Deal with it: Binge Eating


“Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature.” Dorothy Canfield Fisher

I was a fat kid my entire life, up until the age of 28. That fat kid still exists, deep down inside, and his timid voice can become booming when it comes to food. Even after having lost 200lbs, I still have the voracious appetite of someone that is 410lbs. I know that I could be a competitive eater, but I have no desire to undo all of my hard work and the changes I’ve implemented in my life. Still, I occasionally find that I have this burning desire that turns off my brain and makes me feel like I just need to keep eating. Fortunately, these occasions, over time, have become few and far between. Even so, I want to leave nothing to chance. I’ve resolved to learn from my mistakes so that that I am better prepared for the next time the inner fat kid starts to get really loud and demands a few stuffed crust meat lover’s pizzas and non-diet Mt. Dew in a can (it’s so much better in a can).

One of the important parts of dealing with the after effects of binge eating is to realize what you should NOT do afterwards:

  1. DO NOT weigh yourself for a few days. Having binged is already demoralizing; there is no need to further complicating things by having the scale demoralize and de-motivate you further. The scale may register much higher than normal. In this case it isn’t an indicator of fat gain: after a binge, the scale will be up due to extra food in your system, and water weight caused by extra sodium and carbohydrates. Trust me, as I’ve seen the scale swing upwards of 20lbs in a single 24 hour period after visiting a buffet. Before I learned how to deal with binges and move forward, I let this 20lb “weight” gain utterly de-motivate me, and I would often spiral out of control into a multiple week long period of simply not caring and effectively undoing much of my progress.
  2. DO NOT compensate for a binge the very next day by punishing yourself through excessive cardio. I firmly believe that exercise should be a tool used to improve your mental and physical fitness toward a goal of overall health. Using cardio simply with the mindset of burning calories, contributes to an unhealthy attitude where you may think “I can eat whatever I want as long as I force myself to burn it off tomorrow.” It is NOT healthy to put yourself on a path where binging is followed by cardio as a means of punishment. Please do not push that burden onto your future self!
  3. DO NOT skip meals in order to offset what you ate during the binge. While it’s certainly OK to eat a bit less the next day, and maybe up your green vegetable consumption to help with your post-binge hunger and digestion, skipping meals to compensate also contributes to a very unhealthy attitude toward binges and how to deal with them.

Behaviors that perpetuate the cycle of binging and then “undoing the binge” create a negative relationship with food and exercise. For long term success, you would be best served by realizing that a single day is irrelevant. Identify the binge, reflect upon it, and move on. Doing any of the actions mentioned in the above short list of negative post-binge actions can contribute to difficulty in just moving on or can even help to continue the binge beyond a single meal and/or day.

A healthier approach to the problem of binging is admitting to yourself that overeating is more likely to occur in certain situations, and working to achieve a positive a relationship between your emotions, your fitness goals, and your natural need for food.

With the things that you should not do out of the way, there are somethings that you should do to help prevent binges and stop ones that have already started.

  1. DO plan ahead in order to prevent binges or minimize their impact. If you know of situations where you are incredibly likely to binge, then planning ahead can make such a situation have a much reduced emotional, mental, and physical impact. For example, when teachers return to school after summer break, and are hit with tons of stress and deadlines all at once, binging on comfort foods (and foods available at all day meetings) is common. Other special events like birthdays, and holidays should also be planned for by using the previous techniques of “budgeting the luxuries” and the “social obligation buffer.” If you plan for these events, instead of trying to avoid these situations entirely through willpower alone, you are much less likely to think that you’ve failed and thus less likely for the binge to be worse.

    If you know there is going to be pizza at a party, tracking a few slices ahead of time would help you think about how calorie dense pizza is which may even cause you to have one slice less than you normally would. Cutting out that single slice, while it might seem minor, is a great example of how implementing small habits, like planning your meal before the party, changes your mindset from being on a diet of restriction to having a flexible plan that you can incorporate for life and without feeling like you are always making a sacrifice in your food choices.

  2. DO learn the pattern of thoughts that lead to, proceed, and happen during a binge.
    For me, a binge starts with a little voice in my head that says “I just lifted weights, all of these calories are going to go to building muscle, and there is no way I’m going to regret this” or “You have the skills to be a competitive eater, but you have to use those skills or lose them.” The worst voice is “You can eat a single peanut butter filled pretzel. I promise, just one. I wouldn’t lie to you because I am you, and I love me/you/us.”

    If you go back over these thoughts that happen before and during a binge and examine them objectively, you will realize that they are lies that you tell yourself. For some reason, we accept them as truths in the heat of the moment, but in retrospect we can see that they are not true.

    Once you’ve identified these thoughts, you can use them to either stop a binge before it happens, or end one as soon as you recognize that it has begun. When a binge is about to happen, or has started, recall that these thoughts are lies and that they will you lead to regretting the binge and feeling worse afterwards.

  3. DO identify foods that are your personal binge triggers. Through the combination of planning ahead and objectively examining your thoughts and feelings before, during, and after a binge, you should begin to be able to identify foods that are your personal binge triggers. These are often foods with childhood memories tied to them, that due to the emotional strength of those memories can override any of your attempts to prevent or stop a binge once you start eating them.

    For me, one of my biggest triggers is my grandmother’s nacho dip. My grandmother would always make a nacho dip, her own personal recipe, that is one of the biggest calorie bombs ever. It is basically multiple types of Italian sausages, ground beef, and numerous types of Velveeta cheeses mixed together and eaten with tortilla chips. Every time that she made a batch, I would help and then we’d eat it together sharing stories and just enjoying each other’s company. It was Chuck and Grandma alone time that I’ll never forget. Because I have such great memories tied to that food, I just cannot stop myself from eating it once I start. It doesn’t help that is very high in fat, carbohydrates, salt, and sugar (thus hyper-palatable), and that nachos are one of my favorite foods anyways. Given that I cannot stop eating it, I avoid having it in the house or making it, even though I still have the recipe. For me, this is a very special occasion food, and eaten once a year if that.

The next time that your own inner fat kid’s voice starts to get louder and louder, try to plan ahead, learn the patterns of thought that accompany the binge, and identify the foods that are binge triggers. Having a plan in place to help you learn from a binge will help you overcome the feelings of guilt and failure associated with listening to your own inner fat kid’s voice. Remember, you aren’t alone in this, and you cannot hope to be perfect. It is a much better use of your time to accept that you will make mistakes and to resolve to learn from them.

Featured image courtesy of Corie Howell and used under a Creative Commons license.