again.
Here are some ideas:
- Eat it while other people are around / you’re out in public
- Order it in a cafe / restaurant and eat there
- Buy a small, individual packet to take home with you. This will minimize the “EAT ME” effect, where you leave a packet of something in the cupboard and it keeps calling you, over and over, until you’ve finished the bastard thing.
- Rather than eating straight out of the packaging, or while standing up, put it on a plate / in a bowl, then sit down with it, and do your best to focus your attention, and savor it.
This is not an exhaustive list, so feel free to come up with ideas that are going to work exactly for your personal situation. The key here is to create a supportive environment for yourself.
Remind yourself that this is not forever, and that you CAN trust yourself. It’s just, for now, you’re choosing to not have those foods at home because it makes your life easier. There is no need to invite struggle into your life.
5. Feel Your Tongue
How many times have you inhaled an entire box of chocolates without even noticing? You almost black out and wake up later, having no real recollection of eating, apart from the pain in your stomach.
The way to minimize a food blackout is to focus your attention on the food. Bring awareness to your tongue. How does your tongue feel? How does the food feel, and taste?
It might be useful to rate the taste between 1 to 10:
1 — This sucks ass.
10 — Best. Meal. Ever.
Maybe you notice that the first few bites are amazing (a 9 or 10), but that the taste diminishes as you continue to eat.
If your first few bites aren’t at the high end of the scale, this might be an indication that you weren’t hungry, or you didn’t pick what you actually wanted to eat.
You can also ask The Next Bite Question: will this next bite make me feel better (emotionally, physically and psychologically), or worse? Will it move me in a direction towards health and wellbeing, or will it move me away from my goals?
When you bring awareness to your tongue, rate the taste and ask the next bite question, you not only minimize the chance of a food blackout, but you can end meals more easily, and walk away from food because you know you’re done.
6. Realize You Are Always In Control
I know, it doesn’t feel like it. But unless someone is physically tying you down and forcing you, you are 100% in control of the food you’re putting into your body. In any moment, you have the power to decide whether to take a bite, or not.
For me, there was a great insight when I gave myself permission to binge. So rather than trying to fight this strong urge inside me, I’d say to myself:
“I’m having the thought that I want to binge”
By labelling your thoughts you can reduce the effect they have on you. From here, you can ask yourself if this is something you actually want to do, or not. The conversation in my head would then go something like this:
“OK, I hear you. And I can totally binge if that’s what I want to do. But has this EVER been a good idea in the past? Have I ever been glad after a binge?”
The answer was always no. But the fact that I acknowledged how I felt, and gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted, meant I could logically assess what I actually wanted to do. And from there, I could choose to nourish myself in a different way, or I could choose to binge eat. Either way, I felt back in control of my actions, and I had the choice.
7. Plan For Pleasure
If, at the end of a meal, all you’re planning on doing is the washing up, then you’re not really going to want to stop eating. Eating is pleasurable. Washing up ain’t.
So once you finish a meal, it’s a great idea to put any leftovers out of sight, then move straight into a fun activity.
What are a list of (low energy) activities that you enjoy and can do right after eating? Here are some examples:
- Look at images of cool stuff on the internet
- Watch your favourite comedy show (Futurama or Louis CK does it for me every time)
- Go for a walk, feeling your feet on the ground, and the wind flowing through your hands. Really take in and notice the surroundings.
- Listen to funny, interesting podcasts (like No Such Thing As A Fish)
- Play an instrument (your own voice is an instrument, I promise you)
- Write, doodle, draw
- Spend time with someone you love
- Listen to some seriously epic music while breathing deeply
- Take a shower/bath
- Read a book. I recommend something truly healing, like Radical Acceptance.
- Listen to the sounds of breathing, gentle rain and heartbeat
If you’re anything like me, then you don’t ever want to rest. You never want to give yourself any down time. But it’s super important.
For instance, I like drawing, so I used to start drawing after dinner, but then, of course, there was all this pressure to actually achieve something each evening, or to improve my technique. And, then before I knew it, I was back in the kitchen eating, trying to deal with the difficult emotions of procrastination, fear of failure, never amounting to anything, and… yeah, you get the idea.
Give yourself permission to chill.
It might be useful to write out a plan or checklist for the evening:
- Straight after dinner, I will _____________
(e.g. listen to loud music and breathe deeply. This will get you out of the inertia of wanting to keep eating)
- Then, I will ______________
- When I feel the urge to binge, I will ________________
(e.g. hold my breath for 10 seconds and remind myself that I am safe and I will never have to restrict)
Checklists are awesome. Come up with a plan. Don’t just think it. Ink it.
8. Step Off The Bathroom Scales
Every week, I’d almost cover my eyes, terrified of what the number was going to say. Whether it was “good” or “bad”, it would affect my entire day. And in response to whatever the scale said? That’s right: I’d eat.
The scale is full of emotion for so many people. So maybe it’s time to stop creating a time of day that you brutally judge yourself. Maybe it’s time to stop putting your self-worth into a number. Maybe it’s time to stop using an external measurement to gauge “how you’re doing”.
Stepping off the scale means you can focus on what actually matters: how you FEEL.
It means that, instead of using an external number, you can adopt a wellbeing mindset:
I ate in the way I want to take care of this body. I’m sleeping better. I’m seeing my energy and strength go up in the gym. My clothes feel looser. I feel happier, and more at ease in myself.
Personally, I set up a Google form with a series of questions, and emailed it to myself each week. The questions were:
- How light and energetic have I been feeling?
- Have I been eating lots of colorful vegetables?
- How is my overall happiness?
- How is my peace around food?
- How frequently do I feel joy in my life?
- What is the quality of my self-talk?
This way, I could focus on important things while tracking my progress without any of the emotions that are tied into weighing myself. After all, how you’re feeling is what really matters. The number on the scale is meaningless.
9. Make Sure You’re Eating Enough
“Woah, woah, Maria, you’re crazy! I’m definitely eating enough… have you SEEN the amount of food I binge on?”
I hear ya, but if you aren’t eating adequately in between those binges, then your body will continue to want to binge. Is it possible to get 3 decent meals in per day? Try not to overthink it, just try to get a good mix of protein, carbs, fats, and veggies. Use the hunger scale (tip #3) to guide you.
10. Pop Open The Hood
Eating when you’re not truly hungry means you’re eating because you’re trying to manage some kind of emotion. Boredom, procrastination, happiness, anger, disgust, tiredness, sadness, these are all reasons people eat. So, if you’re finding it difficult to just “will yourself away” from food, then be prepared to do some internal work.
Emotions are completely human and natural, and they need to be felt to run their course. Yeah, you want to be happy all the time, but that’s just not how life works. But by acknowledging how you’re feeling, and by communicating it in a healthy way, you can reduce the intensity of difficult emotions, and the desire to eat in response to those emotions.
Have you ever walked into a dark room, and you thought you could see a shape in the darkness… you thought it was a person, that there was someone in there with you? Then, you switched the light on, and you realized it was just a coat, or some other, harmless object?
When you can’t see your emotions clearly, they become this scary shape in the darkness. But when you turn on the light, you actually realize that they aren’t as scary as they seemed. You realize you’re stronger than you thought, and you can manage whatever is happening. Yeah, it might not be pleasant to sit with sadness, and pain, but it is manageable.
So take a long, deep breath. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Then ask yourself:
- What emotions are present right now?
- What sensations are here in my body?
You might begin to notice that your emotions aren’t permanent. They come and go. And the more you can pay attention to them, the less scary they are.
Another way of becoming aware of what’s going on for you is to take a piece of paper and write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Don’t judge it, just get it down on paper. Often I would find if I wrote down all my thoughts and worries in that moment, then — when I read them back — I’d realize they weren’t as scary as they seemed, unsaid and unheard in my mind.
Reaching out and talking to others is also a great way to let your emotions be heard.
11. Stop Dieting
There’s a tonne of studies showing that dieting is highly correlated to binge eating. Here’s a quick overview of just one of those studies.
Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment (Keys, 1950)
- The top 36 mentally and physically fit, strong men were hand-picked from 400 Civilian Public Service members (Yeah, I didn’t know either: the CPS was an alternative to military service in the USA during WWII).
- These guys were followed for 3 months before the experiment started to make sure they were definitely awesome.
- Each man was put on a strict, 1,540kcal diet for 24 weeks.
At first, the men noticed some physical changes, before constantly complaining that they felt cold, tired, and hungry. They began to have trouble concentrating. They felt dizzy, and had headaches.
Increased preoccupation with food
The men became obsessed with food. They talked about it, daydreamed about it. They spent a lot of time planning what they would eat and how they would distribute their calories throughout the day. Food was very quickly the most important thing in their lives. Some started collecting cookbooks. They began hoarding and sneaking, bringing food to their beds at night.
Severe emotional distress
As the study continued, these guys became tired and irritable. They lost their sense of humour, lost their ambition, lost interest in their work, their friends. They became anxious, apathetic, withdrawn; experienced depression, hysteria, hypochondria, a decrease in sex drive, an inability to concentrate. Two of the men had to spend time in a mental hospital, and one began to physically harm himself.
Bingeing and self-reproach
Several participants found themselves bingeing on vast quantities of food, followed by severe episodes of self-reproach. One man reported eating multiple ice cream sundaes and chocolate malts. Then he stole some candy. He finished off the binging episode by eating several raw swedes (the root vegetable, not the people from Sweden… though it’s fairly grim either way!) He immediately confessed to the experimenters that he had broken the rules, and began to verbally beat himself up in front of them.
Other men admitted stealing scraps of food from the trash. Some of the men quit the study because the bingeing became so frequent they were unable to continue their restricted diets and remain within the confines of the study. They all grew self-critical, and even began to experience distorted body images. These deprived men actually reported feeling overweight.
When the experiment ended 24 weeks later, the men were allowed to go back to eating normally. Except, most of them couldn’t. Many of them had lost total control of their hunger signals, and “ate more or less continuously”. One reported eating massive five-or-six-thousand calorie meals, and then snacking only an hour later. Another man ate so much the first day after the study, he had to be taken to hospital to get his stomach pumped. They reported not being able to satisfy their psychological hunger, no matter how much they ate.
One went on a year-long binge, putting on substantial weight. Just months earlier, this man had a healthy relationship with food. He was hand-chosen for being exemplary, and yet in 24 weeks, he had been completely changed.
This kind of study would not be allowed to take place today, for the “unethical, inhumane treatment of subjects”, and yet many of us do this to ourselves, year after year.
Other studies have shown that diets don’t work. Diets don’t work because they:
- Intensify cravings
- Make you preoccupied with food
- Disconnect you with your natural hunger cues (making you eat when you’re not hungry, and eat more than you need)
- Increase emotional and psychological distress, and the likelihood that you’ll eat in response to that stress.
It’s time to stop restricting. People who are “naturally lean” don’t restrict food. Give yourself permission to eat any food you want. Give yourself permission to eat any time you want. Don’t bother counting calories. Instead, use the hunger scale as a guide to start listening to your body again.
I know this sounds like a scary step, but it is the best, and fastest, way to end binge eating. Since you have permission to eat anything, any time you want, the cravings for your kryptonite foods will decrease to a manageable level. And when you combine this step with the hunger scale (tip #3), feeling your tongue (tip #5), and the questions you ask yourself in tip #8, you create an awesome feedback loop, where you will actually crave the things that make you feel great, while eating within the realms of hunger and satiety. Your binge eating will decrease, and then cease, and any excess fat will fall off as a natural result.
12. Forgive Yourself
No matter what happens, you must forgive yourself, over and over again. What would you say to a friend who was going through the same thing? There’s no way you’d call them the names you’ve been calling yourself.
You’re learning, and you’re trying to change behaviours. Change is hard. You will fall down, but the sooner you can get back up again, the quicker you will be able to move forwards. Instead of beating yourself up about failure, could you use it as a learning experience?
So when you’re lying in bed, stuffed to the stomach, cursing yourself for “blowing it yet again”, is it possible to soften? Can you say:
Actually, this is a great reminder that I don’t want to be doing this anymore. In the moments leading up to this, I didn’t use the skills I’m learning, but it’s OK. My body will forgive me, and I’ll be hungry again at some point. And when I am, it’s another opportunity to listen to that hunger, and to nourish myself and fuel my body in the way that I choose
That’s the brilliant thing about this: you’re going to get hungry several times a day, so you get the opportunity to practice these skills several times a day. And, like anything, if you practice enough, it will eventually become second nature. You’ll be able to eat intuitively, listen to what your body needs, and start living your life again.
To sum it up:
- Binge eating is actually an attempt to take care of yourself.
- There’s already loads of times in the day when you’re not thinking of bingeing, and there may have even been times when you’ve navigated away from a binge. How can you emulate those conditions so they are more frequent in your life?
- You’re always in control of your actions, even if it doesn’t feel like it. By stopping any food restriction, and making a plan for your kryptonite foods, you can accelerate this feeling of control.
- Be prepared to do some internal work on your emotions: acknowledge how you’re feeling by observing your thoughts (and how they feel in your body), writing them down, or talking to someone.
- Progress isn’t linear. You’re practicing something new, and trying to change a behavior. Change is hard, so forgive yourself, no matter what. Use the event as a reminder of the actions you want to take, and the life you want to lead.
What to do next
If you’re ready to stop binge eating, then go and grab your free copy of the 65-page Ultimate Guide To Stop Binge Eating For Good.
Originally published at medium.com