How to Break the Binge Cycle
How to Break the Binge Cycle with Mindfulness Tools
Overcoming Binge Eating & The Binge Restrict Cycle
Increasingly, people are struggling with binge eating and overeating in general—often in attempts to cope with stress, or as a habit. Yet, when we approach how to stop binge eating, we often fail to acknowledge the binge restrict cycle that so many of us get stuck in. Today, we’re discussing what this cycle is and how to break the binge cycle with mindfulness.
Based on data from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Stress in America™ 2013 survey:
- 38% of U.S. adults reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress in the month prior to being surveyed.
- Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults reported overeating or stress-eating once a week or more.
- After overeating or stress eating, half of adults (49%) reported feeling disappointed in themselves, 46% felt bad about their bodies, and 36% felt sluggish or lazy.
Interestingly, though, stress doesn’t only contribute to binge eating behavior. Stress can also contribute to food restriction and skipping meals, and this is central to how the binge restrict cycle works. Keep in mind, we can experience stress in relation to many different domains in our lives—and this includes stress about food, our eating habits, and our health.
According to the same survey from the APA:
- 30% of U.S. adults reported skipping a meal due to stress in the month prior to being surveyed.
- Nearly 1 in 8 U.S. adults reported skipping a meal due to stress once a week or more.
- After skipping meals due to stress, 24% of people reported feeling sluggish or lazy, and 22% reported being irritable.
Clearly, our attempts to manage stress by eating or skipping meals only adds to our stress! In today’s video we’re diving into binge eating, understanding how the binge restrict cycle perpetuates, and how to break the binge cycle finally. I’m sharing a host of tools that have helped me on my own journey, and tools that have helped others in recovery programs.
In this course material, I am commenting on binge eating as it relates to disordered and compulsive overeating, emotional eating, and stress eating as coping mechanisms, rather than binge eating disorder (BED) specifically. Although the MB-EAT® program is designed for people struggling with both, the material in this course is intended for educational purposes, and for you to consider and integrate at your own discretion.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or think you need specialized help, please contact a mental health professional. For crisis situations, you may reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association helpline.
The Binge Restrict Cycle
In the previous lesson, we talked about how disordered eating tends to fall on a spectrum, in which many of us vacillate back and forth between overeating and restrictive habits. And, for many of us, this manifests as a binge restrict cycle that can feel endless—going from stress, to binge, to stress, to restriction, and so on.
Earlier in the course, we discussed dysregulation and how dieting can lead to maladaptive feedback loops. By dieting and putting the body in a ‘starvation mode,’ the body then tries to protect us by retaining more fat. And, this dysregulation is at the core of the binge restrict cycle – disrupting the body’s natural feedback loops and driving the cycle to continue.
We eat less food than “normal.” When we diet, we intentionally consume less—because the whole premise of dieting is that we must consume fewer calories than we expend to lose weight. (Spoiler: This approach isn’t all that effective anyway.) During the restriction phase, we may only allow ourselves to eat certain types of foods, certain amounts of foods/calories, or during specific eating windows.
After restricting, we become hangry (hungry + angry). We might become obsessive about food—whether it’s a hyper-focus on what we are eating, or a craving for all the things we’re not eating. Either way, we are physically and mentally feeling the effects of restriction during this resistance phase. After all, the body doesn’t know any better. Dieting is technically a short-term starvation!
Willpower is a limited resource, and dieting is more than a mental battle—it’s a physiological one! As we’ve discussed, dieting can lead to dysregulation and stress in the body. Eventually, the body can’t take it anymore, and we “give in” to a craving. Once we give in, we’ve ‘blown it!’ Now it’s all-or-nothing, leading to a compulsive overeating session fueled by emotions and stress.
Again, we feel the effects of the last action. Our binge leads to feelings of guilt, frustration, and shame. We have, yet again, ‘failed’ our diet. We regret the binge, we fear gaining weight, and we vow to resume the cycle yet again!
How to Break the Binge Cycle
If you’ve ever tried to figure out how to break the binge cycle on your own, it can feel like an impossible task. For many of us, the stress and the struggle are in the resistance phases of the binge restrict cycle. But remember—what we resist, will persist!
Resistance often makes an urge or craving stronger in our minds. It’s like telling someone “don’t think about a big white polar bear,” and then all you can think about is that polar bear. When we resist foods that we want by saying they’re “not allowed,” we often want them more. When we resist foods that we’ve just eaten by shaming ourselves, we often want to eat even more.
Try to bring openness and mindfulness to your experience: a nonjudgmental awareness of your own behavior. With the help of mindfulness and interoceptive awareness (awareness of one’s body), overcoming binge eating is possible.
#1 Mindfulness & Tuning In To Your Body
Consider this: When we’re on a diet or following a set of food rules, we may get a craving or impulse to eat something that’s “not allowed.” Then, we think we can (and should be able to) mentally overcome that physiological urge. We think, with enough willpower, we can just resist that craving. Or, we might reflexively give in to the craving (and then berate ourselves).
But, rather than deciding right away to “give in” or “resist,” what if we were able to notice what was actually happening in our bodies—rather than getting caught up in our minds? This is mindfulness, and this is my #1 recommendation for how to break the binge cycle in your own life. Remember, mindfulness asks the question: What’s happening now? The answer can only come from a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment.
The fact is, all of our experiences in life occur through sensations in the body. Everything we’re really after is a feeling. And yet, we aren’t taught how to listen to those feelings. Instead, we suppress them. Mindfulness and meditation are effective tools to increase emotional intelligence and interoceptive awareness—both of which are essential to overcoming binge eating.
So, get curious about your bodily sensations, and take a step back from your mind’s thoughts and urges. With regular practice, we’ll get to know our own bodily sensations and emotions. And, by practicing mindfulness, we gain the power to respond to those sensations and feelings differently.
Guided Meditation for Cravings
A craving, urge, or impulse to eat is nothing more than a sensation in the body. As we learn to sit with these sensations, we start to recognize the sensation itself, and we can detach from the story that comes along with it. This ‘story’ consists of our thoughts and judgments—like “this craving is unbearable,” or “I’m so weak,” or “if I eat this I’m a failure.”
This body scan meditation is one of my favorite and most highly recommended tools for anyone struggling with binge eating and navigating how to break the binge cycle. This is not intended to be done right in the middle of a craving or impulse. (At least, not at first.) Instead, make the body scan a consistent practice to help you develop interoceptive awareness.
The more you practice, the greater your ability to notice your body’s sensations and be with them. You’ll gain the power to respond to your cravings and urges, rather than react. No resistance is necessary. Simply allow whatever is in your present moment experience to exist!
#2 Hunger & Fullness Scales
Next, an additional tool for overcoming emotional eating involves tuning into our bodies with the help of hunger and fullness scales. The scales below are from the MB-EAT® program that I was certified in last year, and they’re a fantastic tool for cultivating interoceptive awareness.
Specifically, they’re one of the best ways to tune into our bodies before, during, and after eating. Figuring out how to break the binge cycle requires us to get clear on what hunger and fullness actually feel like in our bodies. And, the specific sensations associated with hunger and fullness will be different for each of us.
What is Hunger?
Hunger is the body’s way of telling you it needs nutrients. We often think we should never be hungry, or that life/dieting would be easier if we weren’t hungry. But, if you’re not hungry, it may be a sign of dysregulation in the body. We absolutely should feel hunger. And when we do, we should eat!
Hunger is a feeling in the body. And MB-EAT® offers a hunger scale to help gauge—with 1 being the least hungry, and 10 being the most hungry. Keep in mind, my hunger is going to feel different than yours; your 7 is going to be different than mine. So, YOU have to get to know your body to determine what a 1, 5, or 8 feel like to you. This is inner wisdom!
So, what does hunger feel like? Where do you feel sensations in the body? The stomach? Anywhere else? What about the head? Chest? Feet? There’s no right or wrong—just get curious about your own experience. Are there any other feelings that come along with hunger? For instance, sometimes my hunger is paired with fatigue, irritability, or a headache—especially if I wait too long to eat!
Get curious about the different sensations of hunger in your body, and how hunger feels at different levels. Notice if hunger changes throughout the day: What’s it like at the beginning of the day? Before or after breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Bring mindfulness to the experience—being nonjudgmental and aware of whatever is happening in your body in that moment.
What is Fullness?
Though it’s often misunderstood, fullness is not simply the opposite of hunger. Fullness is the physical sensation of expansion due to the volume and weight of food in the stomach. The fullness scale is similar—1 being the least full, and 10 being the most full. And again, the “full enough” level will vary by person. I usually aim to eat to a 6 to 7 on MY fullness scale, but you need to find your own sweet spot. (Inner wisdom!)
Again, get curious about the sensations that indicate fullness for you. What does fullness feel like in your body? Typically, when you are MOST hungry, you are probably LEAST full. But, it is also possible to feel fullness in the stomach and hunger at the same time—which is why we need two separate scales.
Try this when you’re feeling hungry: drink a large, 16-20oz glass of water all at once, then wait a few minutes. Notice how your stomach will physically expand, and you’ll likely feel physically full—yet you may also still feel hungry. This is because hunger is a signal that the body needs nutrients, and the water provided you with no nutrients!
And, this is why dieting can be tricky–often encouraging people fill up on liquids before a meal to ‘trick’ their bodies into thinking they’re full. This leads to many maladaptive feedback loops and dysregulation. The sensation of fullness is not just the opposite of hunger. Hunger and fullness are different signals from our bodies, each sending us a different message.
If you’re learning how to break the binge cycle in your own life, start using the hunger and fullness scales to help you tune into your body. You can print out this PDF with the scales and use it at a few meals—checking in on your hunger and fullness before, during, and after eating.
The goal is not to depend on this tool religiously or forever, but to use it support you in getting in touch with your inner wisdom. Eventually, as you practice using the scales, you won’t need to look at or even think about the numbers on that scale.
I also recommend trying the “Mini Check-In” from the MB-EAT® program. Basically, this is a short, 1-minute meditation and grounding exercise to be done before you eat.
Not only can this check-in be another helpful tool for developing mindfulness, but it can also help in overcoming binge eating! In MB-EAT®’s research, this mini check-in is the 2nd most effective tool in helping people lower the number of binges per week. (The most effective tool is a daily mindfulness meditation practice!)
Let Me Know Your Thoughts:
Let me know if you’re interested in going through the MB-EAT® program, or a modified version of it, with me after this course. I may host a small group depending on interest—please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or reply to today’s course email and let me know so we can connect.
Patience & Self-Compassion
At the end of the day, be patient and kind with yourself as you learn how to break the binge cycle and heal your relationship with food. I try to remind people that this journey is like a pendulum swinging back and forth—we’re so used to going to “all” or “nothing,” or “binge” and “restrict.” Our pendulum swings SO much at first!
As we bring more mindfulness to our experiences, the pendulum gradually starts to slow down—but it doesn’t happen overnight. It will still go back and forth, so don’t be surprised if you’re still turning to overeating as a coping mechanism after trying out some of these tools. This work takes time to integrate into the body and mind. Be patient as your pendulum settles.
Today’s Journal Prompt:
Write a self-compassionate letter to yourself as if you were writing it to a close friend.
What do you appreciate about this friend? Is there anything you admire about them? What growth have you noticed in them, and what potential do you see in them?
- The Joy of Half a Cookie by Jean Kristeller
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff
- MB-EAT Program: Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training
MB-EAT® Research Studies:
- Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) for Binge Eating: A Randomized Clinical Trial
- Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training for Treating Binge Eating Disorder: The Conceptual Foundation
- An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-Based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder