Out of control
For Meghan Sexton, the only thing a spoonful of sugar used to help go down was another spoonful of sugar. She couldn’t eat a lick of peanut butter without devouring the entire jar or a granola bar without tearing through four.
“I felt incredibly out of control,” says Sexton, now a marketing professional in Columbus, Ohio, who was dealing with anorexia and bulimic behaviors at the time in her 20s. Today, life is sweeter. “I don’t feel that urge to binge,” she says.
Binge eating disorder is a term used to describe eating large amounts of food, usually quickly and even if it makes you feel physically or emotionally uncomfortable. Binge eating disorder is recognized in “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5).
Overeating may be somewhat common, but recurring episodes of binge eating and feeling guilt or embarrassment help to define someone who has binge eating disorder.
Why people binge eat
There are several reasons why someone might binge eat:
— To cope with unpleasant emotions. This may include anxiety, sadness, guilt or shame, says Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications for the National Eating Disorders Association.
— For a sense of control. Choosing what to eat and how much to eat is one of the few things children have control over; that same pattern may continue in some people into adulthood, says Alison Mailk, a registered dietitian for The Dorm, a treatment center for young adults with locations in New York City and Washington, D.C.
— To cope with weight bias, for those in higher-weight bodies. Weight bias refers to negative beliefs about someone because of their weight. This could cause the person experiencing weight bias to feel guilt, shame or discrimination. For some binge eating is a way to manage these feelings and experiences.
Eating disorder treatment
There are various treatments for binge eating disorder, including:
— Talk therapy.
— Behavioral-based weight loss programs.
Here’s what Sexton and experts suggest telling yourself when you feel the urge, whether you’re working through an eating disorder or just having a moment of weakness:
‘I’m having the thought that I want to binge.’
Strange-sounding, but true: Simply acknowledging that your desire to take down that whole package of cookies is merely a thought helps create the mental distance you need to reconsider your next steps, says Julie Friedman, the former executive director of the binge eating treatment and recovery program at the Eating Recovery Center, who’s based in Chicago.
Just like you may occasionally think — but only think — you want to punch someone or tell your boss to get lost. You can also want to binge without actually following through. Recognizing that, Friedman says, “can be really effective in decreasing the power of that urgency.”
If you realize that certain situations cause the urge to binge eat, create a plan in advance to avoid those scenarios or identify a trusted family member or friend who can help you, Kronengold suggests.
‘If you do this, you will feel (fill in the blank.)’
Sexton remembers vividly how she felt after a binge. It wasn’t good. Not only did she experience immediate emotional effects including remorse and regret, but she also suffered the physical consequences of subsequent laxative abuse, starvation and over-exercise.
Sometimes, a person with binge eating disorder may also have another eating disorder, such as bulimia. Bulimia is overeating followed by vomiting or fasting. It also may involve the use of laxatives to purge what was eaten.
Reminding yourself of the consequences of overeating is a good strategy, says Cynthia Bulik, founding director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. “Remember how it has felt every other time you have done this,” whether it’s bloated, disgusted, guilty or defeated. “The moments of pleasure are not worth the misery at the other end.”
‘I think I’ll call (fill in the blank).’
Sometimes when Sexton has been tempted to binge, she picks up the phone and calls a good friend who has also struggled with disordered eating. “Trying to take my mind off the intense urge to binge by speaking to somebody who gets it and (who can) kind of talk me off the ledge” helps, she says.
As does catching up with any friend who might not share her history, but who can simply distract her. You might also consider inviting a pal to join you for your next meal since dining with company can encourage you to eat reasonably. “One of the ways we decrease binging… is to eat publicly,” Friedman says.
‘How about going for a walk?’
Sexton has also turned to another type of friend when she needs to distract herself from unhealthy eating-related thoughts: her furry one. “Taking my dog for a walk, getting outside, getting fresh air — just removing myself from any situation where I’m tempted” works, she says.
Indeed, Friedman says, just 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity a day has been shown to reduce the urge to binge significantly. “There are so many lifestyle aspects” to binge eating disorder treatment, she says. “If you’re getting better sleep and reacting to stress better and managing life better, it’s really, really helpful.”
‘Go to bed.’
Sure, sleeping through your urge is one way to give it time to pass, but you may need more, or higher-quality, sleep in general if binge eating is a regular occurrence for you. “People tend to eat a lot based on fatigue,” Friedmen says. “They’re eating to stay awake or because they’re tired or because they’re bored.”
What’s more, sleep deprivation seems to make you more likely to mindlessly eat or binge after dinner, according to the Binge Eating Disorder Association, and can cause the hormones that cue your appetite to surge and those that cue your satiety to weaken.
‘I can eat this in 10 minutes.’
Remember: The food isn’t going anywhere, so “build in a pause” by setting your alarm for just five minutes, Bulik suggests.
“Do some deep breathing, get out of the situation and get some control.” Indeed, most cravings peak and pass in just 10 minutes, which “doesn’t feel like that long to suffer,” Friedman says.
If you can bear it, tell yourself you can eat it tomorrow in order to postpone your potential binge further while reminding yourself the food isn’t off-limits. “There’s power in delaying it 24 hours,” Friedman says, “and power in allowing yourself that food in a planned and deliberate way.”
‘This wasn’t part of the plan.’
While Sexton used to begin binges famished, she now stays in control by not letting herself reach that ravenous point. “I have planned snacks and meals throughout each day, so I never … feel starved and deprived,” she says.
You can also set yourself up for success by limiting the variety of foods your prone to binging in your cupboard and by portioning out your food rather than expecting to be able to stop halfway through the pizza box in front of you, Friedman explains. “Saying, ‘I’m going to stop eating when I’m full … is a huge mistake initially because our reward system is overriding our hunger and fullness cues,” she says.
‘My (fill-in-the-blank) needs me.’
Sexton used to struggle to get out of bed, either due to starvation or depression caused by her eating disorder. Her personal relationships began to fall apart too, since she isolated herself to control her eating. “I would just disappear for the day because my eating disorder was my priority,” she says.
Now Sexton has a job, husband and two young kids; she simply can’t afford to go missing, even though she had to recover for herself first. “I have little ones who basically rely on me to feed them and bathe them and get them to sleep,” she says. “I can’t have a bad day where I’m abusing laxatives.”
‘What do I really need right now?’
It wasn’t until Lizabeth Wesely-Casella received treatment for binge eating disorder that she realized her patterns served a purpose: “Binging comforted me, or soothed me or protected me,” recalls Wesely-Casella, who is based in the District of Columbia. Acknowledging that helped her learn to cope with stressors in healthier ways.
Indeed, Friedman says, binges — whether you have an eating disorder or not — tend to be preceded by a negative feeling like anxiety, sadness or, again, fatigue. Recognizing those feelings is the first step to addressing them in a way that doesn’t involve food. “The food isn’t going to solve the problem,” Sexton says. “It’s just going to start another vicious cycle.
‘When did I last eat?’
“The more physical hunger we experience, the more likely we are to binge,” Malik says. This happens because your blood sugar drops, making it more likely that you’ll reach for snacks or meals with refined sugar for quick energy.
— Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit.
— Apple slices with peanut butter.
— Sliced carrot sticks or celery (or any veggie of your choice) with hummus.
If you’ve eaten recently, take another moment to try and pinpoint what it really is you’re hungry for so you can work to meet that need instead, Malik advises.
‘Tomorrow is a new day.’
If despite your best efforts, you still find yourself binging — give yourself some compassion, Kronengold advises. Developing a positive relationship with your body is an ongoing process, she explains, but it’s easy to blame yourself or be shamed by others if you binge. Don’t be so hard on yourself, and realize you can start again fresh tomorrow.
‘I need help.’
Almost everyone eats to the point of discomfort now and again. But the behavior can become abnormal — and disordered — when it’s frequent enough, long-enough lasting and disrupting your daily life. If your habits may have crossed that line, it’s time to seek help. Consider the National Eating Disorder Association helpline, the Binge Eating Disorder Association or the Eating Recovery Center to start.
If you find you have a lot of rules about the foods you should eat — such as “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts” and “bad foods,” consider seeking out help from a registered dietitian to help shift your approach to food. “Unless you’re allergic, normal eating includes all foods, and you don’t have to fear foods or binge foods,” Malik says.
12 things to tell yourself when you want to binge eat:
— ‘I’m having the thought that I want to binge.’
— ‘If you do this, you will feel, (fill in the blank).’
— ‘I think I’ll call (fill in the blank).’
— ‘How about going for a walk?’
— ‘Go to bed.’
— ‘I can eat this in 10 minutes.’
— ‘This wasn’t part of the plan.’
— ‘My (fill in the blank) needs me.’
— ‘What do I really need right now?’
— ‘When did I last eat?’
— ‘Tomorrow is a new day.’
— ‘I need help.’
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Things to Tell Yourself When You’re About to Binge Eat originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 03/16/22: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.