And, how it is different from overeating
Overeating is part of normal eating.
And, chronic overeating or binge eating is not.
We all overeat.
Overeating is normal, expected and is not an indication you are less than or have no willpower.
It happens. Our physical and emotional vulnerabilities make this so, as well as just the deliciousness of food! This great document from Ellyn Satter highlights this.
On the other hand, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder, with prevalence estimated at 3-7% of the population. It is a lesser talked about eating disorder when compared to anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
I believe this is the case because restrictive eating is a socially-sanctioned activity and thus, more acceptable than binge eating. Further, people who binge eat often stigmatized as not having enough willpower to stop and usually, thought to be in a larger body.
This just simply is not true. People with binge eating come in all shapes and sizes, and have no less willpower than anyone else. Willpower has nothing to do with it.
Binge eating is a complex diagnosis that this paper outlines well if you want to read more.
How is overeating different than binge eating?
How can you work on chronic overeating or binge eating?
How is overeating different than binge eating?
As I’ve said before, overeating is part of normal eating. Sometimes, we overeat because we love the food we are eating, because we were too hungry before a meal, because we eat fast or just because.
When we’re overeating more often than we are eating a normalized amount for ourselves, we may be chronically overeating or binge eating.
Binge eating is characterized by an out-of-control, can’t stop, in a haze feeling.
It is usually eating a large amount of food, and results in feeling uncomfortably full. It is often secretive nature.
Binge eating often comes with not just guilt, but also shame. Shame is ‘I am bad’. Guilt is ‘The thing I did was not a good choice.’ More on shame can be found in this short article by Brene Brown.
Binge eating is a coping behavior. It provides relief, comfort, punishment, numbness - you name it. We learn that this behavior, sometimes from a very young age, helps with anxiety, anger, trauma, sadness and more. It can then become habitual.
If you struggle with binge eating or chronic overeating, the strategies below may help.
5 Strategies for Working on Binge Eating
Change does not happen without awareness.
Think about being a detective when it comes to your binge eating. You may ask yourself questions like:
What did you eat in the day/days before the binge?
How was timing of meals and snacks?
What else happened in your life?
What were your feelings? Sensations?
When you got home, what is the first thing you did?
What did you need that you didn’t have access to?
Why did you stop eating?
You can also log your food, feelings, mood, thoughts, and more - best done with the help of a professional!
By understanding predisposing factors, vulnerabilities, environmental cues and more we can better understand what we need to target.
Usually, there is a trigger of some sort which may cause physical or emotional vulnerability.
For instance, we may not have eaten enough that day and we are starving at night. Once this happens, all bets are typically off for interrupting the binge. Or, we may have had a fight with a friend and feel emotionally overwhelmed. Without another coping strategy, we can turn to food.
Journaling and keeping track of what is going on can really help create awareness, which then can help to identify things to change.
Decrease Physical Vulnerability
As you create more awareness, you may notice that you are not eating enough during the day or that you are restricting food in some way, whether through food type or amount. If so, one thing you will need to work on is reducing your physical vulnerability.
By this, I mean reducing the overwhelming physiological drive for food.
Our brain runs on carbohydrates. If we do not have enough of them then we will want them at some point and usually, to the point of craving or a black/white ‘must' have’. This may feel like hunger for some people. For others, they may lack hunger but have the intense drive to eat.
Having regular, adequate meals throughout the day with a variety of foods really helps to reduce the physical vulnerability at play that can increase the risk of binge eating. And, even if you overeating, restricting more the next day will just perpetuate the cycle.
Make Environmental Changes
What do you need to do to change behavior? A new pattern. And, to create a new pattern, we often have to change our environment.
Let’s take the person who gets home from a busy day, attends right away to their family and then starts to binge eat the moment they are alone at night. What would happen if you got home and instead of attending to family, took a shower and changed for the evening?
Or, take the college student who is out all day going to class and extracurriculars then comes home and is finally alone, scrolling on Instagram. What would happen if they came back to their room during the day to take a break?
You can try environmental changes and shifts so that it can interrupt the normal pattern, which can then change or interrupt the chronic overeating pattern.
Try new or existing coping strategies
If you are working to reduce binge eating, then you’ll need other coping strategies to take its place.
Coping strategies are not things that are designed to just numb out. While they can be distractions, they may also be aimed at getting support, tackling the issue head on and sitting with the feeling or reflection. This may look like calling a friend, going for a walk, reading, journaling, breathing and more.
They can be done in the moment when it feels like an immediate need or at a regular frequency when not in crisis mode, to help general coping.
Coping strategies do not always ‘work’ nor are they always accessible. So, it helps to have a few to choose from and depending on the situation, try one of them.
Look for the (sometimes subtle) changes
Binge eating does not resolve after a week of making these changes or using these strategies. But, it can morph and become less shame or guilt-inducing.
Look for these small changes. They could be things like:
Choosing less food to binge on
Pausing before or delaying an overeating episode
Having other thoughts during the binge that were not there before
Still eating breakfast the next morning after overeeating at night
Not exercising incessantly to ‘make up’ for overeating
Decreased frequency of binge eating episodes
Not weighing yourself after an overeating episode
Noticing the small changes can get you out of black/white thinking (‘I’m still a failure for binge eating.’ or ‘Nothing is different.’) and may help reduce guilt and shame, which can build motivation for continued growth.
I want to say it again- we all overeat. It is part of ‘normal’ eating. And, around the holidays, we may do it more frequently. That does not mean, however that we are ‘bad’ or done something wrong.
By continuing to have structure and keep eating regularly during the holidays, we can roll with the overeating rather than let it overtake us.
And, if it is overtaking you to the point that you feel like you are binge eating, reach out for help to a qualified professional like myself or others. It is possible to reduce the binge eating even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.
Books on Binge Eating:
Overcoming Binge Eating by Chris Fairburn
Getting Better Bite by Bite by Treasure, Alexander and Schmidt
Binge eating disorder: The Journey to Recovery and Beyond by Amy Pershing and Chevese Turner