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Battle of the Binge: Looking Under the Hood
2/21/2012 1:54:04 PM

If you are reading these words I know you have binged out on something at some point in your life. It’s in our nature to eat or drink beyond what we need once in a while. Dictionary.com defines a binge as “a period or bout, usually brief, of excessive indulgence, as in eating, drinking alcoholic beverages, etc.; spree”. Occasional binge eating is rarely cause for alarm, and in most cases the only consequences are temporary discomfort, a little bump on the scale, and maybe an appetite increase for awhile. For some athletes, structured high-volume eating is an effective strategy for reaching a muscle-gain goal. But for many people, binge eating is not an occasional indulgence but a regular habit. And for some people, as evidenced by our global obesity crisis, binging has become their default eating style.

If binging is a “normal” or even strategic behavior for some, then it’s not accurate or helpful to define it as a problem behavior in and of itself. As with so many eating issues, you have to look at it in context for the individual. I find it useful to define binge eating as problematic only when my clients report that it is interfering with their personal health goals or quality of life. From this perspective, “controlled” binging is actually an oxymoron, and not usually a problem. It is only when we or our clients feel out of control with eating that it bears looking into more deeply.

When people say they just can’t stop eating something, I’m very curious about what’s going on “under the hood”. It’s rarely as simple as a lack of willpower. There are nearly always physiological drivers behind intense cravings or out-of-control eating, including under-eating, food sensitivities or addictions, medication triggers, etc. The first thing I look at is the macronutrient balance and timing of their meals and snacks. Nine times out of ten the client is unwittingly hopping on the blood sugar roller coaster. They set themselves up for intense hungers and cravings with too many of the wrong kinds of carbs and not enough protein or fat, and/or waiting too long between eating sessions.

A lot of the time you can help them restore some control just by adding a healthy helping of protein (and ditching the sweet crabs) at breakfast (or better, going “meat and nuts” for breakfast), and supporting them to get into the habit of building their meals and snacks around protein with vegetables and healthy fats for better blood sugar balance.  I also talk with them about establishing a more regular routine for eating, with timed meals (not more than 4 hours apart) of roughly equal portions and a strategic snack or two throughout the day. Most people new to nutritional science are amazed to discover that what they eat for breakfast and lunch influences their late-night hunger and cravings.

But it can also be helpful to look at binging through another lens. Out-of-control eating is often a release valve for over-control in some area of life. From a mental-emotional standpoint, bingeing can be an attempt to counterbalance a tight squeeze we’re applying somewhere else –it’s adaptive. In fact, in all the times I’ve asked clients about this, I’ve never found a binge eater who couldn’t easily identify at least one area where they were trying to maintain tight control in their life. If there are eating or overweight issues, often the client is trying to rigidly control their food or eating in some way –sticking to a rigorous diet, giving up some beloved food or food group, counting calories, etc. With grim determination, they reign in their hunger or cravings and control their eating for awhile –hours, days, weeks, sometimes even months or years—only to “lose it” eventually, and then you don’t want to get your fingers too close to their mouth. (That’s a client quote!)

The area under control doesn’t have to be food-related, though. I’ve worked with many people whose food binging was the direct result of trying to keep a lasso around challenging emotions, especially fear and anger. Sometimes they are trying to control other people, their spouse or their children. Sometimes they are trying to control everything around them. You can put away a whole lot of M&M’s trying to keep the universe in line…

If this strikes a chord with you or your clients, it can be helpful to take a brief “control inventory” of their lives. You/they can do it verbally, with a trusted friend or coach, or write it down. This strategy was developed by Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, and he recommends asking questions like these: What elements of my food or eating might I be trying to control too rigidly (i.e. eating low-calorie, following a strict diet, etc)? In what ways am I ignoring, holding in, or hiding my emotions? Am I trying to control any of the people in my life?

There’s usually shame associated with binge eating. We’re embarrassed to reveal our lack of control. Because it’s a tender area, you are likely to have more success with gentle handling here than a “suck it up” attitude. Often when clients do this work of the control inventory it becomes clear that there is a deep longing for more softness and acceptance in life. The binging itself is an attempt to “let loose”, to grab some pleasure and release because we are not getting enough in our daily lives. Sadly, the long-term results of compulsive binging bring anything but pleasure and release. There’s a temporary high, maybe a little relief in numbness, but then the other ninety percent of the experience is guilt, shame, bloat, gas, weight gain, etc.

When working with the challenge of binge eating, try to keep things relaxed and friendly, even with yourself. While there’s no doubt that food/supplement interventions can radically reduce the physiological triggers for binge eating, if you want to help yourself or a client get to the emotional root of the behavior, have the courage and compassion to take an honest look at this issue of over-control. If possible, releasing some of the white-knuckle grip elsewhere in life can make it possible to regain a calmer, more balanced eating style in a very natural and organic way – from the inside out.