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  • Writer's pictureHeather Haledjian, LCSW-C

Key Ways to Prevent Binge Eating

To begin with, let's define what binge eating is. The DSM-5 defines an episode of binge eating as an episode that is "characterized by both of the following:

  1. Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances

  2. The sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)."

Many people get confused about whether or not their eating patterns constitute an eating disorder. A therapist specializing in eating disorders can help clarify that by reviewing the eating patterns in detail, as well as the mindset around them. There can be what are referred to as "objective binges," which are those that meet the criteria above, or "subjective binges," which do not meet the above criteria but are experienced by the person as distressing and guilt and shame-producing, usually due to the eating episode being significantly out of the norm of their typical, controlled eating. Often, the eating involved in "subjective binges" doesn't actually need to be changed however the person's appraisal of the eating in those situations is what needs to be challenged in order to become more flexible and accepting of normalized eating patterns.

This post is mainly referring to "objective" binge eating however the recommendations may be helpful to those with "subjective" binge eating episodes as well. There are several key ways to help prevent and address binge eating:

  • Establish regular eating patterns

  • Incorporate a variety of foods

  • Honor your cravings

  • Allow yourself to feel your emotions

  • Focus on "whole-self" care

  • Develop alternative behaviors

  • If you do binge, treat yourself kindly and allow the discomfort and distress to pass. Rather than beating yourself up, shift your focus to the previous points above.

  • Seek support

Establishing regular eating patterns is the foundation of any eating disorder treatment and is equally important regardless of the eating disorder diagnosis. It is also critical for the prevention of the development of eating disorders. Regular eating patterns typically mean having 3 meals and 1-3 snacks/day depending on age/developmental stage of growth and activity level/energy needs. Your body learns to trust and relax around this consistency and predictability. It allows your body to stabilize in its functioning, including gastrointestinal processes (digestion, bowel patterns) metabolism, and even mood regulation. It is helpful to focus on this goal of nourishing and fueling your body in this way versus fixating on the "don't binge" goal, even though it will indeed help to decrease binge episodes. Further, regular eating, with no more than 3-4 hours between eating episodes, will make it easier to resist acting on urges to binge when they arise.

Incorporating a variety of foods is critical in order to meet your nutritional needs as well as to foster a flexible and free relationship with food. It is important to break food rules and dismantle the mindset that involves labeling and judging food as "good vs bad" or "healthy vs unhealthy", etc. Ensuring that all food groups are included and that none are being restricted or viewed as "off limits" will foster a healthier relationship with food.

Similarly, honoring your cravings and including foods that you truly enjoy will lessen obsessive thoughts about those foods, decreasing the power they have to trigger urges to binge. The more you try to resist those foods, the more powerful and scary they become. This creates a deprivation mindset, which reinforces obsessive thoughts about those foods and the belief that they will lead to a loss of control. As you learn to honor your cravings and allow yourself to simply enjoy the food, work on cultivating a sense of gratitude for it versus self-judgment.

Disordered eating is often connected to underlying emotions and may be a way to suppress, numb or distract from them. Allowing yourself to feel your emotions is a way to reduce the likelihood of using food in this way. Give yourself space and time to notice and recognize what you're feeling, name your emotion to yourself or to a support person and acknowledge what that emotion is signaling to you. Is there another need you can identify such as down-time, sleep, support from a loved one, connection with others, a hug, a tightening up of boundaries with someone, etc. Consider how you might get your need met instead of avoiding it through food.

Focusing on "whole-self" care involves taking a step back and observing the big picture of your lifestyle in terms of day to day functioning. The usual "diet, exercise, and sleep" aspects of self care are quick to come to mind and while these are all important, "whole-self" care extends to things like prioritizing and setting boundaries in your life in a way that aligns with your personal values. Learning to say "no" when you need to set a limit and when you need and want to say "yes" to something else. Allowing yourself to put yourself first versus working double-time to meet everyone else's needs. Nurturing your spirituality or faith. Intentionally exploring and engaging in enjoyable activities. Moving your body in a way that you enjoy and feel comfortable with instead of punishing yourself with exercise routines you dread. Deep breathing throughout the day.

Developing alternative behaviors to binge eating is another strategy for preventing binge episodes. If you notice a pattern around your binge eating, consider what else you could do to occupy yourself at the times you are most likely to binge. This might involve changing your environment and/or changing the order of activities in your life. For example, if you tend to start out with a normal dinner but then it turns into a binge episode while sitting on the couch watching TV, consider eating your dinner at the kitchen table and then leaving the kitchen or that section of the house in order to change your environment. If feasible, you could even leave the house for a walk around the block, a quick errand, or to find a nice place outdoors to read, all of which will help break the binge cycle. Even staying home but changing your routine can shift your behavioral cues around binge eating. Put music on instead of the TV and do some light chore like the dishes or putting a load of laundry in. Take a bath or shower, call a friend or journal in another room whether it's about your day or perhaps specifically about your thoughts and feelings around trying not to binge.

When working on preventing or addressing binge eating, it is important to manage expectations of yourself and treat yourself with kindness and compassion when you do binge. It is essential to notice negative thought patterns that are connected to binge episodes and start to challenge and reframe them into more balanced thoughts. Catch those harmful "all or nothing" thoughts and gently guide yourself out of them. For example, if you binge and then think "I've ruined it now. I might as well keep bingeing" or "I'm hopeless, I always binge", try talking to yourself in a compassionate, more balanced way such as "it's ok, I had a tough time with that binge, I'm in the process of working on this and I can focus on the next right step to take good care of myself going forward". Allow the distress of the binge to pass and focus on moving forward versus beating yourself up.

There are additional strategies for overcoming binge eating patterns and for preventing the development of binge eating disorder. Seeking support from a therapist who specializes in eating disorders can offer the encouragement, guidance and structure that are often helpful in making sustainable changes however working on the above suggestions may be a good start and will go a long way to improving your relationship with food, one day at a time.


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