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  • Writer's pictureHeather Gibson, MA, LMFT

10 Obstacles to Conquering Binge Eating and 5 Effective Strategies to Overcome It

Written by: Natalia Cameroni-Adams, AMFT

It can be scary to feel “out of control” in our relationship with food. In our world of Diet and Wellness culture centralism, it can be confusing to find helpful answers. Despite the physical discomfort that comes with overeating, it is very normal for people to turn to food for more than sustenance and to also use food as a source of soothing or belonging. Binge Eating is more than the occasional “emotional overeating” or indulgence during a celebration; it is when extreme overeating (or “binging”) becomes more entrenched and interferes with the quality of life, exacerbating any distress. If you feel that you struggle with Binge Eating, you are not alone. Binge eating behaviors and Binge Eating Disorders are extremely common, but recovery is possible! As an experienced therapist specializing in eating disorders, I aim to debunk misinformation surrounding binge eating and provide valuable insights to guide you towards clarity. While reading this blog, keep in mind that we must approach this topic with compassion and curiosity, rather than with fear and judgment.

Why Do People Binge Eat?

As stated previously, it is common for people to use food for self-soothing during distress or as community building. Self-soothing might look like eating a whole carton of ice cream after a break-up or eating a “family sized” bag of chips while studying all night for the exam the next day. Community building can be seen through holidays and celebrations, like eating several servings during Thanksgiving dinner.   

In order to understand the “why” about Binge Eating, we also have to understand the role restriction has to play. Restriction stands for “the limitation of food intake” which has been normalized in our world through diets, fasting, food rules, or the latest “juice cleanse”. Our bodies’ ultimate job is to keep us alive in which we need food and energy to do so. It does not understand purposeful restriction and will react to that restriction as if we were in a famine state (or quite literally, starvation). 

So someone may start a diet (restriction) and their body will attempt to counteract by sending hunger hormones to encourage eating. As those hormones pile up, it causes a ravenous and extreme reaction since the body is unable to predict when food will be available again. Experts have identified this as the Binge-Restrict Cycle. Many diets put this “failure” on the participant, which causes feelings of shame and guilt for many. It is not your fault! It is not a lack of willpower but a purposeful flaw in the diet and wellness industry!

Even if you are not actively dieting, a part of binging behaviors is almost always in reaction to some restriction. Skipping breakfast or lunch because you “don’t have time” can leave you more vulnerable to binge eating later in the day. Binging behaviors have been reportedly most commonly occurring at night due to a day’s worth of not meeting energy needs regardless of intentional restriction. 

There are many emotional components that can be at play regarding binge eating behaviors, which can be explored in therapy. As stated in the introduction, food/eating can be used as a way of self-soothing or connecting with community. If food is the only means for self-soothing or it is interfering with regular life then it has transformed into a “maladaptive coping skill”. For the emotional components to be addressed effectively, establishing a consistent eating pattern creates a foundation for the emotional component to be addressed. 

10 Obstacles to Conquering Binge Eating

1. Chronic Dieting/Restriction

As stated previously, binge eating behaviors have a relationship with restriction behaviors. Most common restrictive behaviors include diets, fasting, counting calories, detoxes, cleanses, implementing “food rules”, limiting portions of certain foods, and “only allowing” a bite of something instead of a full portion when desired. All of these can contribute to starting or continuing the binge/restrict cycle or starvation response.

2. Lack of Self-Care

Self-care or awareness of needs is essential to preventing burnout. Being productive or helpful to others is not “bad” in and of itself, but if it is to the point of consistently putting oneself as “last priority” it can take a toll emotionally and physically. This may look like not “having time” for a substantial breakfast or multitasking around food, therefore not allowing it to be a proper “recharge”. The combination of lack of sustainable nutrients throughout the day and the emotional drain of a busy day can lead you to be vulnerable for binging behaviors. Be sure to give yourself permission to attend to your needs so that you can have the energy and ability to attend to everything else!  

3. Co-occurring Diagnosis (ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, Substance Abuse)

Many mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can lead to difficulties regulating emotions. Individuals may turn to binging as a maladaptive coping mechanism to manage intense emotions or alleviate distressing symptoms. Also, symptoms of some mental health disorders, such as irregular sleep patterns or appetite disturbances, can disrupt regular eating routines and increase vulnerability to binge eating episodes.

4. Perfectionism / inner critic 

Perfection does not exist in our world, so when our expectations are based on an impossible standard it can set us for failure and shame. A dangerous trait that perfectionism mindsets have is that they usually lead to “all-or-none” thinking, which is a cognitive distortion which promotes rigidity and causes distress. This may sound like an “inner critic” part, who is attempting to “help” but only ends up bullying confidence into fear. “Food Rules” are also a clue that your perfectionism is controlling your diet. “Food rules” implies there is a “perfect diet” out there and labeling neutral objects (food) into the morally “good foods” and the seductive shameful “bad foods”. This mindset is not sustainable. Perfectionistic traits can lead to falling into the binge/restrict cycle regardless of whether it is food related (in pursuit of the idealistic diet plan) or even expecting perfection in other parts of our lives (maladaptive coping skill to combat shame).

5. Poor Self-esteem

A negative sense of self and self-worth can be very distressing causing feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Binging behaviors may be triggered in response to provide temporary relief and distraction which is short-lived. Poor self-esteem can also physically manifest in a negative body-image and a negative distorted view of self called “body dysmorphia”. Some individuals may use food as a means of punishing themselves for perceived failures or shortcomings, perpetuating a cycle of negative self-talk and emotional distress.

6. Poor sleep 

Poor sleep can contribute to hunger hormone disruption and also a lack of energy. In this tired state, our bodies can be attracted to sugars and carbohydrates (which are commonly binged foods) since they are great quick boosts of energy that are needed. But that cannot sustainably replace rest and only relying on those quick energy foods (which also quickly burn out) can lead to the same shame, guilt, and regret. Sleep and rest can also be beneficial to our general mental health in terms of broadening distress tolerance and helping manage our emotions better. 

7. Engaging in Substances 

As an adult, partaking in mind altering substances (alcohol, cannabis, etc.) can be celebratory but can make one more vulnerable to “binges”. Mind-altering substances are known to impair judgment and critical thinking which lowers inhibitions, increasing the possibility of making impulsive decisions. Consuming alcohol or drugs may stimulate hunger hormones and enhance the desire for rewarding foods, which after a day of restricting can even more feel “out of control”. A hangover the next day can also exacerbate the shame/guilt from the previous night which can encourage self-soothing with food. Substances can also affect the quality of sleep (look to #6 poor sleep).

8. History of Trauma 

Traumatic experiences, such as abuse, neglect, or significant life stressors, can contribute to both the development of mental health disorders and disordered eating behaviors. Binge eating may be used as a maladaptive coping strategy to cope with unresolved trauma or distressing memories. One study found that 43.8% of individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder reported experiencing more than one traumatic event in their lives.

9. Genetic/family history

Research suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition to binge eating and related eating disorders. Individuals with a family history of binge eating or other eating disorders are more likely to develop similar behaviors themselves, indicating a genetic influence.

10. Financial Instability (current or historical)

Financial instability is associated with chronic stressors such as housing insecurity, unemployment, and social inequalities. The unpredictability of food availability and the need to prioritize obtaining enough food to meet basic needs can lead to the “binge-restrict cycle” to begin. The constant strain of living in financial distress can also contribute to elevated stress levels, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns with limited time and resources to manage them. This may increase vulnerability to binge eating as a coping mechanism to alleviate emotional distress. The trauma left by this experience can be impactful, regardless of whether it is currently occurring or happened in the past.

No one chooses to have binge eating behaviors or eating disorder behaviors, despite initially having the perception of deciding to engage in some of these obstacles. Also everything listed above also does not guarantee disordered eating behaviors are to happen but can make you more vulnerable to them occurring and overcoming them. 

How Common are Eating Disorders? 

Eating disorders are relatively common mental health conditions, affecting individuals of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. While exact prevalence rates can vary depending on factors such as geographic location, population studies, and diagnostic criteria used, eating disorders are recognized as significant public health concerns worldwide.

Here are some general statistics regarding the prevalence of eating disorders:

  • An estimated 10% of the U.S. population, or 30 million Americans, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.

  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States and has a reported lifetime prevalence of approximately 1.2% in women and 0.8% in men.

  • Anorexia nervosa is less common than other eating disorders but can have severe medical consequences. It has a reported lifetime prevalence of approximately 0.3% in women and 0.2% in men.

  • Bulimia Nervosa is more common than anorexia nervosa and has a reported lifetime prevalence of approximately 1-1.5% in women and 0.1-0.5% in men.

  • Contrary to commonly held beliefs, individuals with higher body weight have a 2.45 times greater chance of engaging in disordered eating behaviors as patients of lower weights. Due to weight stigma, high body weight patients receive a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder half as frequently as patients with normal weight or underweight ranges.

  • Approximately 31% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, 23% of individuals with bulimia nervosa, and 23% of individuals diagnosed with binge eating disorder have attempted suicide.

It's important to note that these statistics are estimates based on available research and may not fully capture the true prevalence of eating disorders due to factors such as underreporting, stigma, and misdiagnosis. Additionally, eating disorders can have significant physical, emotional, and social consequences, highlighting the importance of early detection, intervention, and access to appropriate treatment and support services.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Although many eating disorders can have “binging behaviors” in their criteria, with Binge Eating Disorder (BED), binging behaviors are the focus. BED is a serious mental health condition characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food within a relatively short period of time, accompanied by a sense of loss of control over eating during these episodes. Individuals with BED often experience feelings of distress, guilt, or shame following a binge episode.

Key features the DSM-5 Criteria for Binge Eating Disorder include:

  • Recurrent Episodes of Binge Eating: Binge episodes involve consuming an unusually large amount of food in a discrete period, often within two hours. During these episodes, individuals feel a lack of control over their eating behavior.

  • Feelings of Distress: Following a binge episode, individuals with BED commonly experience intense emotional distress, guilt, or shame related to their eating behavior.

  • Frequency of Episodes: Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by recurrent binge episodes, typically occurring at least once a week over a period of three months or more.

  • Absence of Compensatory Behaviors: Unlike other eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, individuals with BED do not regularly engage in compensatory behaviors such as purging, fasting, or excessive exercise to counteract the effects of binge eating.

  • Impact on Functioning: Binge Eating Disorder can significantly impact an individual's physical health, emotional well-being, and social functioning.

It's essential to note that a diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder should be made by a qualified mental health professional based on a comprehensive assessment of the individual's symptoms and clinical history.

Recovery and how to Stop Binge Eating

There is no one cause of binge eating or eating disorders. They can be due to a combination of genetic, psychological, and social/cultural factors. This can make it difficult to find a simple solution to recovery.

Stopping binge eating can be a challenging process, but here are 5 Strategies that may help:

  1. Seek Professional Help: Consider reaching out to a therapist, dietitian, or healthcare provider who specializes in treating eating disorders. They can provide personalized support and guidance tailored to your specific needs.

  2. Identify Triggers: Pay attention to the situations, emotions, or thoughts that trigger your binge eating episodes. Keeping a journal can help you identify patterns and develop strategies to cope with triggers more effectively.

  3. Establish Regular Eating Patterns: Aim to eat balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals throughout the day to maintain stable blood sugar levels and prevent extreme hunger, which can trigger binge eating. This means avoiding strict diets or overly restrictive eating patterns, as they can often contribute to binge eating behaviors. Focus on nourishing your body with a balanced and varied diet that includes a variety of foods you enjoy.

  4. Build Coping Skills: Develop healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress, emotions, and cravings without turning to food. This could include practicing relaxation techniques, engaging in enjoyable activities, or seeking support from friends and loved ones.

  5. Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself throughout the recovery process and acknowledge that setbacks are a normal part of the journey. Treat yourself with compassion and understanding, rather than judgment or criticism.

Feeling distressed with our relationship with food can be intimidating, especially in a culture where diet and wellness trends dominate the conversation. But you're not alone in this struggle. Binge eating behaviors are more than just occasional indulgences—they can significantly impact your quality of life and exacerbate existing distress. Remember that recovery from binge eating is possible, but it may take time and patience. At Positive Change Counseling Center, we understand the challenges of overcoming binge eating, and we're here to help. Our experienced therapists who specialize in treating eating disorders and are committed to providing compassionate support and effective strategies for recovery.

If you're ready to break free from the cycle of binge eating and reclaim control over your relationship with food, we're here to guide you every step of the way. Contact us today to learn more about our services and take the first step towards positive change. Visit our website here to explore how Positive Change Counseling Center can support you on your journey to healing.

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