According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), 1.6% of adult Americans struggle with Binge Eating Disorder. Although many of my clients are not in the clinical range for a diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder, their compulsive eating habits significantly impact the quality of lives. By the time they come to me, many of them have already sought out weight loss treatment, trying several means, including medical ones; however, no matter what interventions they try, they are not able to overcome their binge eating behaviors. Over many years of practice, I have developed several strategies to help people with stopping binge eating.
For example, Jenna was a 48-year old single mother of two teenagers and an accomplished lawyer. She sought therapy after many years of unsuccessful attempts at dieting and using supplements. She had gained 35 pounds following her last pregnancy, and no matter how hard she tried, she wasn’t able to control her eating habits.
Nighttime was especially difficult for Jenna. She would start her binge cycle , after she got home from work and right after her daughters went to their rooms for the night. Her typical binge included two pints of ice cream followed by two or three donuts, eaten while she was watching her favorite TV show.
Similar to Jenna, many clients that I have worked with in private practice struggle with compulsive eating and feel powerless over these destructive eating behaviors. The first step toward recovery from binge eating is to examine what drives your hunger. Our eating behaviors have two components, an emotional part and a physiological part.
Many people eat when they are not at all hungry. Sometimes, even after finishing a meal, you may get a sudden urge to eat something sweet. Before you know it, you are at the closest bakery, buying a box of chocolate cake or cookies.
Emotions play an important role in triggering our binge eating behaviors. For many people, both negative and positive emotions drive their eating behaviors. Many people reward themselves with cookies and candies whenever they feel proud and want to celebrate. Others might drown their pain after a break up in a pint of ice cream.
In order to effectively address your binge eating patterns it is important to ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I tune into my emotions on daily basis or do I numb them with food, alcohol, and substances?
- What emotions are triggering my binge eating patterns?
- How do I feel before, during, and after each binge episode?
After reviewing Jenna’s eating journal in our sessions, we realized that stress was the main emotion that triggered her binge eating cycles. As a family lawyer and a single mother, she was overwhelmed by the demands of her daily life; however, given her busy schedule, she was not able to engage in the activities that would help her reduce her stress levels. Eating was the only coping skill that she learned in childhood, and it was easy to do!
Sometimes we get so out of touch with our hunger than we don’t notice our hunger cues until we are starving. Our physiological hunger is connected with our need for fuel, and if we are in touch with our body we can see early signs of hunger and fulfill them before they get out of control.
Many of my clients follow very restrictive diet plans. Their diets dictate what they eat for each meal, instead of their bodies. Although our bodies may endure these restrictions for a short period of time, sooner or later urges for the “forbidden foods” will come back stronger than ever and wipe out our willpower.
In order to examine your level of body awareness around your hunger cues you can answer following questions:
- What does hunger look like to me and where do I first notice it in my body?
- At what point in the hunger/fullness scale do I allow myself to eat?
- What are some of the physiological signs of fullness?
- What level of fullness do I feel comfortable and content with?
In order to successfully intervene in your compulsive eating habits you must create a comprehensive picture of your emotional and physiological hunger throughout the day and prior to each binge episode. It is helpful to create an eating journal for yourself to record the relationship between your emotions and eating habits and also to monitor your position on the hunger/fullness scale.
After the determining what triggers your binge episodes (emotions, physiological hunger, or both), you can create a plan to address such challenges without food.
Stress and anxiety are the two emotions that many of my clients struggle to cope with on daily basis. I often advise them to begin practicing mindfulness to ease the pain these can cause. Several studies have highlighted the long-term benefits of engaging in mindfulness practice on a daily basis.
Mindfulness practice involves observing and paying attention to your thoughts and emotions. The focus of the exercise is to turn your attention inwards, even momentarily. There are several applications and videos online that can help you engage in mindfulness. The key is to start from one to two minutes and increase the duration over time.
Progressive muscle relaxation is another great tool, which, if practiced regularly, can significantly reduce your anxiety level. Start this exercise by focusing on your breath and place your attention on different muscle groups in your body. With each inhale you tense a group of muscles for 5 seconds followed by relaxing the same muscles for 10 seconds. Repeat this exercise two or three cycles each time.
In addition to stress and anxiety, depression also drives many people to overeat every day. Although we all have very busy schedules, it is essential to incorporate at least one activity that gives you pleasure on a daily basis. It does not need to be a huge act, but you need to make the commitment to do one at least each day. Below are a few things that my clients have found pleasurable:
- Talking to a friend
- Playing with your dog or cat
- Going for a walk
- Getting a manicure/ pedicure
- Cleaning your shelves
- Taking a bath
It is important to keep in mind that often times we eat our emotions; however, eating is only a brief distraction. If you don’t address your emotions appropriately, they will come back as soon as you are done with your food.
Overcoming binge eating patterns might not be easy at first, but the more you resist your urges and effectively address the underlying emotions without food, the easier it will get. I work with many people who were able to stop their destructive habits by focusing on paying attention to their eating habits and creating comprehensive alternative approaches to addressing their emotional and physiological hungers.
Dr. Nazanin Moali, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist and an eating disorder specialist. Dr. Moali helps clients understand what drives their disordered eating and keeps them from maintaining unhealthy and painful behaviors around food and body image. She uses Health at Every Size (HAEs) approach in treatment of binge eating disorder. She owns the Oasis 2 Care practice, in Torrance, California.