The Secret Power of Binge Eating Part 1: Why You Binge and How to Stop

I remember them vividly.  First the anticipation that grabbed me in the middle of whatever mundane reality I happened to be in, or distracted my attention from the source of my current anxiety.  My excitement would build as I thought about all the forbidden treats I would scavenge from around campus and finally gorge myself on when no one was looking.  


What would it be today?  Start with something salty and fried.  Oh, maybe the evil fast food place as long as no one will see me there.  Then there’s the giant muffins from the campus bakery, or the gooey chocolate chip cookies!  My mouth starts watering already, I can’t wait to get away and start my rampage.  


I walk into my first stop appearing casual, but inwardly my heart races as I try not to let the burning in my face show.  What these people must think of me, a nutrition major, buying such shameful food?  Like a thief I hide my purchases along with my face and make a beeline out of the store into the safe refuge of my car.  


Thank God for this car!  My only guaranteed place of solitude while sharing an apartment full of roommates.  But damn all these windows!  I drive around to find a lonely parking lot where I can eat in safety.  It seems to take an eternity when all I want to do is rip into the wonderful bags of grease and sugar I just purchased, it’s all I can do to wait a few more minutes.


Finally I park and check around me to ensure my privacy.  Then at last I tuck into my prize.  I devour that fried chicken sandwich without so much as stopping to breathe.  I inhale the salty fries, rushing to finish so I can indulge in the fudgy chocolatey brownie, and maybe even the muffin the size of my head.  When suddenly all that’s left are wrappers, crumbs on my lap and a stale odor of cold grease, then the remorse and shame that were peeking around the corner at me the whole afternoon come running and screaming in my face.


I did it again!  Last time you said would be the last!  You promised you would lose that belly fat once and for all, and now look!  My stomach felt like a python looks after it’s swallowed a small deer.  While part of me felt extremely satisfied, another part felt like a criminal committing the ultimate sin.  I felt a wave of despair and hopelessness.  A feeling that I could no longer trust myself.  That my word meant nothing.  My will was non-existent, and I would never get out of this cycle.


This is the power of the binge.  A compulsion that grips you until you must obey.  In that moment you have no control.  The binge has a mind of its own that drives you to the finish.  If you’ve ever experienced a binge, you know how powerful it is.  Like a tornado that hits without warning, devouring everything in its path with terrifying speed.  You don’t know when it will stop and how much damage it will do, all you can do is wait for it to pass through.  


Many people binge, and it’s hard to say just how prevalent it is, because so many don’t admit to it.  Some people only occasionally binge and aren’t really bothered by it, while others feel their lives are crumbling down or it’s become so frequent as to disrupt their lives.  


Exactly what constitutes a binge can be different to different people.  Some may feel that eating a few cookies is a binge, while others may eat two boxes of cookies, a bag of chips and half a pizza during a binge.  The dictionary isn’t much help, as it defines a binge as “a period of excessive indulgence in an activity, especially drinking alcohol or eating.”  It’s not very clear what “excessive indulgence” really means.


According to the National Eating Disorders website, binge eating disorder is characterized by:

…recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating.


Some common themes of a binge include:

  • Feeling driven to eat, like a compulsion, regardless of hunger
  • Eating large amounts to beyond the point of fullness
  • Eating very rapidly
  • Feeling loss of control
  • Eating alone to avoid shame
  • Feeling guilt, remorse or shame afterwards


In order to qualify as an “eating disorder,” the binge frequency has to be done at least once a week for three months.  Using this criteria, Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.  


But let’s not get bogged down by classifications and what qualifies “disorder” and what does not.  In my opinion, if something is gripping you and causing you guilt and shame enough to influence your life and decisions, it warrants some attention.  In fact, I believe it’s there precisely because it’s calling your attention.  


There are probably as many different reasons why people binge as there are people who binge.  And often there’s not just one cause, but several different things.  I will talk about some of these reasons here, and be sure to see part 2 of this post that gets into how to stop binging.


A common and the most straight-forward reason why you might binge is having an inadequate or imbalanced diet.  Let’s face it.  You were born with a mouth, a digestive system and an appetite that drives you to consume food.  We have this so we can live.  We require a certain amount of calories, protein, fat, carbs and vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients everyday.  


That our society promotes shredded stick figures with no body fat to speak of does not change the simple fact that your body has certain needs.  When those needs are not met because you are restricting calories or fat or whatever to meet the “ideal,” your brilliant body senses that food is scarce.  Nutrition is scarce.  It wants you to do whatever it takes to find food.  It turns up your appetite by increasing hunger hormones like ghrelin, and decreasing the hormones that say you’ve had enough, like leptin.


Driving your hunger up several notches may have been a great motivator to go out and hunt or gather food when we lived in the time before all our luxurious convenience.  But now that food is on every corner, every billboard, every TV screen you see, that increase in appetite will drive you to grab and eat almost the first thing you see really quickly.  Oh, and of course since food is scarce according to your body, you’re going to want to load up on the richest foods, the things that give you the most amount of calories and energy so you can store it away for the next famine.  Can you say Ben & Jerry’s with a side of Oreos??


How can you ensure you are getting enough nutrition to prevent binging from sheer biology without gaining a bunch of weight?


Macronutrient Balance – The macronutrients are fat, protein and carbohydrates.  You want to be getting a balance of all these in each meal.  Proteins can include things like lean meats and poultry, fish, egg whites, milk, yogurt, nuts and nut butters, tofu and soybeans.  Not all fats are created equal, so you want to include the healthy types like oily fish, egg yolks, olive oil, nuts, seeds and nut butters and avocado.  You want carbohydrates to be unprocessed, or whole, like fruits and vegetables, whole oats, sprouted grain bread, brown or wild rice, and quinoa.

When you get a balance of all the right macronutrients at each meal, your body will take its time digesting them, and          increase your feelings of satisfaction.  Not to mention it will do wonders for healthy blood sugar regulation.  You will            also be feeding your body the nutrients it craves, meaning it won’t be driving you to binge later on.


Food Quality – Many things affect the actual nutrient content of food, and food processing is a big one.  Many processed foods have the original nutrients stripped out, and a bunch of chemical additives are pumped back in for taste, prolonged shelf-life and replenishing a fraction of what was removed.  

Let’s take an example of seemingly the same breakfast, making sure to use macronutrient balance:

  1. Whole wheat bread, typical peanut butter, fruit-flavored yogurt
  2. Sprouted grain bread, all natural peanut butter, organic plain yogurt with fresh berries

The first breakfast sounds healthy, but typical store-bought “whole” wheat breads are still highly processed – just take a look at the never-ending ingredient list!  Sprouted grains are healthier because they are not actually processed into flour, and they have much fewer ingredients.  Typical peanut butters also have a lot of unhealthy additives and even sugar.  All you want to see in the ingredients is peanuts and maybe salt.  Finally, fruit-flavored yogurts are really often just sugar-flavored yogurts, or artificially sweetened yogurts.  An organic will typically contain healthier fats, and plain won’t have much added sugar.  Adding your own fresh fruit gets you much more nutrition and fiber.  

The quality of the food you eat matters because when you feed your body low quality, nutrient-stripped food, your body still thinks food is scarce, because it’s not being fed what it needs.  That increased appetite we discussed earlier will kick in.


Food Distribution – Your food intake over the course of the day should be relatively even.  What I mean by that is you want to have a roughly equal amount of calories for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  You don’t have to count calories here, but often so many people have no or tiny breakfasts, inadequate lunches, and huge dinners.  Or you might have a meager dinner and then comes the binge eating.  

For many who binge, this could be because they aren’t hungry in the morning thanks to a late night binge, and/or they are “saving up” calories so they can binge later.  Listen to me.  This strategy does not work to stop your binge eating.  It only sets you up for more binges and perpetuates the cycle.  Even if you have to start gradually and build up, train yourself to eat a full breakfast and lunch everyday!


So first and foremost if you are prone to binging, take an honest look at your diet.  This is the first place to look when it comes to getting to the root of your binge eating.  In part 2 of this article, we will dive deeper and discuss the more emotional or psychological reasons you might binge, and how you can start healing!


I would love to hear your comments below 🙂  

4 thoughts on “The Secret Power of Binge Eating Part 1: Why You Binge and How to Stop”

  1. Great article Meg. I think we all have binged at one time or another. I’m an emotional eater and swing in and out of depression. Reading this is a good reminder to help keep me in check.

    1. Thanks Lisa! I’m glad you mentioned emotional eating, since that is another thing we all do at least sometimes! And emotional eating isn’t “bad” in the way we usually mean it. It’s simply a matter of asking yourself, is it helping or hindering me at this moment? And even if you emotionally eat in a way that isn’t very helpful, a key to stopping is actually not judging yourself for it. Just notice what’s happening and give yourself some love instead of the usual bashing we tend to keep for ourselves. Thanks for speaking up about this, the more we see we aren’t alone the easier it can be 🙂

    1. Absolutely! It’s rarely a self-control issue. In my view, the body speaks to us on many levels, and unwanted behaviors are one way it tells us to dig a little deeper.

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