Advice by Kaela: Tips on Breaking the Binge Eating Cycle
By Kaela Scott
Q: I have been struggling with binge eating for years and am feeling really stuck. Every time I try to change it feels like I take one step forward and two steps back. I am not sure how to get out of this and how to manage all these feelings that come up each time I slip up. What makes it even harder is that every time I look up ways to overcome it I just get bombarded with the latest diet trends and how I need to work on my willpower.
A: I feel like Binge Eating Disorder is only just starting to get the recognition it deserves in the eating disorder world. For so long, the only disorders that have been addressed or acknowledged have been Anorexia, Bulimia and OSFED which has left this entire population even more isolated and their suffering often dismissed as self-imposed. At the Looking Glass Foundation we see and recognize that suffering happens regardless of what side of the spectrum you fall on and are always happy to provide insight and support where we can.
First off, while every person who has an eating disorder is unique, the suffering you experience as a result of an eating disorder is similar, regardless of what side of the coin you fall on. The same way that we absolutely recognize that the solution to Anorexia isn’t just “getting them to eat” the solution to Binge Eating isn’t just “going on a diet and having more willpower.” Binge eating is about using food to deal with painful feelings that you don’t want to experience. Instead of making space for them to fill your body, you fill your body with food so you experience being full of food instead of being full of emotion. What this means is that every time you try to hold back from consuming food, your anxiety will likely kick in because you associate the experience of your emotions as a thing to fear and avoid. While I wish there was a “diet” that could fix this and make everything better (how wonderfully simple it would be if all eating disorders could just be fixed with eating a certain way!), the reality is you have to start learning a new way of relating to yourself and nurturing your heart.
In lots of ways, the idea of this can seem overwhelming, and to be honest it is. I am encouraging you to face yourself in ways that you have likely avoided for a very long time. What I can promise, however, is that learning to face yourself this way will cut out the suffering you experience in your life. Pain is a human condition, we all will feel it and experience it. Suffering is what happens when we don’t allow our pain to take up it’s necessary space in our lives and learn from its messages. So while I can’t ensure you a life free of pain, all these months, years, or decades of suffering can come to an end by you facing your feelings and making space for yourself. Here are a few steps I want to recommend that can help you:
1.Get a journal. This journal is not intended as a Dear Diary, but rather as a space for you to write down what you are noticing. When you choose to go eat your favorite binge foods, I want you to write down what you are actually feeling in your body right after you do it. Do you notice feeling peaceful? Like you just took a long exhale? Warm? Happy? Relieved? What feeling do you notice in your body right after choosing to engage in these behaviors? I am not asking you to notice your thoughts or what you are thinking about having eaten those foods, I just want you to connect to your physical and/or emotional body after you have engaged in behaviors.
2. Do The Opposite: In the journal, I also want you to write down what you notice happening in your body when you tell yourself to restrict or try to hold back from binge eating. Does your body tense up? Do you notice feeling anxious or panicky? Do your thoughts start to race or do you start to pace through your house? Do you feel sad? Angry? Resentful? What feeling occupies your body when you feel you can’t engage in these behaviors. We want you to recognize the pattern so that you can stop fearing it and learn to gain control of it. With awareness we can start to take action in small but consistent steps.
3. Take A Few Deep Breaths: I know this sounds trivial and dismissive in the moment but the reality is, so many of us really suck at breathing. We hold our breath, we breathe really shallow breaths, and we ignore one of the best regulation tools we have. Breathing sends a message to our system to relax. When we are anxious, we typically don’t breathe properly which sends our body into greater panic and then we look for a coping mechanism that will soothe us immediately (food). Instead, we want to slow things down, and remind ourselves that in this exact moment, we can choose to be okay and we can choose to take care of ourselves through our breath. No other step is needed, just hitting the pause button for a few moments and breathing. If it is easier, you can do this while walking around the block so you don’t feel like you are sitting right in front of your trigger, trying not to eat, while trying to focus on breathing. The goal of this is just to learn to regulate your body. It doesn’t mean you won’t still turn to food, but if we can get you to start regulating yourself, the frantic approach to eating can decrease and we can have more of a say in how we engage in our behaviors.
4. But I Love Food: I hear this all the time in my office, that the love of food must mean we are destined to never recover. I think it’s great you love food, I love it too, and there is no reason to stop loving it. My guess however, is that when you are bingeing you aren’t actually paying any attention to the food you are eating and instead just focusing on trying to get it in as fast as possible. Recovery isn’t about having to eat only lettuce and plain chicken breasts. Recovery is about learning to pay attention to our bodies and nourish them accordingly, including with some of the foods you genuinely love. We want to eat when we are hungry, and stop when we are full. So if you love food, get really clear on what you love. Don’t just say chocolate, be specific about what type of chocolate in particular you love the most. If it’s fruit, ask yourself what fruit you love the most. Challenge yourself to get really, really clear on what your actual favorites are, and then stop settling for foods you don’t actually love because they were available. Respect yourself enough to stop putting anything or everything into your body that is in front of you. Instead, if you’re going to binge, I hope you honor yourself enough to choose to eat the foods you actually know you love.
5. Reflect, Reflect, Reflect: In your calm moments, I want you to take some time to reflect and write down the role food plays in your life. Please don’t dismiss yourself as solely a food addict who has no control. Get curious. Zoom out and ask yourself what role food plays in your life and what realistic role you want it to play. Try to not hop straight from where you are to recovery. While that is a beautiful end goal, it isn’t the next step you will take, so instead try to focus on a small and consistent step you feel you can commit to. Perhaps this is learning to breathe more intentionally and with more awareness, or maybe you realize you need to strengthen the ways you take care of yourself that have nothing to do with food. Whatever it is, reflect on it, write it down, and then find a way to build consistency in only that way until it becomes your new normal.
There is no race to the finish line of recovery. These things take time, often years, but you have the ability to start honoring yourself and your body today by learning to turn towards yourself and not against yourself. Binge eating is a really serious and very painful eating disorder that you deserve to, and absolutely can, recover from. Looking Glass is here to help if you feel you need a safe place to turn to explore what that process may look like for you.
Kaela Scott is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who specializes in Eating Disorders. She runs her own private practice and works with the Looking Glass Foundation in both their summer camp and their Hand In Hand Program. She has been passionate about working with eating disorders since freeing herself from her own struggle and realizing what it is like to be happy and well. When she isn’t working, you can find Kaela either cozying up with a cup of tea and her friends or up in the mountains going for a hike.