Ending the nightmare of binge eating
We have never had greater access to nutritional information than we do today. We also know more about how our bodies function than ever before, but it seems that we have never had a trickier relationship with food or greater dissatisfaction about the size and shape of our bodies.
More and more clients are approaching me because they are fed up of struggling with what they perceive is their out-of-control appetite. Are our appetites more out of control these days? This is often the reported experience but all may not be as it seems...
Our relationship with food and appetite is complex. We have many cues and triggers that encourage us to consume food, and these engage all the physical senses - sight, smell, taste, touch and even sound. Ever spotted that green Starbucks sign and suddenly wanted a caramel latte? It wasn’t even on your mind until you spotted the green mermaid in her circular frame!
Experts have termed our environment as ‘obseogenic’, and this simply means we are living in a culture that continuously primes us to eat.
Here lies the cultural paradox. Thin lean taunt bodies and “clean” disciplined eating is celebrated as a sign of success and bestowed with greater social value. Soft, squishy bodies are often judged as undisciplined and an example of what we shouldn’t be. The pressure is on to sculpt your body into a more acceptable shape.
The solution to this becomes a diet. Diets these days are often masquerading as wellness programmes, or healthy clean eating. Sugar is the enemy; we should be eating low carb, keto or paleo. There are long lists of what you should or shouldn't be allowing yourself to consume, and with each new bit of research more things are added to these lists.
The problem with this solution is that it requires you to ignore your body’s signals and hand over the decisions about what and how much to eat to a prescribed set of rules. People crave freedom, it’s a basic primal need, and for many the restriction imposed by dieting triggers rebellious eating, or binge eating.
Binge eating is much more than eating “too much”. It’s a sensation of completely losing control around food. It’s very scary to experience. Unfortunately the common response when people start to binge is to try and exercise EVEN MORE control over food, which sets up the next binge and so the cycle continues. This is how people get trapped in the cycle of bingeing and dieting.
Also, dieting causes emotional eating. As soon as you restrict food you like, you increase its emotional value. Eating and deciding what to eat becomes a more emotionally-charged experience, which confuses your hunger signals even more. Food can then become a way to manage your emotional state.
So what’s the solution?
Understanding some of the emotional reasons that perpetuate your eating is a good start, and counselling will help you gain insight into this and assist you to develop tools for managing your emotions without turning to food.
The emotional work is only part of the picture though.
I like to use the analogy of Newton’s third law, which states that each action has an equal and opposite reaction. Bingeing is the natural reaction to restriction. Even restrictive thinking can trigger the binge response. Ever planned to start a diet on Monday and ended up eating your way through the weekend before?
To break free from bingeing requires a rejection of diet culture and a re-learning of how to respond to your body’s signals.
When people stop believing their bodies aren’t acceptable as they are, they can begin to reconnect with the subtle sensations and signals in their bodies, and regain their sanity around food.
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About Sarah Dosanjh
Sarah is a London-based therapist specialising in working with disordered eating and body image issues. She offers therapy to individuals and groups, as well as delivering training to other therapists and counsellors about working with compulsive overeating.