One of the most common topics that arises in reader emails is how to stop binge eating. And as someone who has both lost 135 pounds and has dealt with binge eating disorder, I get it. In my memoir, It Was Me All Along, I tell quite a few stories of bingeing and some of my favorite posts have been on how to overcome emotional eating: How to Stop Emotional Eating / More Tips on How to Stop Emotional Eating.
The question below, from a reader, is one I get regularly, so it seemed worthwhile to share my answer in a post:
“How do you avoid giving in to a binge? I know I can do this, but I keep having these random binges that break me. I would love your advice.”
I wish I had the perfect answer for all of us, but the truth is, that split second when I’m teetering on a cliff and I can’t tell if I’m about to fall into a binge or throw myself over, is among my greatest struggles in life. And that is because…it’s not really about the food. It’s about so, so many things—physical nourishment being the least important. The food isn’t merely food; it’s laced with all these feelings, unrequited yearnings, unmet needs, and pains. It’s meant to give me something, and the very act of bingeing—I’ve come to realize—was and is, for me, about filling a void, distracting myself, or even plugging some hole within me. That is the deepest level of the binge. That’s the truest, basest meaning of a binge for me. They reveal that craving within me to numb out when faced with discomfort, my tendency toward escapism.
When I was little, and my family was chaotic and broken and the trauma was too much to bear, I ate to escape. Distraction through eating served as a form of protection from the very painful reality of our lives. But it was also about food being there when no one else was. My mom was always gone, working. My dad was always gone, too—drinking. I needed something to literally fill the space, to make me feel less alone. Food did that.
As I grew up, I only continued and strengthened this process of “using” food. I had unconsciously created all of these associations between my emotions—both positive and negative—and food, as the way to deal with them.
a binge comes masked as a craving
Sometimes a binge comes to us masked as a craving, and if it comes after a period of intense food restriction, then perhaps it is, but for many people who struggle with binge eating, the point isn’t to indulge, it’s to overindulge. It’s to feel limitless. It’s about being so full you can’t think anymore.
The very second that I start to feel a tickle to binge eat, I have to think about what’s going on in my life. What’s the bigger picture? What’s triggering me? The last time I felt this way was right around the week I turned in the third draft of edits for my book. I was so anxious about how my editor would react to the new material, I’d begun to wonder if the whole book was garbage. It translated into me wanting nothing more than to binge eat.
So I guess my advice to you must first involve me giving you a sizable dose of understanding and compassion. Even though I’m wise to my own ways and mostly great at staying in touch with myself, I don’t always get it right. I am far from perfect. But I try, and I know you try.
These 4 tips have helped me steer away from many a binge eating episode—which, for anyone who has ever been in that very moment, is an intense challenge. I hope they help you, and that you’ll share your own advice, too!
4 Tips on How to Stop Binge Eating
1. Identify your triggers
It’s time to get honest with yourself. What’s going on in your life that’s triggering you to want to binge eat? Are you willing to look around and take a hard look at what might be causing you to want to escape, distract, or to give back to yourself—through food?
Start to write down your triggers and identify the patterns that lead you to the discomfort you feel pre-binge (notice how similar the situations are?). Now that you can see the triggers and patterns clearly, you can brainstorm alternate responses to deal with them—ones that will actually feel restorative, like calling a friend, going for a walk, meditating, making tea and reading for even 10 minutes, taking a hot shower, etc…
In the worst case scenario, even if you do choose to binge, go ahead and write down what triggered you afterward, because any measure of self-awareness allows you the ability to change harmful patterns into more positive habits.
2. Today is the tomorrow you said you’d start yesterday
Remember that not every day can be one where you say to yourself, “I’ll start over tomorrow.” Bingeing is the way many of us choose to procrastinate. The longer you stay in the pattern of “one more day/night of treats…” the longer you delay living the life you want. So start today.
3. Break the habit of bingeing
Part of the work of stopping binge eating is breaking the habit of a binge cycle. For me, this meant creating new rituals and routines, particularly at night. Instead of turning to food, I began making tea and reading a good book, painting my nails, journaling, or listening to a podcast while working on a new craft project. The first three weeks required nothing but sheer willpower. Over time, though, it got easier, and I started to realize just how good it felt to practice true self-care.
4. Eat in a way you’re proud of. Always.