Binge Eating: Common Causes & Overcoming It

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This fantastic article was written by Dr Jake Linardon (PhD). Jake is the founder of Break Binge Eating and a Research Fellow at Deakin University, Melbourne Australia.

With a focus on eating disorders, Jake has published numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on eating disorders and serves as an editorial board member for the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

If you are struggling with binge eating, please don’t suffer in silence. Seeking support from a Dietitian and Psychotherapist can be a really helpful part of recovery.

You can also find more information, resources and support from BodyWhys.ie or Beat Eating Disorders.

image of the author of this article Jake Linardon - A white male with short brown hair wearing a brown jumper.

Binge eating is defined as the consumption of an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time accompanied by a sense of loss of control [1].

It is a behaviour that is becoming more and more prevalent in both men and women globally, is a core symptom featured in most of the eating disorder subtypes, and is associated with a significant degree of impairment and psychological distress [2]. Evidence also suggests that binge eating is more frequent and severe is competitive athletes (e.g., bodybuilders) than in the general population [3].

In this article, we cover evidence-based strategies that are designed to overcome binge eating.

We break this article up into parts: The first part discusses the factors that are maintaining binge eating. The second part introduces evidence-based strategies to overcome binge eating.

Part A: What is Maintaining Your Binge Eating?

Understanding the factors that maintain binge eating is an essential first step before addressing binge eating. This is because the techniques that are used to overcome binge eating are designed to target these maintaining factors.

The idea is that eliminating these maintaining factors will eliminate binge eating.

There is three main binge eating maintaining factors.

  1. Inflexible dietary restraint:
  2. Inflexible dietary restraint refers to the multiple specific, demanding, and rigid diet rules that dictate when, what, and how much someone should eat [4].
  3. Shape and weight overvaluation: Shape/weight overvaluation refers to judgements of self-worth that are largely based on one’s shape and weight and their control [5]. This factor is considered to be the “core psychopathology” that underpins all features of eating disorders.
  4. Mood fluctuations: Changes in mood states (e.g., sadness, loneliness, frustration) also directly affect binge eating [6]. The reason for this is that eating highly palatable foods makes us feel better during that brief moment and it also serves as a temporary distraction from negative emotions. However, negative mood states can cause people to overindulge in these palatable foods, particularly for those who hold such rigid diet rules. Therefore, teaching more effective coping strategies is important for not letting negative mood states influence binge eating.

Part B: Evidence-based strategies to overcome binge eating

Let’s now take a look at some of the more established techniques used to target each of the maintaining factors discussed above.

Techniques to Target Rigid Restraint

Eating Regularly and Flexibly:

Aiming to adopt a pattern of regular and flexible eating is the most important technique used to target rigid dietary restraint (and thus target binge eating).

People should aim to eat at least 3 meals and 3 snacks a day, no more than 3-4 hours apart.

Eating regularly like this will eliminate two crucial components of dietary restraint that are known to cause binge eating – delayed eating and dietary restriction.

There is a wealth of evidence showing that adopting a regular eating approach is associated with reductions in binge eating behaviour [7].

Implementing this strategy requires you to plan, each night, what will be eaten and what times these meals/snacks will be eaten.

Food Exposure:

Many people who binge eat have a list of forbidden foods. These foods are “trigger foods” in that their consumption can cause considerable anxiety and can prompt binge eating.

These forbidden foods need to be slowly reintroduced back into your diet. Once they are re-introduced, they’ll know longer trigger you to binge.

To do this, you need to create a list of your forbidden foods. Rank them from “least forbidden” to “most forbidden”. The task is to begin re-introducing some of these foods, starting from the “least forbidden” side, until they no longer cause you angst.

For example, if cereal is your “least forbidden” food, you may decide to include 20 grams of cereal in your usual breakfast smoothie. Although at first it may be uncomfortable, over time it will be normal and it won’t prompt you to binge. Once you feel comfortable with that particular food, your task is to then start on the next food down the list.

Techniques to Target Shape/Weight Overvaluation

Activity scheduling:

In order to reduce the importance placed on shape and weight, you will need to increase the number of life domains in which you evaluate your self-worth.

If you’re able to effectively broaden your scheme of self-worth by increasing the importance placed on other life domains, then you won’t feel the desire to diet and you won’t binge eat.

To do this, you need to generate a list of activities that you think can bring you some pleasure in life. Some examples could include: joining a sporting club, taking up art classes, meeting new friends, learning to power lift, or dancing.

You will need to commit to trying one of these. Test a few ideas and see what you really enjoy and can commit to.

The purpose of participating in these activities is to give your life much more meaning and fulfilment that is independent of weight/shape.

Eventually, if you devote enough energy to these activities, then over time you’ll realize what the more important things are in life, and your craving to control your weight and shape will subside.

Techniques to Target Emotion Dysregulation

Learn effective problem solving:

Binge eating is usually a maladaptive coping strategy used to deal with negative mood states.

To prevent this from happening, you need to learn how to engage in more adaptive emotion regulation strategies. Problem-solving is an excellent example.


There are four important steps to effective problem-solving:

  1. Identify the problem: You really need to identify what the actual problem is and where, when, and why the problem occurs, and why it causes your mood to fluctuate. This may seem obvious, but most of the time people don’t really think about these important details.
  2. Think about many different solutions: You then need to come up with as many potential ways in which you can deal with the problem. Come up with both adaptive and maladaptive solutions to the problem. This will help with step 3.
  3. Think through the implications of each solution: After you’ve thought about all of these different solutions, think about what will happen if you implemented that solution. Carefully thinking about this will allow you to weigh up all possible pros and cons of each generated solution and you will therefore have a better grasp on what your chosen solution will be.
  4. Pick the most adaptive solution and act on it: You’ve probably realised that having a scoop of ice-cream after you’re feeling lonely is a bad idea. This usually leads to a binge, leaving you to feel worse than to begin with. Alternatively, you might realise that calling your best friend for a phone chat may be the better solution because it will distract you for an hour. In the past, talking to a friend may have cheered you up, so you’re urge to binge may eventually subside.

These techniques, based on cognitive-behavioural interventions, have proven to be effective for binge eating problems.

Notwithstanding this, implementing these techniques takes considerable practice, patience, and perseverance, and it is important to be mindful that change may take a little bit of time.

Support and monitoring from healthcare professionals (such as a Psychotherapist and Dietitian) can also help with implementing these techniques.

References

1. Fairburn, C.G., Overcoming binge eating. 2013, London, UK: Guilford Press 

2. Wilson, G.T., C.M. Grilo, and K.M. Vitousek, Psychological treatment of eating disorders. American Psychologist, 2007. 62: p. 199-216.

3. Sundgot-Borgen, J. and M.K. Torstveit, Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clinical journal of sport medicine, 2004. 14(1): p. 25-32.

4. Fairburn, C.G., Z. Cooper, and R. Shafran, Cognitive behaviour therapy for eating disorders: A “transdiagnostic” theory and treatment. Behavior Research and Therapy, 2003. 41: p. 509-528.

5. Fairburn, C.G., Cognitive behavior therapy and eating disorders. 2008, New York, NY: Guilford Press.

6. Lavender, J.M., et al., Dimensions of emotion dysregulation in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: A conceptual review of the empirical literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 2015. 40: p. 111-122.7. Linardon, J., et al., The efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy for eating disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2017. 85: p. 1080–1094.


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