6 Ways to Go Further in Binge Eating Recovery

Dietitian Jean Curran shares six strategies to help you overcome binge eating and compulsive eating habits. Recovery is a process, and while you can rest assured it won't be perfect, there is always progress to celebrate. Remember: recovery is possible!

It’s National Nutrition Month!(Yes, that’s a thing). In honor of this year’s theme, “Go Further with Food,” here is a nutritionist’s guide to get you further down your road in recovery from binge eating.

1: Eat planned meals and snacks.

Binge eating recovery often means separating food from your feelings. One of the most important ways to accomplish that is to pre-plan your food choices.

Meal planning can help you get further in recovery in several ways:

  • Planning helps to make eating less impulsive.
  • Planning takes the emotionality out of eating.
  • Planning leaves you less vulnerable to binge eating.
  • Planning means the eating disorder will be less likely to take control of the steering wheel.
  • Meal planning can also help put parameters around grocery shopping, leaving you less likely to make impulse buys.

Try pre-planning your meals and snacks at least a day ahead of time to put some space in between you and your food choices.

2: Eat by the clock.

When you’re in the throes of binge eating disorder, eating times are often haphazard and unevenly distributed. You may find yourself compulsively grazing over the course of several hours. You may even skip meals and snacks when you’re not feeling hungry or when you feel like you don’t “deserve” to eat. However, skipping meals may increase the likelihood of binge eating at night.

When our eating patterns are disorganized, the hormones that signal feelings of physical hunger and fullness become less accurate and reliable. That means that waiting to eat until you feel hungry — and stopping when you’re full — isn’t a very effective approach, at least, not in the early stages of recovery.

Instead, try relying on the clock. Have meals and snacks spaced roughly 2 to 4 hours apart. This mimics a normalized appetite pattern that mirrors the natural ups-and-downs of blood sugar levels throughout the day. When you eat at regularly scheduled times, those hunger/fullness hormones may start to readjust so that cravings and appetite feel less chaotic. This type of structured eating also helps protect against under-eating, which in turn, will protect against over-eating or binge eating.

3: Eat “bad” foods.

Yes, I just told you to eat “bad” foods. A big caveat here, though, is that there are no “bad” foods.

All foods can fit into a completely normalized and healthy diet!

A meal plan should include foods that your eating disorder tells you are “off-limits” or “guilty pleasures.” Meal planning and scheduling, as described above, are crucial in binge eating recovery. But, adding more structure to your diet shouldn’t morph into DIETING.

As you practice being more organized and intentional around food, these changes should not come at the expense of getting pleasure from what you eat. Yes, some meals or snacks may feel more “functional” than “fun”, but if you’re trying to be perpetually angelic or perfect with your food choices, feelings of deprivation and/or failure will sooner or later lead to bingeing. Here’s why:

  • Restrictive or restrained eating leads to cravings.
  • Cravings lead to binges
  • Binges lead to guilt and shame, and you’re back on the binge-eating hamster wheel.

“Legalizing,” permitting, and enjoying your favorite foods are an essential, albeit scary, part of this process. But, if you are consistent with steps 1 (eating planned meals) and 2 (eating by the clock) above — step 3 will become much more manageable.

You’ll also start to find that it is not the food itself that’s triggering out-of-control eating. It is WHY and HOW you’re eating that makes the biggest difference. Instead of eating that donut (or bingeing on multiple donuts) because you’re ravenous or emotionally hungry for them in the moment, you’ll be eating a donut because you planned on Sunday to have it on Wednesday for your 4 p.m. snack. Your decision will feel intentional and in your control rather than impulsive and out of control.

4: Eat in public.

Eating with others around you – whether it’s in the company of friends or family, or when dining out surrounded by strangers – offers a couple of helpful benefits.

Eating with others provides some accountability. This is particularly helpful as you’re starting to plan for and “legalize” your trigger foods. Bingeing is often done alone when there’s an opportunity to “get away with it.” Make plans to have more shared meals, or opt to eat at restaurants — rather than doing take-out.

Eating with others reduces shame. When eating is no longer done in secret, we no longer reinforce the idea that certain foods should be forbidden or that we should feel ashamed of our food choices. In contrast, the more you allow yourself to eat those shame-inducing foods in the presence of people you trust, the more you’ll realize that eating so-called “bad” foods does not make you a bad person, and you’re not going to be judged or punished for it. Eating from a broad and varied spectrum of foods is normalized, and it is not a privilege reserved for a select few – it is everyone’s right.

5: Eat in a new spot.

Would you believe a change as small as eating in a different place in your home may reduce the likelihood of a binge? It’s said that neurons that fire together wire together. That means that when you sit (or stand) in the same spot that’s typical of your binge eating, your brain automatically ramps up for binge behavior. (Think of Pavlov and his salivating dogs).

For example, you may plop down on the couch, turn on the TV, and, as if out of nowhere, the desire to eat pops up. However, it makes perfect sense that your brain sends you this signal if that’s the cue that’s been paired with compulsive eating for so long.

Experiment with devoting a new place to eating – a different room, or even a different chair – and you’ll likely notice a difference in habitual binge urges.

Just as importantly, make a concerted effort to separate eating from other associated behaviors. It may not be enough to move from the couch to the dining room table or kitchen counter – try turning off the TV, too, if that’s something you almost always do when bingeing.

As a bonus, when you eat with fewer distractions, you’ll probably be eating in an all-around more mindful way. When you’re more mentally present for meals, you tend to get greater satisfaction from food and stop before becoming overly full.

6: Eat with self-compassion.

Let go of perfectionistic all-or-nothing thinking and be kind and patient with yourself.

Please know that the above suggestions are guideposts. There are no absolute eating rules, and there’s no such thing as getting food right or wrong. It’s okay if you take an off-road detour from time to time. In fact, you can gain a lot of insight when you eat “off track”!

Remember, you are always able to gently steer yourself back toward recovery. There is no such thing as failing, and you’ve never lost the ground you’ve already covered.

Final thoughts: these tips, among others, can help lead you further toward recovery from binge eating disorder. Recovery is a process, and while you can rest assured it won’t be perfect, there is always progress to celebrate.

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Jean Owen Curran is a registered dietitian and professional relations coordinator for ERC’s Binge Eating Treatment & Recovery Program. She works with patients struggling with binge eating and related eating disorders and helps them find a balance between physical and emotional wellbeing around food. She also supports community and health professional outreach efforts to raise awareness of binge eating disorder and treatment.

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