How Dieting Can Lead to Binge Eating

Learn about how dieting can lead to binge eating.

By Jean Alves, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

“Once you pop, you can’t stop!”

While many may recognize this as the original pithy Pringles slogan, this sentiment rings true for all sorts of binge foods.

Whether we feel our weakness is potato chips, pizza, ice cream, or pasta, we learn to believe that this particular food has an unassailable power over us.

And when we start to associate food with a presumed lack of self-control, fear, weight gain, and punishing guilt, we convince ourselves that our only answer to this food power struggle is avoidance.

Yet, our relationship with food, much like our relationships with the people in our lives, is rarely changed or improved through avoidance. When it comes to trigger foods, we need to kill ‘em with kindness.

Three reasons to allow trigger foods, not avoid them

1. Forbidden fruit syndrome

When we label foods as “bad” or “off-limits”, our human nature responds by glorifying and obsessing over whatever it is we’ve told ourselves we can’t have. Research has shown that one of the most common and one of the longest-lasting side effects of dieting is food preoccupation. In other words, the more we restrict our food intake, the more we think about food. We romanticize the foods on the naughty list, put those foods on a pedestal, and give them a lot of power. We may look up recipes and food photos online, daydream about fantasy meals, or devote hours of our day to meal planning or binge planning. Simply put, the more we avoid the foods want, the more we want those foods. It’s no wonder we set ourselves up for “cheating” on our diets.

2. The final meal frenzy

OK — we’ve told ourselves we can’t have something and now we inevitably find ourselves eating the very food we’ve sworn off. Rather than slowly savoring this “forbidden” pleasure, eating slowly and mindfully, we instead rapidly scarf down as much as we can as fast as we can. Fast, frenzied eating can happen for a few reasons:

  • We’ve been abstaining from and thinking about the food for so long, we’ve made it uber exciting and ultra-rewarding.
  • Excitement and reward quickly morph into guilt and shame. We think we’re being bad by sneaking in “bad” foods and getting away with something – heresy!
  • We don’t want to get caught. In a sense, we don’t even want to catch ourselves and give our conscious mind the opportunity to realize what our hands and mouths are doing. Thus, we wind up trying to get the whole eating episode over with as quickly as possible.
  • We’re already avowing to avoid this food forever afterward, even as we’re eating it. Of course, if we tell ourselves, “This is the last time!” and “Never again!” then we want to eat as much of forbidden foods we can right now – this is our last chance!

3. Eat. Repent. Repeat.

Not only do we feel physically crummy after over-eating, we have a whopper of an emotional hangover to boot. The thought, “I ate something bad,” quickly translates into, “I’m bad.” We feel defenseless against an onslaught of self-berating thoughts. Have you ever thought one of these sentiments, after a binge or after eating “bad” foods?

  • “What’s wrong with me?”
  • “I’m disgusting.”
  • “I might as well give up.”

The fact is, we will never shame ourselves thin or punish ourselves healthy. When we feel unworthy of compassion and self-care, we don’t take care of ourselves. When we tell ourselves we’re powerless and incapable, we give up on problem-solving, change, and recovery. Here we are, stuck on our eating disorder hamster wheel.

Here’s the lesson we need to learn

Avoiding our trigger foods only serves to fuel compulsive and emotional eating. Only by giving ourselves permission to enjoy these foods can we repair our relationship with them. If you are struggling with this personally, please talk to your therapist and registered dietitian about how you can begin the healing process of embracing trigger foods in a new way.

Jean Alves is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in the Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery Program at Eating Recovery Center, Illinois.

Eating Recovery Center is accredited through the Joint Commission. This organization seeks to enhance the lives of the persons served in healthcare settings through a consultative accreditation process emphasizing quality, value and optimal outcomes of services.

Organizations that earn the Gold Seal of Approval™ have met or exceeded The Joint Commission’s rigorous performance standards to obtain this distinctive and internationally recognized accreditation. Learn more about this accreditation here.

Joint Commission Seal