When someone comes to me to work on their relationship with food, and in this case binge eating and emotional eating I often find myself starting by showing them a visual of the Diet – Restrict – Binge Cycle.
I do this for two reasons.
To show my client that they, nor their body is broken
To show my client that the binge or emotional eating is s symptom, and not the root cause of what’s typically going on.
When you find yourself in a binge episode, it feels so out of control. It is so uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. It really *feels* like the food and the lack of control is the problem that we have to fix.
And if you’re gaining weight as a result of the binge or emotional eating then you might panic even more and this thing with food and eating *really* have to get under control. I know for sure that this is how I felt, when I was smack bang in the middle of it.
Years later, I learned about the Diet – Restrict- Binge Cycle and I felt such a relief. No wonder I had spent years going around this cycle. Any and all of the diets that I tried was never going to work to get my binge eating under control.
Why? Because they all implied some kind of restrictive eating. It was either restricting calories or sugar or gluten or fat or some other kind of food group. The restriction kept fuelling my binge eating.
And I had no idea (at the time) that these two were connected and that it in order to stop bingeing I would have to stop restricting.
How does restriction drive binge eating?
The cycle will always start from some kind of restriction. It might be a diet, a need to cut out some specific foods for medical reasons or it might be as a result of not having enough food available for awhile due to lack of financial means. It doesn’t really matter why you are restricting as the body will experience the lack of food the same, as a state of famine.
(Step 1 – Restriction) For this example let us imagine that you are starting a new diet. One that is going to support your “health”. (I have health in quotation marks here because diets are rarely about actual health but about thinness.)
(Step 2 – Feeling hungry / starvation)The diet is going well… until you find yourself hungry, and perhaps also tired and stressed out. It is hard to have the bandwidth to deal with life on an empty stomach and undernourished brain.
(Step 3 – Breaking the Diet ) Maybe someone has brought in a cake or donuts to work and even though you say no to when offered, you still find yourself eating a large slice in secret afterwards.
Once you’ve stepped outside the confines of the diet a few things tend to happen:
You find yourself thinking “Well I have already blown my diet so I might as well keep going now”. And then proceed to binge on all or the foods you don’t normally give yourself permission to eat. Or you might polish off the rest of the cake / packet of biscuits, even though you don’t really feel like eating them but you want them gone now, so that they won’t be there tempting you in the future.
(Step 4 – Shame / Guilt / Frustration / Anger) Another thing that can happen is that the shame and guilt over eating in secret and eating more than / something that wasn’t on your diet plan sends you into a spiral and because food is the main coping tool you have, you find yourself planning a binge later. Or maybe you just keep eating because why the H*ll not?!
This backlash binge eating often comes from hurt, pain and wanting to punishing ourselves for the initial “transgression”. And the initial “transgression” happens as a result of undereating, leading to feeling overly hungry and food being present.
It is natural to eat when we are physically hungry! And when we are overly hungry, it is even harder to make executive function decisions, so grabbing what is available makes total sense.
(Step 5 – Fear of weight gain / desire to get back in control) This is where you’ll find yourself in the aftermath of the binge episode. Often sitting a pool of shame, self-blame and self-loathing, it makes sense to reach back out for another diet or to “get back on the diet-wagon” again. Something that will simply put you back in the place of restriction, and so the cycle continues.
This is why we have to address the restriction in order to heal the binge eating.
This cycle can happen is a day or it can happen after days or weeks or even months of restricting. If the restriction has been going on for weeks or months, then it is not unlikely that the binge eating will happen over several days or weeks too.
With the Diet – Deprivation – Binge Cycle we are trying to fight physiology, and that is not supposed to work. If you are finding yourself binge eating after restricting food (or food groups) for a while, there is nothing wrong with you. In fact I would argue that your body is working quiet well.
Our bodies don’t want to be in a state of famine, that is not helpful to survival so when food becomes available we will naturally eat more than we need, because we are trying to make up for the restriction and as well as that we might also eat more because who knows when food will become available again??
It is important that this is often happen subconsciously. This is your body doing its best to keep you alive.
How do you step out of the Diet – Deprivation – Binge Cycle?
In my 3 part mini course I will take you through three practices that can help you get out of this diet – restrict binge cycle. You will get access to the course when you join my weekly newsletter (which is full of supportive things, I promise!)
If you are new to the concept of Intuitive Eating, and haven’t read the actual book but just been picking up bite size pieces from Social Media, your idea of intuitive eating might be something like “Eat all you want, whenever you want”. Or “Eat only when hungry and stop when you are satisfied / comfortably full.”
There are truths to these ideas but it isn’t the whole truth and there are much more nuance to this way of coming back to attunment with our bodies when it comes to food and eating.
Yes we want to get to a place where we can honour our physical hunger, instead of denying it. And it is lovely to be able to stop eating when you feel comfortably full and deliciously satisfied. But in order to get there, you most likely need to do a few things first.
There are also times when waiting to eat until you are physically hungry is impractical and for some people the hunger cues are less accessible than for others. However this doesn’t mean that your body doesn’t need food. It means that you need some reliable structure to make sure that you feed yourself despite the absence of cues and signals.
Often when trying to recover from an eating disorder eating tends to be either chaotic or restrictive (and often both!) and in order to get to a place of “intuitive eating”, where we are attuned to our bodies’ signals of hunger and fullness we tend to need some structure so that we can make sure that the needs of eating regularly and eating adequately are met.
What does structured eating look like?
Having some structure to your eating includes planning and shopping for food. Because it so much easier to honour our hunger when we have food available and can make an easy meal or snack.
Planning can include making a weekly menu and buying the ingredients required for those meals.
It can also include batch cooking and having easy accessible freezer meals, frozen vegetables and pantry staples at your disposal so that it is easy to make food that are filling and satisfying even when time and energy is scarce.
Don’t forget how convenient leftovers can be for this also. Make some extra when you are cooking an prepping anyway so that you have food for next day lunch boxes or a meal that just requires reheating!
Structured eating can also include reminders which helps us make sure that our bodies get fed in a timely manner. This is particularly useful if your hunger cues are faint, somewhat unreliable or if you simply struggle to forget how to eat when engrossed in something really interesting, and your attention is elsewhere.
Of course, having food to hand and easy accessible snacks will help when your alarm goes off to tell you that it is time to eat.
Structured eating can help you build body trust and help foster intuitive eating by ensuring regularity and adequacy with food.
What makes structured eating different from following a diet plan?
Well for starters: The fact that YOU decided on the structure and the type of foods that is included.
When you are doing your planning and shopping you chose foods that you like, can prepare and are within your budget.
Instead of following a plan with foods, that you might not even like or don’t have a clue how to cook and prepare.
Sometimes, I help my clients with this in session, where we brainstorm together what the weekly menu plan can look like. This is a collaborative effort. Not me making a plan telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat but instead together figuring out what it is you like eating what is satisfying, within the context of your daily life.
Years of dieting can make this challenging so sometimes having someone else to explore with can help.
With structured eating the difference is that the structure is there to be supportive and flexible. Not rigid like a diet plan. You can’t fail with your own menu plan. If you decide in the moment to go with something different to what you had planned, that is fine. Attuned eating and intuitive eating are all about flexibility.
The final thing that I also want to mention is that part of a more structured eating, which promotes flexibility is that there are times when you need to eat in preparation. Before you are really hungry. What I am talking about here is when you might be leaving the house and know that are most likely to be hungry later but at time when eating or access to food might be inconvenient or not possible.
So you choose to eat earlier because otherwise the risk of becoming hangry is impending.
Have you ever heard the term “Last Supper Mentality”? I bet that even if you haven’t heard the term before, you have probably engaged in it, at least if you have ever prepared for any kind of diet.
“Last Supper Eating” is the eating that happens *before* intentional attempts of restriction. It can also be seasonal like Easter, when the chocolate bunnies are out in full force and you are gearing up for another diet to start a “get beach ready” diet as soon as Easter is done, which might mean that you end up eating more chocolate than what you had planned or what even feels good, just because in the back of your mind you know that chocolate will be off the menu for the coming weeks. So that means best to get in some extra now!
Like one of my recent Reclaiming Body Trust participants said “you do more damage in that anticipatory eating leading up to the next diet than when you are not restricting”. Revelatory!
Last Supper eating is part of the same Diet-Restrict-Binge cycle where backlash binges usually happens as soon as we finish the diet or when we can no longer keep up the restrictions. The same mechanisms are at play here – restriction. But in this case it is the anticipation of restriction that is driving it.
So how do you move away from “Last Supper Mentality” and this kind of binge eating?
My invitation to you is to explore this: What if restriction is not the answer?
What happens when you sit with this question? What comes up for you? What are you feeling in your body?
Restricting food, food rules, diet plans and any other variation of these often feel like safety. And it is really hard to let go of something that feels, on some level, that it would threaten our survival.
And… at the same time, at some point, we may arrive at a place where the cost of continuing dieting over and over, is simply too high and that it is time to do something different.
But if not Dieting then what?
For me I did arrive at a point where I could not put myself through that restrictive misery One.More.Time. As I stood on the scales for the umpteenth time and expected it to tell me that I deserved to be happy I had a lightbulb moment!
Why did I give so much power to this inanimate object? I didn’t have to wait to be happy until I weighted x kg /lb. It was something that I could give to myself now. Perhaps there where other ways to find happiness that had nothing to do with the scales?
Ever since that day I have been on a quest to find happiness that is not tied to what my body looks like.
Diet Culture keeps telling us that if our bodies just look a certain way, life will be good. And that’s not to say that living in a smaller body might not make life easier due to the privileges that can bring.
However, things that losing weight does guarantee us is this: health, friendships, intimate relationships, happiness, joy, contentment, creativity, freedom.
I get that the idea of giving up dieting can feel scary, especially if your eating feels chaotic right now.
Here’s a suggestion to start with: Take a sheet of paper, fold it down the middle and then write down all the benefits of being on a diet on one side and on the other side write down all of the costs of dieting.
Which list is longer? Are there any benefits that would be still beneficial even if weight loss was not the outcome main outcome? If so, are there ways to reach these that does not hyper focus on altering your body size / weight?
I hope this was helpful to explore letting go of those things that no longer serves you.
Disordered eating, dieting, restriction, and emotional eating is rooted in wisdom and the coping skills that came from it were helpful at one time, but they may no longer serve you now.
Separating the idea that your body must look a certain way to be worthy of care, food, love, belonging might feel new AND radical. That is because it is.
Living in a culture that places certain bodies in a hierarchy over others makes it radical to take up space and letting yourself live fully and unapologetically as you.
It doesn’t mean that a) You are not worthy to do so. You are worthy simply because you exists. And b) this is something that is only possible for others. It is possible for you too.
I have been thinking about this question for a while. In one way it seems like a really straightforward question. If you have gotten a diagnosis of an eating disorder, seems the most obvious time.
But it is not always easy to get a diagnosis. If you don’t meet the criteria, you may think that things are “fine”, or that you’re not “sick enough” and deserve support.
When we are feeling like our whole lives are consumed by thinking about food and obsessing about our appearance, and when this is holding us back from living our lives in ways we otherwise would, is the time to get some support with our relationship with food eating and your body.
Given that so much of our culture has normalised what is actually pretty disordered (due to fatphobia and weight stigma), this seemingly easy question is a bit more complex than expected.
One thing which is common is the idea that people who struggle with food and body image looks a certain way (young, thin, white and emaciated). This is not true at all.
People of all shapes and sizes and ages can struggle with many of (often normalised) disordered eating behaviours.
When I was in the midst of my own struggles, I kept searching for the “right diet” that would help me gain control over my eating. I tried all sorts. From hypnotherapy CD for weight loss, to Slim-fast shakes, Unislim (like WeightWatchers) and some other dubious things.
I eventually felt so out of control that I did reach out to a local dietitian but never got started with sessions. I also considered therapy around this time but again it never happened.
Life seemed to just evolve around food, dieting and binge eating. Feeling bloated, uncomfortable and down right miserable.
Around this time I also read lots of books, and eventually I must somehow made my way from the diet books to some type of non-diet approach, but I can’t remember any one specific title. However I did have an awakening and realised HOW MUCH of my self-worth I had tied up with the scales. It is incredible just how much power we can hand over to this metal subject…!
Eventually I got off the scales, which was the starting point for me (it might be something else for you) and began the journey of making peace with food, eating and my body.
A journey that will always be ongoing, however I am happy to say that I am now in a place where it sometimes feels alien to think back to how bad and painful things actually were.
I was never officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I may have met the criteria for binge eating disorder (BED) at some point when things were at its worst. But this was before 2013 and BED was not an official diagnose in the DSM-V at that time anyway.
Because what actually is dis-ordered eating behaviours but that our society has “normalised” when in comes to food and eating, I think it might be worth pointing them out.
It is also worth nothing that disordered eating exists on a spectrum and you may experience some of these and not all of them. And things might not be so severe that it ticks all the boxes for an official diagnosis, it doesn’t matter, you still deserve to be living your life free of food and body obsession.
Things that we DO NOT have to live with are:
Constantly thinking about food 24/7
Being on and off diets
Weighing yourself daily and the scale dictating your mood and how the day goes
Weighing foods to portion control
Bingeing when you come off your diet / food restriction
Feeling out of control around food and not trusting yourself and your body
Not keeping certain foods in the house but still bingeing on them
Feeling overly anxious if your food is not “clean” or whole foods only
Exercising for the sole reason to burn calories and to compensate for food intake
Not going out with friend and family because of food anxiety
Avoiding events because of how you feel about your body
Not doing things because you worry about what others think about your body
It really doesn’t have to be this way! Things CAN and WILL get better, and often we need a little support from someone else to get us there.
If this is where you are currently at it might be difficult to imagine that things CAN be different and get better. What waits on the other side of food and body concerns? Food Freedom, Body Trust 😊
This can look and feel like:
Saying yes to lunches and meals out with friends
Not being worried about travelling because you are comfortable eating whatever is on offer
Wearing clothes that makes you feel good in the body you have now
Being fully present with the people you love
Having more brain space to engage in hobbies and relationships that has meaning and value to you
Having more energy and feeling less anxious
Food freedom means having greater flexibility with food and eating and body trust means that we can trust ourselves and our bodies and to care for ourselves in a nourishing and supportive ways.
This is what I wish for you too.
Ready to explore what doing the work to take you there can look like? Between where you are now and where you can potentially get to there are steps and sometimes having some guidance and support alongside you on this journey can be helpful.
This is something I feel like a lot of people who are new to non-diet and intuitive eating approaches ponder. Let’s take some time to unpack it together. The message that weight loss and thinness = health is everywhere. If you take some time to look around at what bodies are portrayed in media / social media as healthy you will most likely find that they tend to be thin and perhaps sometimes muscular as “healthy” bodies and anything else that deviate from this is seen as “unhealthy”.
Of course it seems natural then, to feel like health has a specific look.
But what if we dived a little deeper… We simply cannot tell anyone’s health by looking at them. What we see, and perhaps judge is just a measure of our own confirmation bias.
Size diversity is real. And so is internalised weight stigma / fat phobia.
Someone might have a thin / smaller body due to genetics. Weight loss may occur due to going through illness, having and eating disorder / chronic dieting, experiencing high levels of stress or trauma.
Someone else might have a larger body because of their genetics. Weight gain might occur because of medication, illness, hormonal changes, eating disorder recovery and other reasons.
There is a great chart here that shows all of the myriad of factors that contribute to body composition.
Can we expand our thinking about what health is to go way beyond body size?
And before we do this, I want to say that I don’t believe that thinness = health and that I also don’t believe that health = worthiness. I believe that ALL bodies are worthy of care and respect irrespective of how healthy they are, and I would love for us all to create a world where ALL bodies are treated as such.
The concept of health can be broadened to include not just physical health but also mental and emotional health. If we have to sacrifice mental / emotional health to achieve physical health, is that really healthy?
When the intention is to pursue weight loss at all costs the interventions tend to stop being health promoting. Same when things like what we eat or how we move is taken to extremes. More is usually not better…
Let’s come back to the original question: If you stop pursuing weight loss, does that mean that you have stopped caring about yourself? Well does it?
You might have been over-exercising, skipping meals (only to binge later) or finding yourself struggling with lack of concentration and anxiety because your body is under-fed all in the name of “health” (aka thinness).
What if instead you were working towards letting go of restrictive food rules, eating regularly so that you have better executive functioning and allowing your body to rest when it needs to without guilt?
The thing is that when we let go of pursuing weight loss and trying to shrink our bodies at all costs we are free to reap any benefits that comes with taking care of our bodies with eating enough food, enjoying a wide variety of food, rest when we need it and movement when and in ways that feels good and enjoyable regardless of how this affects our weight.
Your body may change or it may stay the same, but it doesn’t matter because you will feel more energised, have more capacity to deal with life and sleep more soundly.
So if you stopped pursuing weight loss as a goal, and focused on taking care of the body you have right now? How would that feel and what would you do differently?
I invite you to take some time to think about it, feel in to it and perhaps even journal on it.
And if you like, feel free to share your thoughts too, by leaving a comment!
A couple of different conversations and observations over the past few weeks or so sparked my inspiration for writing this blog post.
A friend shared on her FB page the other day about how she’s arrived at the point in her life that she’s going to let go of the strong focus on go-goal-getting and instead be more open to receive what comes.
To savour the journey itself more, rather than just looking at it as a means to get to the destination.
Then there was the conversation between two of my colleagues who work in the mindfulness/ Intuitive Eating / non-diet approach space, which sparked a self reflection on how I know do my own work, and (try) to live my own life.
One colleague put the question out to the community of “How do I help my client know that she has arrived at being an intuitive eater? How will she know that she is finished with our work together?”.
Another colleagues chipped in with the deep wisdom of that when we work in this space of mindfulness and mindful eating, there is really no “arriving”, in the same way we have when we are measuring against a specific outcome, like x number of lb lost, of being able to run a certain distance in a certain amount of time, of being strong enough to lift a certain amount of weights in the gym.
What we are doing in this space is perhaps more about cultivating resilience and courage to meet life as it unfolds. I think we are creating skills for being able to better bounce back from our life experiences.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is important to have goals or maybe more like strong intentions and most of all a sense of purpose, to keep us moving forward. Personally I like how Danielle Laporte puts it; “How do you want to feel?” And then let this be our guiding intention that will frame and inform our actions and behaviours.
I have reflected a lot recently on how I now often work in my clinical practice in this less ‘goal oriented’ and more self care and skills driven way. I really love when people share with me their breakthroughs of how they have made choices that are reflected in putting themselves first in a self loving caring way.
But it is also so challenging at the same time, because it takes so much trust in the process, from both parties. It is extremely rewarding though!
Myself and my friend and collaborator Jen, have discussed these ideas of goals, outcomes and intentions and how it relates to mindfulness, many times. That mindfulness meditation it isn’t really a practice that you use as a means to achieve a particular outcome. It is a way of learning to meet life as it is, from where you are. Pick up any good quality book on the subject by any of the teachers who have practiced this tradition for a long time, and you will see that this is very much at the core of the teachings.
From the practice we develop skills to be more resilient to do just that (meeting life as it is), and as a side effect we tend to experience many positive benefits.
Time and time again, my clients voice how hard they are on themselves. And I’ve discovered how often people feel it’s either all or nothing, and if they are not all in, they are not doing it right, which often has the side effect that then “I may not do it at all”.
The truth is, changed IS hard. But it does ALL count, every single bit that we are working on, trying to do different, in order not so much to change who we are but to care for ourselves better, more kindly.
I’m not sure that most of us needs more drive, more focus or to be harder on ourselves to create change. Maybe what we do need is a strong intention, as sense of purpose but most of all a sense of worthiness. Alongside a hefty dose of self compassion and some self kindness.