How to Stop Binge Eating, According to PsychologistsIt’s a vicious cycle, and it’s very much not your fault.
It’s probably safe to say that pretty much every human has eaten past the point of being full or felt bad about eating more than a serving size (whatever that means) of something. But, turns out, that’s not binge eating. What really differentiates binge eating from overeating in general is a feeling that you’re losing control—"like a car rolling downhill without brakes"—and feeling shame, embarrassment, or disgust afterward, says licensed psychologist Christine Peat, PhD, a fellow in the Academy for Eating Disorders and director of the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders.
The other sign that eating whatever you deem as “too much” is binge eating is if you’re eating alone on purpose, says Dr. Peat. For example, you might binge late at night after your roomies or fam go to bed so you can hide it from them, she says.
Binge eating is a type of disordered eating habit that can turn into an eating disorder for some people. If bingeing happens super frequently (on average, at least once a week for three months) and makes you isolate from people, you might have binge-eating disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR).
If that’s the case for you or you’re just feeling weird about your body or your relationship with food, it’s definitely a good idea to find a mental health pro who can help you figure things out. But in the meantime, there are strategies you can use on your own to squash the cycle of binge eating. Whether that’s shifting what and when you eat or finding other ways to cope with stress, these psychologist-backed tips can help you deal.
Stop following arbitrary food rules.
Cutting out food groups and eating less overall (so, yeah, dieting) can trigger binge eating since you’re fighting your body’s natural hunger cues, says certified eating disorder specialist and licensed clinical psychologist Andrea Kulberg, PhD. Eventually, you’re bound to eat something, and when you do, you could wind up bingeing. And if that binge makes you feel shitty about yourself to the point that you start restricting again, you could cycle through a binge-and-restrict spiral where you restrict after you’ve binged but then binge because you’ve restricted. Chaos.
If you tend to skip meals or forget to eat when you get busy, following a “breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack” schedule can help you relearn the hunger and fullness cues bingeing may mess with, says Dr. Kulberg.
That said, avoiding specific types of food like bread, pasta, or added sugar can also put you at risk of binge eating—even if you’re eating enough to feel satiated, Dr. Kulberg explains. Say you’re doing a low-carb diet. Eventually, you’re bound to encounter those foods you’re trying not to eat, and when you do, it might be harder to avoid a binge. Obviously, the solution to that is to make sure you’re eating all the things so you don’t feel deprived.
Avoid food policing yourself.
Listen, it’s not your fault if the food police are living rent free in your brain. They’re pretty much ev-er-y-where thanks to diet culture. You might tell yourself that you can’t eat a bagel for breakfast because you had one earlier this week or badmouth yourself for having post-dinner cookie dough ice cream instead of one square of dark chocolate (like That Girl on TikTok). But that mental torture could also lead to bingeing.
Shaming yourself for eating the things you like and “convincing yourself to eat foods that you don't truly enjoy [because] you think [they’re] ‘healthy,’” can cause bingeing later on, Dr. Kulberg explains. Instead of labeling bagels as bad and kale smoothies as good, try to think of food as a “neutral substance,” she says.
For some, years of internalizing diet culture can make it tough to see food as neither good nor bad, so take as much time as you need to figure out what you actually like eating, Dr. Kulberg says. You can do that by practicing mindfulness during meals, using your senses to really smell, taste, and touch what you’re eating, she explains. Then, write down what you love.
Eat more of the things you crave.
Though not buying what you regularly binge on—Cheetos, ice cream, peanut butter—could work in the short-term, not eating these foods can lead you to binge later. That’s because you’re depriving yourself of something you actually want, says Dr. Kulberg. (Notice a theme here?) Maybe you don’t have these snacks at home, but seeing them at work one day triggers you to overeat and feel guilty about it. Munching on whatever you crave whenever you crave them or even when you don't can help.
Figure out your emotional triggers.
Restriction isn’t the only thing that can send you spiraling. If you’re feeling stressed, sad, or some other uncomfortable emotion, you might be more prone to binge eating, says Dr. Peat. So it helps to pay attention to what led up to a binge eating episode in the first place, she notes.
You might back up and realize that you didn’t sleep well the night before, had a few stressful meetings at work, and then went to a doctor’s appointment that made you anxious AF—and it’s the accumulation of all these things that might have triggered binge eating, Dr. Peat explains. So maybe you need to get better shuteye, take a break in between meetings, or call a friend to vent. Find what works for you.
From there, you can find other things to turn to when you’re feeling overwhelmed by emotion, Dr. Peat says. Maybe that’s going on a walk, journaling, or unwinding on the couch with trash TV. But, also, emotional eating (read: not emotional bingeing) is a totally normal way to cope sometimes. So don’t beat yourself up for that type of self-soothing.
Find some help if you need it.
It’s worth seeking professional help if binge eating is making you anxious or negatively affecting how you live, says Dr. Peat. Regardless of your diagnosis—or if you’re even diagnosed—there are a bunch of psychotherapies that mental health pros can use to help you manage binge eating.
And many of the strategies mental health pros use are the ones you can start practicing right now: eating more frequently, giving yourself permission to eat the foods you normally binge, learning about your emotional triggers, and so on.
If you need help right now, you can reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at (800) 931-2237 or text “NEDA” to 741741.
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