Women and men across the world suffer terrible shame over quite a sensible act: binge eating. Even without full-on binges, many find themselves harassed by food thoughts, self-recrimination over “lack of self-control” around food, moral weight associated with “bad” eating habits, and a great guilt in compulsive overeating in some way or another. The shame is so unfortunate, when reality is this: food urges are real, powerful, important messages. They make sense. They demand our attention. They’re nearly impossible to ignore. So, let’s understand them.
Why the Binge?
The absolute most common root of bingeing is restriction. People who diet, restrict entire food groups, limit calories, or eat according to rigid food rules will for the vast majority, wind up bingeing. Our bodies need sufficient calories, especially sufficient carbohydrates, in order to function healthily. If we don’t meet those needs with regularity, the body will prompt urges demanding that fuel. Even when the restriction is psychological, bingeing often is the result. Restricting breeds bingeing. In fact, biology also ensures that our metabolism will slow under the stress of dieting, which is why dieting is harmful and detrimental for weight management. (For more science about dieting, and the how it is counterproductive to weight loss, click here.)
In addition, when our eating experiences are unsatisfying, we will feel hungry. Physically hungry. “Unsatisfying” might be due to the environment, pace, or mood we eat in. It may be due to the food-patrolling thoughts about our eating choices, or eating meals that aren’t sufficiently appealing. The psychological need we have for satisfying food experiences will impact our physiology - whether feeling hungry or full. By feeding ourselves sufficiently, with full permission, to satisfaction, binges will subside.
The fact that we use food for emotional reasons is not in itself wrong, nor destructive. We are primed to eat emotionally since infancy, when our caretakers fed us sweet warm milk to nourish and soothe us. Even as adults, it can be a gratifying coping mechanism when chosen thoughtfully. However, when food is continuously the only option, and/or is used in a manner that damages the body, it is important to discover other resources.
That “restricting breeds bingeing” can be applied to feelings, too. When we feel restricted -- trapped, overwhelmed, stuck, afraid, unable to handle life or our emotions -- some people tend to overuse food (especially dieters). Yet feelings beg to be heard. They also carry messages about what needs are unfulfilled, giving us clues as how to fill them. It is essential to build upon our capacity to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. We need alternative resources for relief. Tools like breathing, journaling, expressive arts, sharing with trusted friends, praying, and meditating are some options to explore.
Feeling emotionally restricted is not only about acute triggers. Restricted access to joyful living can also fuel eating compulsions. When we’re deprived of sufficient fulfilling, enjoyable, and joyous outlets, food can be overwhelmingly enticing. Food is an accessible pleasure. It is concrete. It is engaging. It is sensual. It can temporarily fill that emotional vacuum. Yet when we find meaning in our daily living, the gaping hole will also fill. When we enjoy the freedom to relax, to indulge in personal pursuits, it will fill further. By grounding ourselves in satisfying lives, food can resume its rightful place.
Compulsive food behaviors are logical, even biologically driven. Bingeing is not an issue of self-control or willpower, but of physiological needs and emotional nourishment. If we attend to these, we can find peace with food, with our bodies, and in our minds. The road to this serenity lies in trusting to our bodies, respecting our needs, in filling ourselves physically and emotionally, and committing ourselves to happiness from within. We deserve no less.