You look down at the empty packet of chips, chocolate or ice cream tub and wonder how you finished it so quickly – you barely even remember eating it!? The momentary sense of pleasure is over and now you feel sick and uncomfortable. You regret what you have eaten, you feel guilty and all you want to do is lie down.
Can you relate to this?
Everyone uses food for comfort from time to time, but it’s when it becomes a habit and you use it to calm yourself down, it becomes particularly problematic. It can cause weight issues and eventually other disordered eating like anorexia and bulimia.
First of all, if you’re going through this, I want you to know you’re not alone and there is nothing wrong with you. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. We live in a world full of distractions, so it’s not surprising that people continuously turn to food for a “quick fix”. Being someone who has overcome a binge eating disorder, I really hope these tips inspire you to create a healthy relationship with food and help you begin to see food for what it really is – fuel, not therapy.
What is emotional or binge eating?
Binge eating is characterised by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort). You feel a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards, and it can sometimes be combined with vomiting so that you feel you’ve counteracted overeating.
Binge eating falls into the same category as emotional eating as both are defined as overeating in order to relieve negative emotions. The quantity of food that is consumed is the primary difference between emotional eating and binge eating.
How to know if you’re an emotional eater
While binge sessions are blatantly obvious, there may be less obvious signs of emotional eating. The first step is understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Physical hunger comes along gradually and is felt in the stomach. It involves deliberate choices and awareness of eating which means you stop eating when you’re full. Emotional hunger is sudden and is generally for a specific food. It is felt in the throat and is paired with an emotion. It involves mindless eating and usually leads to overeating.
What causes someone to overeat?
- food restriction
- environmental conditioning
- low self esteem
- calorie restriction
My personal experience
Before I started my journey towards becoming healthier, I had a serious binge eating disorder. I restricted my calorie intake to 500 a day during the week, then binged on the weekend. I figured eating so little during the week would counteract the weekends. My ritual was watching my favourite TV shows and eating a whole block of cadbury chocolate, a box of Pringles, a bag of chips and more. The next day I’d eat an entire pizza, hot chips, and fried chicken. I didn’t usually purge afterwards, but on the few occasions I did, it was simply because I felt like I was going to explode.
I knew this type of behaviour wasn’t normal and tried hiding my junk food and eating it in my bedroom behind a closed door and the TV on loud. I was living in a vicious cycle which never seemed to end. My judgment was clouded by negative emotions and an unwavering determination to experience the ‘high’ I felt from the binges, although this was always followed by anxiety, worthlessness and shame. If you’ve ever gone through this or are going through it now, you’ll know that this behaviour takes over your life and leaves you feeling completely out of control.
I wasn’t conscious about it at the time, but now that I look back I understand I was using my binge eating sessions as a way to avoid dealing with some hard times I was going through. I ate too much to relieve tension and numb my emotions. I’m telling you this because I want you to know I have been there. Week after week, binge eating was a part of my lifestyle for over 6 months.
Although bingeing is generally related to overeating processed food, I want to reiterate that you can binge on healthy food, too. If you find yourself continuously overeating rice, potatoes, curries, fruit or raw vegan gourmet food, this is still an unhealthy practice which has an underlying issue.
I’m going to walk you through the steps which helped me overcome my binge eating disorder and hopefully they will help you too.
1. Be aware
So the first step to overcoming any type of behaviour is being aware that you’re doing it. This may seem really simple, and you may be thinking that you’ve always known you emotionally eat. But I’m talking about TRULY becoming aware and actually acknowledging your behaviour on a deep, conscious level. Because we are generally ashamed and guilty of these types of behaviours, we can subconsciously try to hide the fact that we’re doing them – we kind of push it to the side hoping it will resolve itself. But to really heal and move forward to overcoming it, you need to raise it to the surface, speak it out loud, and expose it. The first step is to shine light onto the darkness and declare that it’s time to change. Break the false belief that you have lost control of your behaviour. Say “I am aware of my binge eating behaviour, and I am changing it.”
2. Discover the underlying cause
Step two is realising that binge eating is a symptom of an underlying cause and discovering the reason behind why you’re doing it. This is crucial because you can be aware of the behaviour and force yourself to stop, but that is not a long-term solution. If you haven’t healed the underlying cause, you will relapse and return to old behaviours. We binge eat for several reasons: it could be stress, it could be because we feel unfulfilled in some part of our life, or perhaps because our body is craving particular nutrients we aren’t getting from a restricted diet. There will probably be layers upon layers you’ll need to uncover. I’ll use myself as an example. I realised I was bingeing because I was restricting my nutrients throughout the week. So when it came to the weekend my body was so hungry for minerals, it signalled to my brain to get food NOW – and A LOT! But why was I restricting my calorie intake during the week? I realised it was because I was eager to lose weight and achieve a slim figure. Why did I want to do that? Because of my lack of self-love. I had just broken up with my boyfriend, I didn’t feel loved or good enough and I also had no direction in my life because he was my life at the time. So that’s what I mean by layers. You really need to dig deep and discover the root of the issue.
3. Focus on addressing the root cause
Step three is focusing your efforts on healing the underlying cause. If it’s stress from your job, work on possibly finding a new job, or figuring out a way to reduce stress where you are now. If it’s boredom, start to think about your life and your dreams. Set goals and begin taking steps towards achieving them and creating the life you want to live. If you’re in an unhappy relationship, either express your feelings to your partner, or leave it altogether. If it’s from the most common lack of self-love which is causing you to compare your body to others and restrict your calories, remove temptations for comparing yourself (like certain Instagram accounts) and work on increasing your self-worth. Remember you are what you think about. If you continue to secretly obsess over your size and focus on food and image, you’ll continue to live out that erratic behaviour. Instead, focus on your health goals and how you want to feel. For me it was feeling strong, vibrant, fit and toned. I wanted to create a healthy relationship with food and my body, and focusing on that led me to act in accordance with those goals.
4. Eat healthy foods
Step four is eating a whole food plant based diet. There is a reason for this. You actually have TWO brains. One in your head and one in your gut. These two systems are connected by the vagus nerve which is the main pathway your gut bacteria use to transmit information to your brain. The gut bacteria rely on us eating certain foods to provide them with energy so that they can produce healthy chemicals which keep our immune system and brain working normally. Dietary changes can bring about changes in your brain structure (chemically and physiologically), which can lead to you feeling and thinking a certain way. So you want to be eating foods to encourage feelings of joy, love, positivity and peace of mind.
The beauty of this is that when you’re in this state of mind, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to indulge in negative practices like overeating. Which foods are these? Colourful, vibrant fresh fruits and vegetables of course! Anthocyanins are the pigments that give berries like blueberries and blackberries their deep colour. These antioxidants aid your brain in the production of dopamine, a chemical that is critical to memory function and your mood. Foods like papayas, apples, berries and leafy greens will help you feel energised, alive and happy. While processed foods like deep fried chips, spring rolls and pizzas are associated with feelings of anxiety and depression.
Create a positive cycle and choose foods that support your gut and mental health to help you live a more joyful life and help you to make healthy food choices. It may not be easy in the beginning and you don’t need to be perfect, but the more you choose healthier options, the easier it will get. I remember processed food making me feel like I’d completely lost control. It’s not our fault in a sense because the ingredients in processed foods trigger chemicals in our brain to become addicted and want more. They are also what you call empty calories – high in calories, low-to-no nutrition. So you literally feel like a bottomless pit because it never actually nourishes your cells, and your body craves more food because it hasn’t got what it needs. Help yourself to overcome binge eating by making healthier versions of the junk food you always get drawn to. The more you do this, the quicker you’ll overcome your binge eating. There are many resources these days to help you find healthy, delicious and satisfying versions of comfort meals. On my website I have raw and cooked recipes for fried rice, tacos, and more. You can also look on Pinterest, Instagram and Google. Eating a plant based diet will allow you to reconnect with your food on a compassionate level.
5. Overcome negative thought patterns
The last step is to overcome negative thought patterns. Realise that overcoming binge eating is a journey and it most likely won’t happen overnight. It is an addiction, and at root, is a spiritual concern which represents a misdirected attempt to achieve wholeness and inner peace. Some may be able to change their behaviour immediately, for others it may take weeks or months. Throughout this journey the little voice inside your head which acts as a physiological trigger to your binges, will most likely pop up from time to time saying things like “You had too many calories for lunch, definitely skip dinner!“. Disrupt those thought patterns by focusing on your goals and the way you want to feel and affirm things by saying “I am in control. I am worthy. I deeply and completely love myself.” And please, be gentle on yourself.
You conquer the urge to binge, not by charging it down with willpower, but by dissolving it at the source and then using a small period of high nourishment to ease you back into eating like a normal person. Once you see addiction for what it is – and realise how to escape the cravings – it’s so much easier. Establishing this mind-body-food connection, which takes practice, is the key to overcoming emotional overeating.