A disclaimer that if you struggle with BED it may be best to seek out a medical professional and any advice I give is not to replace advice from a doctor.
The recovery process can be complex and multi-faceted so Intuitive Eating may be but one part of this recovery process. But how can it be utilised to help you on this journey - hopefully I’m here to help.
What is binge eating?
Binge Eating is the consumption of a lot of food (relative to your normal amount) in a short time and not being able to stop when full / feeling out of control around food. Binges can be planned or spontaneous, are often done in secret and include ‘forbidden foods’ that are deemed unhealthy and normally off limits. Although it can now be diagnosed the definitions for BED and bingeing are very subjective.
It can be useful to think that Binge Eating and BED are similar to Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders. Binge Eating can become BED when binging is frequent and ongoing, normally once a week for at least 3 months.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) affects 3 times the number of people diagnosed with Anorexia and Bulimia according to Action Mental Health, and yet only 1 in 4 receive treatment. If bingeing is majorly affecting your life it may be worth reaching out to your GP who can refer you on to an eating disorder specialist.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a framework developed around listening to your internal cues when it comes to hunger and fullness, cultivating interoceptive awareness, body respect and an ability to find joyful movement. It was created by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. It has 10 stages, which can be undertaken in any order.
Reject the Diet Mentality, Honour Your Hunger, Make Peace with Food, Challenge the Food Police, Find your Fullness, Discover the Satisfaction Factor, Cope with Emotions with Kindness, Respect your Body, Exercise and Feel the Difference and Honour Your Health with Gentle Nutrition.
Watch the video I created for happiful here.
So how do they crossover?
Ultimately binge eating often occurs as a byproduct of restriction. There is a phenomenon known as the binge-restrict cycle or sometimes called the binge-restrict-shame cycle, ultimately it is the same. You desire to lose weight or feel in control so you restrict / diet (they’re one and the same), this makes you ‘obsessed’ with food and hyperconscious, hunger seems to always be there but you ignore it. Something triggers you - emotional, stress, life event, or just you’re undernourished, and so you binge, giving in to cravings and thinking what the hell as you eat despite any feelings of fullness. Or maybe you feel out of control. Then the guilt and shame starts to set in.
At this point in the cycle you may attempt to cope / remedy the situation through means such as body checking, punishment, overexercising etc. before settling back into restriction.
Intuitive Eating is an anti-diet approach, focusing on rejecting diet culture. This is the culture that promotes such restriction and body checking to meet the thin ideal. It also focuses on not judging yourself for the food you consume, removing the guilt / shame component from the cycle.
But I’m not restricting?
There can be two types of restriction: physical - dieting and cutting down on the food you consume. And the one that’s harder to shake - mental. And this is the one that keeps you in the binge-restrict cycle. Mental restriction comes from the food rules that you have, and trying to follow them without physically dieting.
Think of, for example, eating a doughnut - the most obvious example every nutritionist uses I know but let's go with it. Would you be thinking about the taste, smell, texture etc. or would you be thinking ‘tomorrow I’ll eat better’, ‘later I’ll go to the gym to work this off’, ‘I’ve ruined my day of eating’, ‘I won’t have dinner later now’, ‘I shouldn’t be eating this’ etc. so despite the fact you’re physically eating the food, mentally you are still dieting and restricting.
How to overcome mental restriction?
Unconditional permission to eat. Learning to eat without any form of rules and conditions - moving away from what you think you should do to something you want to do. However when you’re given permission to eat all foods in all quantities, there’s no need to eat it all in one go in secret. The novelty of foods be forbidden wears off, and you get bored of previously off limit foods.
(I have an article on building Unconditional Permission to Eat here).
It’s all about reframing:
“Tomorrow I’ll eat better” - Today I ate food that satisfied me, tomorrow I will do the same. Or today I am going to focus on eating what I want to eat, and that fills me. I am going to be present while eating this.
“Later I’ll go to the gym to work this off” - No food needs to be earned, I’m nourishing my body. If I want to move later I will, but there’s no pressure and it won’t be used as punishment
“I’ve ruined my day of eating” - i’m listening to my body, and this is what it wants right now. I will continue to listen to it throughout the day and honour its needs.
Why are you binging?
Now you may not know, and that’s okay. Dealing with our relationship to food takes time, and a lot of self reflection. It may be emotional eating when confronted with uncomfortable emotions such as stress, discomfort, grief, anger etc. It may be avoiding distressing events, confrontations etc.
Once you know what triggers binging you can work around noticing it before it arrives. Paired with the interoceptive awareness (knowing what’s going on inside your body including emotional state) you gain through Intuitive Eating and you can start to create ways to stop binging before it occurs. This is the premise for a lot of CPT and DPT treatment for binge / emotional eating.
You have to move away from weight loss.
I was having a little read through a reddit thread on bingeing and intuitive eating and saw quite a few comments saying that Intuitive Eating worked until they tried to lose weight, then they tripped back into the cycle. There’s a reason rejecting diet culture is no.1 on the Intuitive Eating list.
Some IE points that work for binge eating:
Reject the Diet Mentality
Feel your fullness
Cope with your emotions with kindness
Challenge the food police
When I give myself unconditional permission to eat, aren't I just binging?
It can feel this way at the start as you may rebound out of restriction into what you think of now as overeating. But over time this will plateau a little more, forbidden food is no longer exciting and off limits. And you’re in control when eating these foods because you have permission to do so, you’re taking away the power of guilt and shame.
Action: if you do binge - very common in the early days - imagine you are consoling a friend, rather than judging and shaming yourself. Reflect on how you are feeling and the events that led to the binge.
I’m struggling to stop bingeing as I work through the Intuitive Eating stages
Sometimes it just takes time, and sometimes you need to reach out for more help. You know where this line is, or talk with others in the same boat to get an idea of their experiences. Especially if you’ve been binging and restricting for a long time, it will take longer to return to baseline - think of a pendulum.
Action: Note small improvements you find e.g. less guilt / shame, bingeing less often, not using exercise as a punishment after bingeing etc.
How can I move away from mental restriction?
Challenge the food police - the rules / thoughts etc. that you have set in place. Why do you think this way? And what would happen if you changed these thoughts? Work on giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, completely unconditionally.
Action: Notice food rules as they appear, whether you note them down somewhere or make a mental note. Where has this thought come from? Is it rooted in fact? Note that most nutrition facts exist in the grey with new research coming out on a regular basis.
Remember Intuitive Eating is a journey, with phases. In the early days you may experience bingeing as you move from restriction to food freedom and the above skills take a while to cultivate.
Some tips / thinks to take note of:
Employ mindfulness techniques: the more present you can be when eating, the more you can notice any loss of control and try and prevent it. As well as noticing hunger, fullness and other internal cues. Deep breathing techniques, counting exercises, whatever works to help anchor you in these moments.
Explore non-binary thinking - moving away from “healthy / unhealthy” into a whole spectrum of nutrients. From success and failure into a whole learning experience. Notice when you think in black and white and question this.
Start to notice your hunger and fullness cues - whether using a hunger and fullness scale (there’s one on my website) or other mechanisms. Start to notice when you feel fullness, physical and mental sensations. This awareness may help when you find yourself bingeing.
It may be that you need other emotional coping strategies - a part of intuitive eating is accepting your emotions, and even emotional eating as a normal thing not to be judged. But if you constantly find that food is your only way to deal with stress, anger etc. it may be you need another outlet, or to confront such emotions. Especially if it is affecting your mental health.
Find the link - you woke up late, you were stressed before work, then your boss made a negative remark, on the drive home you pulled into a car park and binged on your entire chocolate stash. What was the main thing that caused it? How could you have dealt with it, does it happen often etc.
If you want some support, I am a nutritionist who specialises in Intuitive Eating in a weight inclusive approach. If you want to book a FREE discovery call click here.