How to Overcome Binge Eating: Why Willpower Won't Help You

By Betsy Callan

"I have tried everything imaginable, but I simply don't have the willpower to stop bingeing." This is the narrative most people convey when they come to us seeking treatment for binge eating disorder. I've heard it so many times: "If only I had self-control, I could stop binge eating." This is where we have it all wrong: when it comes to binge eating, willpower is a lie.

"I have tried everything imaginable, but I simply don’t have the willpower to stop bingeing.”

This is the narrative most people convey when they come to us seeking treatment for binge eating disorder. I’ve heard it so many times:

If only I had self-control, I could stop binge eating.” 

This is where we have it all wrong. 

Now, in our defense, we live in a culture that idolizes “self-control” and holds perfectionistic ideals as the standard. The messages that we all see and hear that are expected in our culture is that we should be doing all of the following: 

  • Exercise regularly (even when we don’t want to)
  • Practice regimented “healthy” eating
  • Perform above and beyond at our jobs
  • Be the “best” mother/father/sister/brother/daughter/son
  • Adhere to Westernized beauty standards

Seeing this list above, it’s no wonder we feel a deep sense of shame and self-loathing in the moments we aren’t practicing what we think of as our own concept of willpower. Without willpower, we think, we’ll never meet all the expectations that society has of us.

With all of that messaging, this might just come as a surprise to you: willpower is a lie

Bingeing is not about willpower

A predisposition to binge eating or compulsive overeating is not about willpower, but it can be a result of a number of factors:

  • Genetics
  • Familial modeling
  • Self-soothing
  • The structuring of reward pathways in the brain.

With these factors working against us, how could we ever expect willpower to be the one thing that saves us from having an urge to binge? It’s completely unfair for us to put that kind of pressure on ourselves.

Here’s something else: binge eating is on the spectrum of what are considered normal eating behaviors. Yes, everyone, even those who do not have an eating disorder, binges on occasion.

[To clarify, a binge is defined as eating more than a typical person would eat in a short period of time, while feeling a loss of control].

How could we not feel an urge to binge on occasion? We live in a culture where we are surrounded by food stimuli all the time. Whether you have an unlimited snack bar at work, pass 10 fast casual restaurants on your commute, watch 20 food commercials while decompressing on the couch, or attend a party on the weekends, you are surrounded by food most people would want to binge on. Being exposed to these constant food cues makes it extremely difficult for us to practice “self-control,” especially when some of us have a predisposition to overeating (see the list of predispositions above). 

What you should know about changing binge eating habits — or any sort of behavioral change for that matter — is that environment is key.

Take a look at when and why you binge

When we work with people with binge eating disorder, we see them living in environments that can promote overeating. For example, bingeing often happens in the evening, after a long day, when we are alone and possibly watching TV (or iPhone, tablet, etc.). 

Setting up our environment is essential to increase success in stopping a binge, but where do you start? You can start by asking yourself some important questions: 

  • What does it look like when I binge? 
  • What am I feeling before, during and after a binge? 
  • What triggers me to binge?
  • How do I typically overeat? 
  • Where does this happen?

Once you’ve answered these questions, there are several things you can do. 

Let’s say that TV watching is often a trigger for you. Maybe you start by changing this behavior to eat at a table, with a plate, while sitting on a chair (not standing up at the counter or in front of a screen). As you eat, be mindful about it. Use your senses while eating the food. This prevents numbing out and mindless eating (which often leads to overeating). Structuring your environment in this way can promote eating meals without bingeing. Doing this repeatedly can increase your chances of success in this realm. 

Another beneficial practice that can help you reduce binge eating episodes is to take a look at the “data” before and after a binge. Start by asking yourself: 

  • What happened before I started bingeing? 
  • What was I feeling before, during and after the binge? 
  • Did something happen today that made me more vulnerable to my emotions? 
  • How did I eat this meal or snack? 
  • Where did I eat and what else was I doing at the time?

We can take this data and use it to help inform our future – with no judgment.

Binge eating and self care

We have to remember that even with diligent implementation of structuring our environment and noticing what might trigger a binge, we still may binge on occasion, and that is OK. Practicing self-compassion on a regular basis is so important because beating ourselves up is likely to lead to more overeating in order to cope with our distress. 

Lastly, I want to normalize how incredibly difficult it is to recover from binge eating disorder on your own. There are so many variables and skills needed — along with introspection and structure — to promote recovery. This is why it’s so important to seek qualified, professional help. In a specialized program, you can not only learn how to structure your eating, but also cope with emotions without using food. Most importantly, you will have professional support from a team that truly understands the ins and outs of an eating disorder, coupled with peers who understand what you are going through. Having a community of professional peer support promotes the path to healing – and seeking help is the one thing you CAN control.

Written by

Betsy Callan

Betsy Callan, LCSW is Clinical Manager of the Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery Program (PHP/IOP) in Chicago. She writes, “when I started as a therapist in the BETR program in 2013, I was…

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