Binge eating: the solution is not dieting

One is never enough for a binge eater

The vast (literally) majority of Americans who are overweight or obese got that way thanks to years of eating too much and sitting around all day.  Weight creeps on, until one day you look in the mirror and go “oops!”, or something like that.  The weight creep now starts at a very young age for some, maybe 2 years old.  But some people take a different route – binge eating.  This is an entirely different problem, and needs an entirely different solution than just cutting back on portions.

(NPR featured a story this morning on one woman’s struggle with this problem, worth a listen)

We usually thing of binge eating along with bulimia, but many binge eaters do not purge the food.  Their lives are a roller coaster of restrictive and frequently desperate fad diets to binges, sometimes eating hundreds of extra calories at one time.  The binge eater feels guilty and shameful and wonders why he or she can’t stop once they start.  The person certainly realizes the behavior is not normal or healthy.  Typical binge foods are simple carbohydrates, heavy on sugar and typically also high fat: ice cream, cakes, cookies, candy and pastries, although some binge eaters prefer pretzels, chips, crackers and bread.  The calories pile on.  I’ve never heard of anyone bingeing on apples or oranges or salad.

What do you do if you’re caught in this nasty spiral?

This problem is ultimately not about eating.  It’s not simply a matter of self-control around food.  It’s a learned coping response to emotional stress, and likely has genetic components.  Brain chemistry can be influenced by carbohydrate intake.  The binge eater learns that eating simple carbs is a way to quickly sooth feelings of anxiety, anger, loneliness and stress.  The binge is a form of self-medication, and after awhile, it’s the go-to solution for life’s troubles.  Binge eating spirals out of control and weight piles on.  Self-loathing builds up.  The binge eater may try dieting, but without addressing the basic causes, diets always fail when binges start again.

If you’re stuck in this behavioral pattern, the first step is to find a psychotherapist who specializes in binge eating treatment, someone you feel comfortable working with.  You need to address the issues driving the behavior, and learn non-food coping mechanisms to deal with life’s stresses.

At some point, you should consult with a dietitian who also specializes in treating eating disorders.  Ideally this professional can put together a normal meal plan that emphasizes healthy, non-trigger foods, and possibly recommend supplements to address any nutritional deficits.  This is not a “diet” – it’s a healthy eating lifestyle.  Dreams of quick weight loss should be banished.

Exercise is another essential component.  Exercise makes you feel better.  Don’t think of it as “exercise”, needing an expensive gym and special clothes.  If you’re extremely overweight, just start moving more, whenever possible.  Park farther across the parking lot when shopping, take the stairs, walk places for transportation if possible.  It’s all movement and it’s all calorie-burning.  If you can also include deliberate exercise activities, like a long walk or work-out class or cardio machine session, so much the better.

Every binge eater has a list of trigger foods – foods that set you off if you take one bite.  I disagree with most therapists on permitting these.  There are good physiological reasons to avoid these entirely during the first part of your therapy, especially considering that most of them are high calorie junk food.  But I’m more concerned that, while a binge eater is still vulnerable to the behavior, there’s no sense is keeping those triggers sitting around the house.  Buying known trigger foods at the grocery store is just giving yourself permission to binge.  Later, when you feel therapy is helping you get a handle on the behavior, you can try some, but I’d suggest trying them at first in controlled situations where portions are limited.  Example: Instead of buying a half gallon of your favorite ice cream which will be calling out to you from the freezer, go out for an ice cream cone, buy a small cone, enjoy!  Ice cream all gone, nothing hanging around at home.

If your ultimate goal was weight loss, you might find that, as you feel emotionally stronger, food takes on a new role for you: nourishment rather than an emotional crutch.  If you’re focusing on healthy meals, full of unprocessed foods, full of fiber, protein, healthy fats and other nutrients, you will gradually lose your taste preference for junk food.  You might find yourself eating less overall, and losing some weight.  The decision to eat smaller portions and keep gradually losing weight is up to you, and you might discuss this with your therapist when the time is right.  Success at beating binge eating can be highly motivational to adopt a healthier lifestyle, which naturally leads to normal weight.

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