We’ve all heard the lunch room chatter about people's latest diets and weight-loss escapades. Maybe you’ve even led the discussion by saying something like,"I am going to be ‘good’ today and only eat salads and fresh fruit and avoid the sugar and junky stuff." Or maybe the conversation went more like, "I ate so bad this weekend! Now I have to go to the gym for two hours after work to burn it all off." Sound familiar?
As a dietitian, I often get asked "What do you think about the [fill-in-the-blank] diet?" My response is almost always the same: Diets do not teach healthy lifestyle changes that can be maintained over many years.
Unlike small and sustainable changes you can live with, diets are usually restrictive in nature and short-lived. While some people do find success on a variety of fad diet plans, most of the initial weight loss is simply water weight that comes right back once the diet is over or once you’ve cheated or given up on the eating plan that you simply couldn't take anymore.
Unfortunately, many people will not only gain back every pound they worked so hard to lose on a short-lived diet, but they can actually gain even more than they lost. Many times, dieting can lead to out-of-control binge eating episodes in which the dieter gets so fed up with restricting herself that she overindulges in every "sinful" treat she had been avoiding. However, these binges can also be on "healthy" or diet-approved foods, too.
If you're reading this article, chances are that you've experienced binge eating and may be wondering things like:
- Is it ever OK to binge? Is the occasional binge normal?
- Is it better to eat "right" Monday through Friday and then to throw caution to the wind on the weekends or plan for one cheat day per week?
- Will I ever find a happy balance between eating the foods I crave and maintaining a healthy lifestyle?
- I’ve heard of "intuitive eating," but what exactly does that mean and how do I apply it to my daily eating habits?
Let's explore some of these thoughts a little further.
Instead of defining "normal" eating here, this article will focus on how to prevent binges and get back on track after them. To read more about whether your eating habits are "normal" check out this three-part series on the topic by SparkPeople's behavioral psychology expert, Coach Dean.
What is binge eating?
Binging is an uncontrolled ingestion of large quantities of food within a short time period, often accompanied by feeling out of control over the eating taking place.
We have all overeaten at one time or another, most notably around the holidays or on a special occasion. I think we have all gone back for seconds (or thirds) on Thanksgiving, or had an extra slice or two of cake at a birthday party. So when does the occasional overindulgence cross the line into the realm of real binge eating?
That isn't always easy to define. But if your days and weeks are becoming more filled with sessions of overeating and guilt; if thoughts of "bad" food and "good" food are constantly on your mind; and the lines between enjoying a small piece of cake on occasion and eating the whole pie are becoming more obscure, it might be time to step back take notice.
Keeping Binges at Bay
I’ve had many conversations with co-workers and friends about their post-weekend-binge guilt. Most often they say something like, "I was good all week! No sweets, no candy or cookies, and I even passed on mom’s mac & cheese at dinner the other night! But I just couldn’t help myself on Saturday when I opened the pint of ice cream to just take a bite and before I knew it, the whole carton was gone. Now I feel so guilty. I have to be extra good this week and go to the gym every day to work it off."
My response usually seems to surprise people: "Instead of eating the whole carton of ice cream on Saturday night, why not enjoy a small serving a few times throughout the week?" A half a cup of ice cream will likely set you back around 150 calories—maybe 200 for a really rich variety. But the whole carton will do much more damage than that! Not to mention the havoc all that sugar intake in one sitting will have on your blood sugar levels! Small amounts of sweets or high starchy foods over time are more likely to keep those cravings at bay and help prevent the cycle of binge eating and guilt.
For those of us who struggle with occasional binges that are more annoying and guilt-providing than obsessions or compulsions, there are a few tricks you can implement to keep yourself on track and avoid bingeing. <pagebreak>
- NEVER eat directly from the whole carton, bag or box. Take out your portion and put the rest away.
- For sweets and treats, use small (4 ounce) bowls and cocktail spoons or forks. A half a cup of ice cream or pie will look like a lot more food if you put it in a small bowl, rather than a large bowl with lots of extra empty space. Using smaller spoons and forks will make smaller portions last longer and slow down your eating.
- Set a kitchen timer or monitor the clock and try to extend meal times to 15-20 minutes. Take small bites and put your fork down in between bites. Have a conversation, chew slowly, etc. These strategies will allow your body to have enough time for its fullness cues to kick in. It takes about 15-20 minutes for your tummy to send a single to your brain that you are full. Remember last Thanksgiving when you gobbled down 2-3 plates of food in about 5 minutes and then regretted it 10 minutes later because your tummy felt like it was going to explode? It’s a miserable feeling, but eating slowly is the best defense to preventing it from happening again.
- Learn to differentiate between hunger and cravings. Cravings are usually for something specific (brownies, French fries, bread, candy, etc.). However, if you are truly hungry, you will most likely eat anything, including raw veggies dipped in hummus or a small handful of nuts. The lines between hunger and cravings are often blurred, especially with the abundance of food options we have in America. Listen to your body and learn to decipher between cravings and hunger.
- Sometimes, we can confuse hunger with thirst. If you find yourself staring into the fridge looking for something to eat, but don’t know what you want, you are most likely experiencing boredom cravings. Grab a glass of water and walk away.
- When a craving for a specific food strikes, have an answer for it: Go for a walk, read a good book, take a hot bath, whatever you have to do to get your mind off of the craving.
- Sometimes binge eating isn’t really about the food or the craving at all. Instead it’s more of a stress reliever after a really bad day or a difficult breakup. Often without realizing it, we eat the whole bag of cookies or that entire bowl of pasta as a coping mechanism for stress or personal struggles. One of the most important things to prevent these types of binges is to stay present. Slow down and savor each bite of food. Better yet, seek out stress relief by going for a walk around the block or taking a hot bath.
- DON’T skip meals! This is very important. Skipping meals and snacks can cause you to overeat at the next meal, and eating just one (or two) big meal per day can wreak havoc on your blood sugars and hinder weight loss. Aim for three meals per day plus one or two (based on your calorie needs) healthy snacks.
- Stay present while eating. Be aware of what you are eating and how much. Focus on your food and minimize any other distractions: Avoid eating in front of the TV or computer. Clear off the kitchen table. Don't read, study, write or talk on the phone while you eat. By eating more mindfully, you will enjoy your meals more, notices fullness, flavor and satisfaction better than ever before, and feel less of a desire to overeat.
- Know how you respond to trigger foods. You'll hear differing opinions about whether people prone to binge eating should keep their trigger foods in the house or far, far away. I think this depends on the person. Only YOU know your own limits. If you are the type of person that simply cannot stop at just one cookie or one serving of ice cream, it might be best to keep these foods out of the house for a while. However, I think the goal would be to work towards enjoying a small serving of a trigger food whenever a craving strikes in order to avoid the inevitable binge that usually follows bouts of restriction. For some, allowing a small serving of a trigger food throughout the week can prevent binges—because you allow it versus labeling it off-limits. Others have a harder time staying in control.
And remember, it's okay to enjoy a sweet treat or a hearty side item every now and then. Depriving yourself is usually worse in the long run and can lead to out-of-control eating episodes that add up to far more calories than the food you initially wanted to eat. Enjoy life’s simple pleasures in small amounts a few times per week.
Coming Back from a Binge
So let's say it's been a rough week and you binged on one or more foods. It doesn't matter whether it was your favorite flavor of ice cream, healthy foods from your "approved" list, or anything you could get your hands on. Now what? Here's a list of dos and don'ts to get you back on track:
- DON'T beat yourself up over it. We’ve all had those days at some point, and you can't change what happened in the past.
- DO move forward and make your next meal or snack a healthy, portion-controlled one.
- DON'T overly restrict your diet over the next few days to "make up for being bad." This will make you more likely to continue the cycle of deprivation dieting and binging.
- DO focus on making the best food choices you can each day, focusing on lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and plenty of water. But continue to allow yourself to enjoy that small piece of dark chocolate (or other portion controlled treats) on occasion.
- DON'T punish yourself at the gym after a binge. Stick to your usual exercise routine. Maybe go for an extra walk or do some other light activity in addition to your workouts, but try to avoid the mindset of "working off" the calories you consumed. This, too, can lead to an unhealthy cycle of binging and over-exercising.
Remember, the overall goal is to seek balance. A healthy lifestyle is not defined by one single meal or eating episode. Even the healthiest eaters in the world aren't perfect all the time. It's the combination of your choices over time that will create an overall healthy lifestyle.
Please note: Overeating on occasion, such as your birthday or Thanksgiving may very well be considered normal. However, if you are experiencing purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, taking laxatives or enemas, or excessive exercising to prevent weight gain OR if you’ve noticed that you are overeating very frequently, please seek professional help. On the same note, if every "sinful" bite of food or any overindulgence episode (big or small) leads you straight to the gym for several hours to work it off, you may be dealing with abnormal food and exercise issues, such as clinical binge eating disorder (a real eating disorder) or compulsive exercise, which can be a form of bulimia—another serious disorder. Learn more about recognizing eating disorders and getting help.
Elsevier USA. "Dorlands Online Medical Dictionary," accessed March 2011. www.dorlands.com.