When someone has an unhealthy relationship with food, taking steps to control the urge to binge eat is often overwhelming and can be one of the biggest challenges when overcoming an eating disorder.

Binge eating can occur for several reasons: as a result of a physiological energy deficit; to satisfy an emotional need; or a combination of the two.

What is binge eating?

When someone has an eating disorder, it is important to define what we mean by “bingeing”. The term “binge” is often used in popular culture to refer to eating a bigger than normal portion, or when people feel very full after a meal; for example, “I binged on my Christmas lunch”. However, this is actually considered a “normal” part of eating when someone has a healthy relationship with food.

In terms of an eating disorder, the definition of a binge is eating a large amount of food (larger than the average person would eat at a meal), in a short amount of time, and feeling out of control. This is often (but not always) in secret.

Physiological urges to binge

When it comes to an energy deficit, our bodies are built to survive, and we will seek out anything that makes this possible. In terms of food, if someone’s body is in “starvation” mode due to a long period of restriction, or a period of only eating small amounts over several days, then their body will do whatever it can to get those calories into it, and usually this is through carbohydrates, fats and sugars.

Rigid dieting regimes trigger this physiological urge, and often results in eating the exact foods the individual has been trying to restrict! When this happens, the individual can feel as though they have “failed” and that they lack willpower, when it is really a physiological response that is uncontrollable.

Avoiding the urge to binge in response to a physiological deficit is about learning to eat regularly throughout the day. Once your body learns that it is not ‘starving’ and will get fed at regular intervals, the urge to binge on large quantities of high fat, high calorie foods will naturally dissipate.

Psychological and emotional triggers to binge

Binge eating can also happen in response to psychological and emotional triggers: to satisfy a desire for comfort, numb feelings, or provide something to focus on (feeling full), all of which are greatly reinforcing.
It can also be the case that physiological and psychological triggers interact: if someone has been restricting calories for a period, and then something negative happens, whether this is something external (a comment from someone else) or internal (remembering a difficult situation), it makes it much more likely that a binge will occur.

When these types of urges come, they can feel all encompassing, with the feelings building in intensity until they are overwhelming. When this occurs, individuals sometimes feel the only way to reduce the intensity of the feelings is to binge.

How to take steps to control the urge to binge eat.

Binging is not the only way to deal with these intense feelings. Creating alternative coping strategies can help when trying to manage the desire to binge eat.

To do this, start by noticing your triggers:

  • Have you had a stressful day at work?
  • Has someone said something to hurt your feelings?
  • Are you feeling lonely?

Once you can see a pattern, you can start to identify coping strategies to put in place and reduce binge eating. These coping strategies can then be practiced when the psychological or emotional urge to binge eat arises.

Here are three more tips to help you control the urge to binge:

1. Give yourself time for the binge urge to fade.

Time MUST pass. Even half an hour may be long enough for the urge to decline. While it may feel like the urge will never go away unless you binge immediately, these feelings will pass with time. Our brains and bodies can’t cope with long periods of intense overwhelm, and given a chance, these feelings will reduce.

Try to imagine that the urge to eat is like a wave. The intensity of the feeling is time limited. The feelings build up to a peak, like the wave. Let yourself surf along the top of the urge without losing your balance. Don’t let the force of it suck you under. It will eventually pass away, as a wave does.

Ways to help yourself manage the time when feeling the urge to binge could be to:

  • Call a friend and discuss what is happening.
  • Write in your journal about how you are feeling at that moment, the real reasons why you think you want to binge, or a page long letter to yourself about how you are a good and worthy person.
  • Get your mind on something else – watch TV, read a book, do a puzzle, etc.
  • Make a list of foods you are planning to binge on, seal them in an envelope and throw it out or burn it.
  • Put on some of your favourite music, shut yourself in your room and dance and sing to it with your eyes closed.
  • Do some crafts.
  • Draw or colour a picture of something powerful.
  • If you have a pet, play with them. Pets have proven to be very helpful in calming and comforting people.
  • Shout at your eating disorder. If you are standing at the cupboard or fridge and about to binge, slam the door and shout NO! Shouting at your eating disorder gives you power.

2. Do something else.

When the craving or urge to binge hits, you have to make yourself do something else. Something that takes you out of the house, or a task that will involve you so much that it takes your mind off the urge.

Generally, the best coping strategies involve being with other people as often binge eating is done alone.

Try to make this activity pleasurable. It might not be as immediately satisfying or provide the familiar relief of bingeing, but that’s ok. The more often you can show yourself that bingeing isn’t inevitable, the stronger and more in control you will feel.

Ways to take your mind off the urge to binge could be:

  • Go for a walk so that you leave the environment that is tempting you to binge.
  • Visit a friend.
  • Pamper yourself (i.e. go and have your nails done, get your hair done, get a massage, etc.)
  • Take yoga or a stress relieving class.
  • If you enjoy gardening, get involved in planting a garden, etc.
  • Rearrange or redecorate a room.
  • Take the money you were about to buy binge food with and buy something for someone you care about. Spend time picking out the gift, writing a nice letter to the person and sending it.

3. Make it difficult for yourself to binge.

If you can put a tangible obstacle between you and the possibility of binge eating, you can make it more difficult to succumb to the urge. The best alternative strategies are incompatible with eating or make eating difficult. Doing something with your hands is a good bet, as it’s tricky to binge and draw, paint your nails, or play with your pet.

Other ways to make it difficult for yourself to binge could be to:

  • Take a long bath or shower to relax.
  • Soak the binge food in water so that it is ruined.
  • Flush the food you are planning to binge on down the toilet.
  • If possible, make it so you are unable to plan a binge. For instance, if you live with someone, make sure they do not tell you when they will be coming home.

There are a myriad of alternative coping strategies out there, but the ones listed above are some that our clients have found useful:

The key point to all these activities is that by the time you have done them, the tide will have gone out and the wave of feelings will have passed.

Once you have made your list, put it somewhere you can find it quickly, like on the fridge, or a note on your phone. Then you know exactly where to look when the feelings strike.

Most importantly, if you don’t manage to overcome the craving this time, remember that you haven’t failed. Maybe you haven’t found the right coping strategy quite yet, and that’s ok. Trying to overcome it is the first step. There is always another time to try and each time you do, it will get easier.

The suggestions above are just some examples of alternative coping strategies to try. There are also numerous psychological tools and techniques including mindfulness, breathing, and countless defusion techniques (to name a few) that can be learned to effectively address bingeing.

If you feel that you need help managing these feelings, please get in contact with us here at Altum Health where we can have a chat about ways in which we can help you.

[Contributors to Article: Dr Courtney Raspin and Dr Carrie Emery]