Note from GGS: It’s important to distinguish the difference between detrimental behaviors and clinically diagnosed eating disorders. This article is not addressing diagnosed disorders, but specifically focuses on behaviors instead. If you have any doubts, please refer to the resources shared at the end of this article.
At one point or another, I believe nearly everyone has eaten food for a reason other than being physiologically hungry. There are many reasons why we eat:
- Fear of missing out
- To connect with others over a meal
- To distract ourselves
- Stress relief
Binge eating, also known as compulsive eating, can be described as overeating on steroids. When one overeats, there may be a level of awareness and even mindfulness in the moment. Binge eating, on the other hand, can be described as intense, immediate, driven, devouring, and out of control.
Binge eating can be at any frequency — once a week, or once a day. One can have a single episode that can happen at any time during the day. It can also be any amount of food. It could be three brownies, or it could be a whole pan of brownies; there is no specific definition of frequency or quantity.
For as long as I can remember, I struggled with my weight. I saw food as the enemy, with hunger and appetite being something to fight and attempt to control. From being told I was “big-boned” and “it runs in the family” and trying every diet I could get my hands on, to being comforted with food by well-intentioned family members, my relationship with food and appetite has been a turbulent one.
Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back, I can connect the dots of my journey. It’s important to remember that there is no single right or wrong way to heal our relationship with food — our own journey is unique.
My Binge Eating Story
In my early childhood, some of my fondest memories are with my grandfather. He loved to eat Oreos, Nutter Butters, and McDonald’s breakfast. Since he lived out of state, I only saw him a couple of times a year, and having these treats with him was a special occasion.
Through adolescence, binging on these foods became my coping mechanism to deal with stress from various aspects of my life. This pattern continued into adulthood, and as life got continually more complicated, the emotions I had stuffed down with food during my teen years began to resurface, making the binging episodes more frequent.
Fear, shame, and self-loathing surrounded each of the episodes, creating a vicious cycle that lasted many years. At the time, I was living in a fog, unaware of what was happening and doing my best to merely survive.
Today, I can look back and identify some very key points to which I was oblivious in the moment:
- I was not actually hungry for the cookies. Rather, I was craving the comfort that these foods represented: quality time with my grandfather, where I felt safe and loved.
- The hunger I was experiencing is what some may refer to as “heart hunger.” And no amount of actual food can fill an empty heart.
- The more I attempted to fight the hunger, the more food dominated and controlled my thoughts and my life. My days were filled with thoughts of food, and then feeling bad about myself for having those thoughts. At breakfast I was already thinking about what I would have for lunch. When something stressful happened, I turned to a snack or sweet treat to make things better.
- When I binged I didn’t even really taste the food. Instead, I ate it as quickly as possible in order to not be seen, caught, or interrupted. Afterwards, shame and guilt washed over me along with massive digestive distress.
There are so many resources, programs, diets, books, articles, and gurus out there that a person can spend all of their time, money, and energy collecting data and end up more confused than ever.
The most important lesson I’ve learned on this journey is that everything I need to heal is within me.
And I am in no way saying that I have healed completely: it’s a continuum and my personal motto is that I am “perpetually under construction.” While I’ve come a long way, I still have a lot more to learn.There are also many external positive influences that have impacted and helped me along the way. Essentially, however, once I took personal responsibility for my journey is when the real change began.
How I Began to Heal
As I kept looking for solutions outside of myself, I became increasingly frustrated. Until I was ready to face myself in the mirror and begin living authentically, I was unable to make any lasting change toward healing my relationship with food and appetite.
Our relationship with food and appetite mirrors our relationship with ourself.
While I was at war with my appetite, I was in fact thwarting all my efforts at improving my digestion, metabolism, and health: I was putting myself in a chronic physiologic stress response by engaging in the negative self-talk, criticism, and judgment that comes with binge eating.
When someone very wise asked me how what I was doing was working for me, I had to come to terms with the answer: it wasn’t — not at all!
So, I chose to follow their suggestion of doing the opposite: rather than force my will onto my body, and trying to control it with my mind, I started to listen to my internal body wisdom. This was by no means easy at first: it felt as though my body and I were speaking two very different languages! I didn’t trust my body, and I didn’t trust myself.
With this realization, I continued searching for outside resources — except this time it was different and I went in with a new mindset: I am not broken and I do not need to be fixed!
Rather than looking for something or someone to blame, rather than positioning myself as a victim, rather than being disappointed when what I thought would be the answer failed, I decided to save myself for myself.
No more giving away my power. No more being a martyr. No more doing it for someone else. Instead, I made the very personal decision to enter into a relationship with myself, something I had been avoiding all of my life up until that moment.
My Biggest A-Ha! Moment
It took me a lot of trial and error to get to know my body, and to get to know myself. Finding out what worked well for me and what does not took experimenting: it doesn’t matter what the media or the experts call a “health food” — if this particular food doesn’t work in your body, then it’s not a healthy food for you.
Some other big realizations came in learning about the major impact of stress on my digestive health, and about the influence of sleep — or lack thereof — on my mental state, my ability to recover and my emotional stability.
My biggest A-Ha! moment, however, was this:
My binge eating behavior is a messenger, trying to draw my attention to some underlying incongruity within myself.
This unwanted behavior with food isn’t there to harm me, but exists as a doorway to greater clarity and deeper understanding.
Once I accepted this, I was able to begin healing my relationship with food and my appetite. Binging is an out of control behavior which is actually a compensation for a place in life where we are in tight control. The human regulatory system is brilliant: homeostasis is always trying to reach balance.
This area of tight control, for me, was emotions: I had used food to push down so many emotions over the years: feelings of fear, pain, powerlessness, rejection, loneliness, and sadness, to name just a few.
Of course, other factors can create this imbalance, all being attempts at control. Food rules and deprivation can lead to binge eating. Suppressing your joy, working too much, volunteering too much, the inability to say no, and lack of boundaries all can contribute to an imbalance that can result in a binge. Pushing down any emotion, either positive or negative can result in binge eating. Suppressed sexual energy or tension can show up as a binge.
Trying to control the universe, micromanaging everything and everyone, or living in “should” land where you are more focused on what should be happening rather than what is actually happening (and feeling overwhelmingly disappointed) can bring about a binge.
Willpower will not work to stop the symptom until we listen to its message. Binge eating is asking us to take a deep breath and sense into what’s going on internally within ourselves.
My Healing Strategies
Binge eating has very little to do with eating or food. It has to do with unseen, unnoticed energies and forces that are churning in our depths. The binge is a behavior that’s pointing at something else, something deeper.
Healing from binge eating behavior requires a whole body approach, inclusive of body, mind, and spirit. We can alter binge eating with modified behaviors, but the transformation of binge eating is not simply a nutritional strategy — it has to be an emotional strategy as well.
Rather than fight binge eating, I began to invite the behavior when it showed up, and recognize it as an attempt at self-care.
My food of choice during a binge was either Nutter Butters or Oreo cookies. And I could eat the whole bag. Both bags, actually. Mindlessly, quickly, standing at the counter, in a fury of desperation to push down whatever discomfort I was experiencing. This behavior was me doing the best I could with what I knew at the time.
I learned to ritualize the binge in order to step into the present moment. Some steps I learned to take and that served me well when I was experiencing a binge eating episode were as follows:
- Slow down
- Only eat at the table
- Use nice dishes and placemats
- Light a candle
- Play soothing music
- Give myself permission to enjoy this food, no matter what food item I chose — in other words, let go of any judgment around the food.
- Give myself permission to eat all the cookies if I wanted to, but only four at a time. I could serve myself four cookies as many times as I wanted until they were gone.
By doing the above, the amount of cookies I ate went down drastically, and I rarely ate more than a dozen at a time. It kept going down until it was about eight, and then four cookies. Nowadays, I rarely eat these types of cookies at all, opting for homemade instead, with the highest quality ingredients available. I eat them slowly and mindfully, savoring each bite, and allow myself to be nourished both by the food and by the love with which the cookies were made.
I still experience binge eating behavior on occasion. The difference now is that I know and accept that it’s a message alerting me to a misalignment within myself. Binge eating is not a lack of self-control and unless and until the root cause is addressed, the unwanted behavior will persist.
Binge eating is not the problem. This behavior is actually a gift. It’s an invitation to grow through the experience by shining the light of consciousness upon it.
This article did not address diagnosed disorders, but specifically focused on common detrimental eating behaviors instead. If you find yourself unsure and would like to learn more or find help, please consult the resources below:
- National Centre for Eating Disorders (United Kingdom)
- National Eating Disorder Information Center (Canada)
- National Eating Disorders Association (United States)
- National Eating Disorders Collaboration (Australia)