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!)
Over the past 5 years or so I have been learning a lot from colleagues, teacher and people with lived experiences, who are doing incredibly courageous advocacy for the right to health, respect and care of people in bigger bodies and otherwise marginalised bodies.
It shouldn’t have to be seen as brave work, but advocacy and activism, especially when done by people who are marginalised is brave because of the pushbacks and often threats of violence to that person.
My own Thin Privilege has protected me in many ways from this harm and it was not until I learned from people with lived experience that for example, when you present at the Dr Surgery with any type of condition that as a person in a bigger body, you will most likely be served with unsolicited weight loss advice. That is how weight bias in medicine works.
Maybe you have had this experience and it has left you feeling full of shame, or perhaps you had no idea, like I did, that this is a all too common experience for folx.
It wasn’t until I stated to learn about the systemic oppression that happens to bodies, who are outside the societal norm, that I began to understand that body image and how we feel about our own reflection isn’t just an individual issue. It has much deeper roots than that.
Yes it is important to become aware of how we speak, think and judge our own bodies, but we also need to wake up to how we, and society at large speak, think and judge other people’s bodies.
We need to realise the internalised fat phobia and anti-fat bias that we have been steeped in through society’s influences. You might have gotten it directly from you caregivers, but even if you didn’t pick it up at home, the message that thin is best is really everywhere.
The thing about internalised fat phobia / anti-fat bias is that it seeps into everyone. No matter what body size you are, chances are that you are carrying some of it, and until we dismantle weight stigma and weight discrimination, it hurts everyone. But it doesn’t hurt everyone in equal measures.
I am really no expert in talking about weight oppression so I am going to link to a group of excellent people whom I have learned from and that I am continuing to learn from at the bottom of this post.
I live in a straight sized body and the one thing that I have been, and that flares up every so often is my own internalised BS.
I also witness in my clients that the internalised fat phobia / anti-fat bias does not depend on body size. Which is why trying to make our bodies smaller will really not make it go away. It might give some relief temporarily but since dieting doesn’t work for 95% of the people who try them and is the leading cause of developing an eating disorder then it really isn’t the way to go, is it?
If you want to heal your relationship with food, eating and your body letting go of intentional weight pursuits, aka dieting is a necessity.
A few years ago when reflecting on my own relationship with food and eating, and the journey I have been on, I discovered a triggering comment on the size of my body (which in fairness at the time was still well within what society is considering “normal” & “healthy”), which lead me to start my first diet and subsequently struggling with over a decade of disordered eating.
From then on, I was at war with my body.
Denying my body its needs in form of food, rest, play and connection.
I can realise now, with my adult eyes and knowledge, decades later, that what I was most likely looking for was a sense of safety and belonging. A desire to fit in.
And in my desperate desire to fit in and belong, I abandoned myself. I disconnected me from my body, without understanding that my body is also me. It is my home for this lifetime and it is the vessel from which I experience life.
How can we feel safe, grounded and anchored into ourselves if we are simultaneously trying to force our bodies into some societal norms of what bodies “should look like”? Always trying to fix them and make them conform, so that we are acceptable, even palatable and thus fit in.
The desire and external pressure to do so is what is known as Diet Culture. It is very insidious and we are being bombarded from all angels with the message that we are not good enough as we are.
Somehow our bodies are not trustworthy. They are unruly and need to be controlled, often at all costs. Regardless of what body size our bodies actually are, this message all too often becomes internalised and we decide to do something about it. I.e. diet.
*It is also worth noting here, that this message of “not good enough” and body conformity conveniently commodifies our bodies in new ways, so that we can be sold “fixes”, to our internal struggles. Which means someone is making a lot of money of our body insecurities. Convenient huh?! And I doubt that is by accident. This is how capitalism works. (A topic for another day).
Diets, by design are restrictive. Often it is about cutting calories, or portion sizes. Or food groups. With the intention of trying to control the size of our body. Sometimes it is even disguised as something we do in the name of health. But as long as you are following a plan, set by someone else that has a bunch of food rules and is aimed at helping you lose weight, it is a diet.
Here’s the thing; How can we move beyond surviving into thriving if we are not honouring our physical needs in the first place?
Is it really possible to establish a sense of belonging, if we are always trying to make ourselves and our bodies into something they are not?
I doubt it.
Each time you are denying your body’s cry for food, you are essentially telling yourself in real time that you are not worthy of love and care. It’s oppressive and abusive. (And just to be clear I am not talking about situations of food insecurity or specific feeding challenges here. I am talking about dieting and restrictive eating).
In order to (re)build body trust, which is a two way connection between you and your body, you need to consistently over time meet that physical hunger with food. Over and over and over again. This is how the repair will happen and trust will build.
But you still really want to lose some weight? I get it. It is ok to want it. We all live in Diet Culture land.
As discussed previously, weight stigma is real. It does make it easier to live in a body that is not discriminated against. Yet actively pursuing weight loss is such a futile, life sucking pursuit, which it turns out is also a pretty good predictor of weight gain, over time(insert research resource).
So how can you move forward?
I believe it is important to acknowledge the internal voices of fat shaming, examine and understand where you learnt these, and if/how they might still be trying to keep you safe in some way.
Ask yourself, “Whose voice is that?”.
If you are in a smaller body and experience Thin Privilege, learn about what it is like for someone to live in a body where society feels like it has some right to judge and criticise based on a particular body size. And also spend some (potentially uncomfortable) time to examine your own thoughts, believes and biases about people in bigger bodies.
Pay attention to the words you use when you speak about your own body or other bodies, because as we know words hold tremendous power.
Shame never helps or heals. Kindness does.
May we together create a compassionate space where ALL bodies are welcome to heal, worthy of care and to be blessed with health.
May we let go of the oppression perpetuated by Diet Culture through actively pursuing weight loss.
May you recognise your worth as a human being, just as you are.
Some great people to follow and learn from when it comes to body liberation:
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.
One of the things that we work with in intuitive eating / mindful eating approaches are knowing when we are hungry, and moving through any barriers to meeting this basic need.
If you have been going from diet, to diet with periods of “being good”, aka restricting and then feeling out of control and bingeing, I am guessing that your eating feels chaotic a lot of the time, but interspersed with times of also feeling in control.
Or maybe it just feel mostly chaotic, all of the time? And just thinking about restricting / dieting sends you straight to the pantry searching for something to eat…
If this is where you are currently finding yourself, please know that you are not alone. This is more common than you might think, but because this situation often is filled with so much shame we don’t tend to talk about it much with others. I certainly never did when I was in the midst of my own struggles.
I used to think in the midst of my own struggles that this was something that only I experienced. Now that I sit on the other side of the table, helping people find their way to a peaceful relationship with food, eating and their bodies I know that this struggle is really common.
Anyhow, so let’s talk about how you CAN reconnect to your own hunger cues and honour them. Because here’s the thing, life gets so much easier when we live in a body and with a brain that is consistently and adequately nourished!
Sometimes when starting out in this journey of reclaiming body trust and trust in ourselves, it feels scary and overwhelming. You might say “I can’t possibly trust my body to tell me what too eat and how much! If I do that, I will never stop eating!!”.
I know that it might feel like that. And one of the main reasons that you can’t stop is because you are restricting (physically, mentally, emotionally or a combination).
Maybe at this point what you are noticing when tuning into your physical hunger signals it that you can only feel them when you are at an extreme, like “hangry”, shaky, pain in stomach, low energy.
Or perhaps you’re not noticing much at all?
That is fine. This is a practice. It means that we must keep asking the question “How hungry am I”? And to keep listening for the answer.
First there might be nothing. And then there might be a whisper, long before you get to the roar (that might be the one that you are familiar with).
Paying attention to hunger and eating in this attuned way, does of course not mean that we ONLY eat when we are hungry. Sometimes that’s not possible and if our hunger cues are a bit all over the place that can leave us stuck in this chaotic place.
The first step is to put some structured eating in place. (Not the same as rigid eating!)
Structured eating is more like a scaffolding whilst you build you attuned eating muscles and your body trust.
Structured eating looks like:
Eating 3 meals a day + 1-2 snacks
Eating every 3-5h and gaps no longer than 6h
Eating a combination of fats / protein / carbohydrates with all of your main meals
Structured eating may need some forward planning too, making sure that you have food at home to cook and prepare meals and snacks. This may include making a menu plan of lunches and dinners (this helps take pressure of decision making when already hungry), having suitable snacks in your handbag / office / car / pantry.
After awhile of structured eating your subtle hunger cues might get a little louder and you are free to experiment with what it feels to meet that need in the moment, and less structure may be needed. However if having certain times and reminder helps you eat enough and regularly, there is nothing wrong with using this for as long or as much as is needed.
Was this helpful? Please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.
So here we are in December and the holiday season is upon us. This time of the year can be a challenging time to navigate, especially if you are just in the beginning of your make-peace-with-food journey.
Food is in abundant supply and so is the media’s continued supply of mixed messages. If you open any women’s magazine you will most likely see a miss mash between “How to bake delicious cookies and sweet treats” to “How to beat the Christmas bulge and look fabulous in the little black dress”.
Years ago, long before I became firmly rooted in a non-diet approach, I both followed and gave out advice such as “ How to stop overeating at Christmas, to prevent weight gain and “How to avoid temptations” (insert face palm here…). Anyway, these days when I know better, I would like to rectify this past advice with something more useful and something that won’t backfire into deprivation driven eating or binge like behaviour, just because diet mentality is reinforced.
The Holiday Season can be challenging to navigate for many reasons, not just food alone, but dealing with family, in-laws etc. and the general stress of this time of year often have their own challenges and if the relationship with particular people are strained normally, the holiday season may not make it any easier. As a result we may turn to food (or alcohol) in order to cope. Don’t beat your self up about it, if this is the case, we all do what we in have to in order to survive.
The hallmark of diet mentality is this All Or Nothing thinking. It is either Good or Bad. Intuitive eating helps us live in the grey (though I prefer to think of it as a rainbow…), where choice and flexibility exists. Of course it may feel easier to roll with an all or nothing approach, sussing out all the nuances in between is so much messier. But it is here, in the mess and the nuance, that peace and freedom resides.
So actually, even though this time of year IS challenging to navigate, between family stuff, diet talk, overwhelm and perhaps fear of how to cope with it all, it can also provide us with rich soil for practice and growth.
These are my five suggestions for How To Navigate The Holiday Season As An Intuitive Eater.
Give yourself full permission to eat ALL foods
This is the basic tenet of intuitive eating. In order to create space for choice, we have to first let go of all the rigid food rules we’re holding on to. If ALL foods are ‘allowed’ then there’s no reason for feeling guilty for eating anything. If you could have whatever you want of what is on offer, what do YOU want? Pick what you truly enjoy of the seasonal feasts on offer and feel free to say no to the rest. You are don’t have to eat something “just because”.
Practice honouring your hunger and fullness ques (and don’t arrive to the party starving!)
Now is a prime opportunity to truly listen to your body. Of course there may be some overeating past comfortable fullness, that’s to be expected simply by the share amount of food that tends to be serves on Christmas Day alone. That is totally cool too. Your body knows how to handle it.
And if you are not “saving up calories” but continue with a practice of eating regular meals, there is less chance of inhaling everything in sight, just because you are Starving!
If you can let go of any idea starting (another) diet in January, it will be so much easier to relax into this and to let your body guide you. You are just respecting your body’s cues and that’s that.
You don’t need to repent anything
Adopt this as a mantra if one of your struggles are with over exercising and/ or a fear of weight gain. Move your body because it feels good to do so. You don’t need to earn food, or burn it off. Not over the Holiday Season or any other time of the year for that matter. Trust that your body know how to regulate itself.
Say No, if you have to. Your body, your rules. If you are surrounded by diet talk, try changing the conversation or excuse yourself. Leave if you have to, in order to keep your sanity and if it is too triggering. Also unsubscribe and unfollow all the diet advice that may be still coming your way.
Rest, Move, Socialise, Eat – Do whatever you need to take care of YOU
Allow yourself some time to do what feels best for you. This may be the greatest gift you can gift yourself. Oh and be gentle with yourself too. Self-kindness and self compassion is always a good idea.