If you’re wondering how to stop binge eating then you must focus on the critical moment right before you lose control.
While other blog posts on the internet do a great job about focusing on binge eating disorder in general, this blog post gives specific education and tools to really focus on what triggers you to binge and how to overcome those triggers.
I will be specifically going over a mindfulness and writing technique that is extremely powerful. And also showing videos of client’s using this technique to great effect.
First, like other blogs we’ll be covering binge eating disorder in broad strokes within this article because some education and context is necessary even if we are narrowing our focus.
The first three topics we’ll address are:
- Big picture – How do you stop a binge cycle before it gets out of control?
- Why do you binge in the first place?
- What triggers a binge?
These first three topics will provide the necessary ‘mindset’ information that you can use to apply the 4 keys that are listed afterwards.
These 4 keys comprise what I call ‘catching yourself in the moment before you binge‘.
Summary: This article will cover ‘why’ binging happens. Then it will describe 4 steps to stop binge eating.
Big Picture – How Do You Stop A Binge Cycle Before It Gets Out Of Control?
In general there are two elements you need in order to stop a binge cycle before it gets too crazy.
And both of these elements must combine together! You can’t have one without the other and expect to stop binging.
- Education – right mindset
- Tools – right actions to take based upon the right mindset
For me, I really truly believe that these two elements are necessary because I had the tools without the education and that wasn’t enough.
I learned all these great mindfulness techniques while living as a Zen Monk, but without a deeper understanding of why I binged I found myself stuck in the same habits no matter how much time I spent meditating.
It was like trying to sail a ship without a compass!
So the big picture of stopping a binge cycle is learning ‘why’ you binge in the first place. This is the education part.
Then if you know ‘why’ you binge then you can start to properly apply the techniques to stop binge eating.
Why Do You Binge In The First Place?
In all the binge eating disorder books out there …
In all the amazing, scientific research that’s been done on binge eating disorder …
There is one underlying pattern of binge eating disorder, and actually with every eating disorder in various forms. This horrible pattern goes by various names like:
- Diet / Binge
- Restrict / Binge
- Control / Compensate
- Yo yo dieting
This eating disorder pattern is a complex sequence of various factors including negative thoughts, excessive willpower, deprivation, and shame which combine in a very sticky, hard-to-change way.
You must be aware of this pattern because it’s the reason why you binge!
This pattern can be tricky to spot so here’s a graphic of this foundational, underlying pattern that is crucial to understand if you’re serious about how to stop binge eating disorder.
Please note that this eating pattern is the cause of other common symptoms of binge eating such as:
- Feeling like there is a ‘forbidden’ food that’s usually high in calories
- Eating at a much quicker rate than usual
- Hiding your behavior because of embarrassment
- Feeling horribly guilty afterwards
Oh, and two other important notes about the definition of a ‘binge’ too:
- Factual Binge Eating: Binge eating can be defined objectively such as when you eat large amounts of food, like over 2000 calories in a short amount of time.
- Subjective Binge Eating: Oftentimes people lose control and fall into automatic bad habits. This feels horrible and there’s still guilt, but objectively speaking the amount of food might be fairly normal. It’s just the loss of control that is what makes this a binge too.
Subjective binge can be very similar to how some people use the term ‘emotional eating’.
Oftentimes when people ‘emotionally eat’ they feel guilty afterwards. In this sense subjective binge eating and emotional eating are similar.
However, the reason I like the term ‘subjective binge eating’ more than emotional eating is because emotional eating can also be a good thing without any guilt.
For example, emotional eating can occur in situations where eating food and happiness go together, like:
- Other social situations where emotions of joy and food go together
If you are thinking about emotional eating in terms of where you lose control, then I would consider this a binge, even if you don’t objectively eat that much.
But let’s not get caught up in terminology too much …
The important thing to realize is that for any situations where you are losing control and feeling guilty around eating food …
This underlying eating pattern is at play!
Now do you see why education and learning about this eating pattern is important?
As you can see in the above graphic, there are many contributing factors to a binge.
But if you didn’t see this image or this pattern, then you can easily miss one of the parts of the pattern and still remain stuck in the same pattern!
Summary: You binge because of a variety of factors, including trying to manage your health by relying, for example, on willpower. Then inevitably your willpower runs out, you binge, and then you blame yourself for being weak.
There are different types of binges, but the hallmark characteristic is losing control of eating and feeling bad afterwards.
Knowledge of this underlying eating pattern is important for successful treatment.
Why Binging Education Is Important – My Quick Story
For example, I began binging in highschool.
I continued binging through college, telling nobody but feeling increasingly miserable and out of control inside. I turned to marijuana to numb myself even more.
Between food and weed, things got pretty dark.
So I decided to do something completely radical. I joined a Zen Monastery and became a Zen Monk. And to make a long story short, my binge eating stopped!
I was so proud of myself! I finally thought I had things under control! But, turns out my binge eating had only been put on a short hiatus.
Right after I left the quiet nature of the monastery and moved to the noisy, dirty city of San Jose, my binging came back.
I couldn’t figure things out. Up in the monastery I had learned mindfulness. But mindfulness and all the self-care practices in the world weren’t enough. I needed something more.
Eventually I had a professor in graduate school who taught a class about eating disorders.
She mentioned the ‘diet’ and ‘binge’ cycle and I remember thinking ‘Hallelujah!’.
Finally, somebody was speaking to my eating problem!
And that’s what I hope this blog post does for you. I hope this blog post gives you language to understand why you binge, and practical steps you can take to stop binge eating.
And yes, mindfulness will be one of the tools I recommend as part of the 4 keys, but let’s start with education first!
I Missed The ‘Education’ Part Despite Living As A Monk
See, when I was living as a Zen Monk and practicing intensive mindfulness, I started dealing with my anxiety.
I was also better able to practice non-judgment for some feelings of shame and guilt.
I was able to make some eating progress but still found myself repeating the same eating patterns.
However, now I see I fell into repeating the same eating patterns despite my mindfulness, because I didn’t know about this foundational eating pattern talked about above.
In particular, I was missing the first step about dieting and restriction.
See, my deeper ‘health paradigm’ was based on control, restriction and dieting, but I didn’t realize it.
Even though I wasn’t on an official diet, I was still trapped in this willpower mentality.
It was this deeper mindset and paradigm based on willpower and rigid control that was my real enemy!
Leave A Comment: Can you relate? Perhaps you’ve done therapy or tried different ways to manage binge eating, but you were lacking knowledge of this underlying pattern and kept repeating the same patterns?
Now that you see the underlying eating pattern …
What Triggers A Binge?
Interesting, this underlying eating pattern also explains what triggers a binge eating episode.
Oftentimes people get confused because they get triggered to binge by a seemingly small annoying event.
For example, maybe you binged because you got stuck at a red light for a few minutes too long, and you were still frustrated when you ate some food?
- Or maybe your friend got unexpectedly sick and couldn’t hang out with you?
- Perhaps your boss sent a slightly harsh email?
- Maybe you just didn’t have the ‘best’ day?
- Or you were feeling a bit too stressed but nothing out of the ordinary?
- Or you were thinking about weight loss?
Here’s a picture down below of some other common triggers:
Why The Binge Eating Pattern Causes Small Triggers To Ruin You
When you are still trapped in the binge eating pattern, this means you are using willpower and restriction to manage your health and weight.
What happens is that you are pushing yourself too hard. You are being too strict on yourself.
- You are burning yourself out with your discipline.
- Not taking enough time to recharge
- Wasting time on activities that drain you
- You are also not meeting your emotional needs.
You are using all your brainpower to avoid certain foods, to micromanage the amounts of food, to ‘be good’ and to manage and control your weight.
Because of all this energy spent thinking, your mental health is being damaged, obviously.
You try to get back to the present moment and to be a sane person with normal eating behaviors but you are way out of whack.
This is when something small can trigger you.
Like, when you make a little mistake you feel like you are a failure. You feel like you are pathetic even for just a tiny mistake. Even though every person makes tiny mistakes!
Essentially, you are too hard on yourself. When you are too hard on yourself throughout the day. this leads to thinking things like:
- If you make a little food mistake then you say ‘f*ck it, screw it’.
- If you’ve been ‘good’ then you deserve a little food treat, but end up eating way too much food
- Certain foods are ‘good’ while other certain foods are ‘bad’ and I am bad if I eat those bad foods
All this extra stress makes any additional little stress like ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.
Summary: Binge eating pattern leaves a person overly dependent on their willpower and vulnerable to little stressors. The binge eating pattern also creates conditions where a person’s thoughts can cause a binge.
Triggers themselves can be anything, but the important concept is to see the underlying ‘deprivation’ caused by the binge eating pattern which makes a person vulnerable to triggers.
Now that we have talked about the education component, let’s switch gears to focus on the tools necessary to regain self control.
How Do You Fix Binge Eating Before It’s Too Late? Try These 4 Keys!
There are 4 keys to stop binge eating.
Overall, the big picture is that you need these 4 keys to regain self control:
- Get enough sleep and food
- Practice mindfulness
- Pause and get your thoughts on paper
- Challenge, accept, and practice compassion towards, or reframe your thoughts
(I know that accepting your thoughts and challenging your thoughts sounds contradictory. But these are just different ways you can alter your relationship to your thoughts. In some cases it’s best to accept your thoughts, but in other cases it’s best to challenge your thoughts.)
The first 2 keys are about getting into the right place so that you can do the ‘hard’ work of changing your thoughts and managing your emotions.
Let’s use a surgery analogy.
You need a nice, clean, safe environment in order to do surgery. That’s what the first two steps are about.
You need to set up the conditions for success first.
Then after the conditions are set up, you can use your food tools to ‘remove’, metaphorically speaking, those thoughts that cause you to binge.
So let’s explore these keys in a bit more detail.
Stop Binge Eating Key #1 – Avoid Breaking Your Camel’s Back!
Ok, this is a silly sounding step!
But I think you know what I mean, right?
If a single straw is breaking your camel’s back, then you are pushing your camel way too hard and not giving your camel enough water, food or rest.
If you want to stop compulsive eating before it gets out of control, then you need to have a strong foundation.
In some of the later steps I’ll mention some specific mindfulness and journaling techniques, but there’s absolutely no way you’ll be able to use these tools if you are on 4 hours of sleep, haven’t eaten any food today, and are dehydrated.
Just think about it. When do you binge most frequently? Probably after a long day of work, right?
Actually binges can occur at anytime, and generally speaking there are three general factors that precede a time when you binge eat:
- Not getting enough sleep
- Skipping meals or food breaks
- Not eating enough amount of food during your meals
One of the very first things I do with clients is to have them ‘rewind’ the movie.
This is a powerful technique you can learn more about here. Essentially this involves you noticing that whenever you binge it’s because a ‘straw broke your camel’s back’. Meaning, if you replay the day’s events you’ll often see that you were needing food, rest and to de-stress.
But because you didn’t get enough food, were stressed and on low sleep, a little trigger or a little thought caused you to feel out of control and eat too much.
If you want successful long term treatment from binge eating and emotional eating then you absolutely need to practice these foundational habits – getting enough sleep and eating regular meals — as mentioned above.
Summary: If ending binge eating is a priority for you, then you’ll find ways to better manage your energy.
You must avoid getting too hungry, too tired, or too overwhelmed. If you are too tired, overwhelmed etc, then you won’t be able to do the real work of ‘catching’ your thoughts, which we’ll talk more about down below.
Stop Binge Eating Key #2 – Daily Yoga, Prayer or Meditation
Remember, the real work to stop a binge before it’s too late is like surgery.
Surgery is delicate, subtle, work that can become confusing.
The first step we talked about above is like becoming a surgeon who is well-rested.
Obviously, you don’t want a surgeon who is tired and hasn’t eaten anything to be operating on you, right?
So you need to have the same standards for yourself too! Now, let’s say you have a surgeon who is well-rested. What next?
Well, now we need our surgeon to have good hand-eye coordination.
We can have a doctor who knows all about our organs, but if this doctor doesn’t have good hand eye coordination then the surgery will be ineffective!
In binge eating terms, you must become proficient with your thoughts and self-talk.
Admittedly this is easier said than done, but that’s why a daily practice of yoga, meditation or prayer is so necessary.
I’ve noticed myself and with clients that when they are taking care of themselves daily with sufficient sleep, nourishing food and doing at least 5 minutes of yoga, meditation or prayer, then they are able to do the subtle, delicate work that enables them to pause before they binge eat!
Whenever you practice yoga, prayer or meditation what you are doing is:
- Practicing becoming aware of your thoughts
- Practicing stillness and acceptance of your thoughts
- Accepting and letting go of your thoughts
Put in other words, you need to have some skills with your thoughts in order to do this tricky step of ending a binge before it happens.
Summary: Mindfulness practices like yoga, meditation and prayer give you the fundamental skills to ‘catch’ your thoughts before a binge.
Ultimately you do have to catch your thoughts before a binge.
Practicing these skills on a regular basis also helps you prevent your ‘camel from breaking’ and also will help you to catch your thoughts.
Here is what it looks like to catch your thoughts:
Now That You Have These First Two Keys, Let’s Now Draw Upon Our ‘Education’ To Properly Do The Next Few Steps!
Stop Binge Eating Key #3 – Get Thoughts Out On Paper
Here is a video you can watch which says it best.
Remember, what we are trying to do is ‘catch’ or ‘pause’ in the critical moment right before you binge.
So far we’ve talked about taking care of yourself and practicing some mindfulness so that you can ‘catch’ your thoughts.
This mindfulness is a critical step of preparation in order to ‘catch’ your thoughts which we’ll cover in this step here.
The exercise I’d like you to try in which to ‘catch’ your thoughts is journaling, which I’ll describe more about here.
(Please note – there are other ways of catching your thoughts and working with your thoughts, but what’s good about journaling is that you get everything out on paper to see clearly.)
Sometimes your thoughts can be really confusing, even if you have gotten enough sleep and have been practicing mindfulness.
And trust me, I know how difficult it is to pause before a binge.
It’s extraordinarily difficult, but I wouldn’t ask you if it weren’t possible. I wouldn’t ask you to consider changing your relationship with food using these 4 keys if changing your relationship with food was impossible.
In the beginning of your binge eating healing journey, I recommend using a writing exercise to really help put structure to your pause.
See, oftentimes just pausing and not moving just feels terrifying. You are frozen.
But writing gives you something concrete to do. It helps you move your panicked, stressful energy into something productive – writing.
Plus, even if you are an adept yogi and meditator and are perfectly calm, it can be difficult to ‘catch’ your thoughts.
That’s why this writing exercise is so great. And it’s so simple too!
All you do is simply get a piece of paper and write out your thoughts before a binge.
I guarantee you are thinking before you binge. I guarantee it. 100%.
What you do for this step is write down your thoughts, the thoughts that are swirling around in your head before a binge.
And I realize that binge eating can be very mindless. It’s easy to be eating before you even know it.
But this is how to stop binge eating before you lose control – you absolutely must be able to catch the thoughts that are playing in your mind in the moments that precede a binge.
The act of writing counts as a pause, and also helps with identifying those thoughts which is crucial for the step after the journaling.
Let’s Also Use Our Education From Above For Guidance
For example, here are few common thought patterns which we talked about earlier in the section about triggers:
- I’m bored
- I need a reward
- Life is too stressful right now
- I screwed up so I might as well binge because I’m already a failure
- I need weight loss
- Punishment is best right now
- I need to restrict because I screwed up earlier
If you catch yourself before a binge, are you thinking any of these thoughts?
Which of these are you specifically thinking?
Oftentimes before a binge there is this feeling of chaos, or doom. But with this feeling of chaos or impending dread, there are also thoughts (often times related to weight loss or body image).
What are those thoughts specifically saying to you?
Try to write them down at least briefly. Just doing this will help you pause and focus more on what is going on in your head!
Summary: You need to pause and identify the specific thoughts that are telling you to binge. Is it because you deserve a reward? Or because bingeing would cure your boredom? Is it because you screwed up?
Writing can be very helpful to practice pausing and catching your thoughts in the moments before a binge.
Stop Binge Eating Key #4 – Challenge The Inner Critic
Now that you have paused and understood your inner thoughts telling you to binge for whatever reason …
It’s now time to challenge those thoughts.
For example, let’s say you paused before a binge and realized that your thoughts were saying to binge because you were bored.
With this thought written out on paper, you could examine:
- Will binging really help you to not be bored?
- Is binge eating really that fun?
You could go deeper and examine the subconscious beliefs you have as well:
- Do I unconsciously believe there is something wrong with boredom?
- Do I believe that I am a failure for being bored?
Note this ‘challenge’ technique is primarily based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). For more info on CBT you can read here.
There are many other ways of relating to your thoughts in addition to CBT such as:
- Mindfulness-based compassion
You could also just try going on a walk or some other activity to distract you or calm you down once you catch your thoughts!
Basically there are many different ways to challenge yourself so that you relate differently to your thoughts.
But whatever technique you use, you absolutely must have the foundations of enough energy (Step 1) and mindfulness (Step 2) to ‘pause and catch’ (Step 3) and challenge (Step 4) your thoughts before you binge.
From there, after the pause and catch, you have a variety of choices on how to act such as journaling.
What other questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below!