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Are you stuck in the binge-restrict cycle?

One cause of binge eating is something known as the binge-restrict cycle. This is a common experience where you find yourself in a pattern of dieting (restriction) followed by binge eating. This post will discuss the different stages of the binge-restrict cycle and how you can disrupt this pattern of eating to develop a calmer relationship with food

Stages of the binge-restrict cycle

The first stage: self-evaluation and dieting

The plan to start a diet doesn’t come from nowhere. It is often a result of feeling our body is not enough. Not thin enough. Not healthy enough. Not attractive enough. We exist in a world where there is immense pressure to be thin. Health is literally measured by our weight at the doctor’s office (thanks BMI) and people are told to lose weight everyday. Beauty standards expect you to be thin with the perfect amount of muscle tone while healthy eating is viewed as fresh salads, expensive smoothies, and a disdain for sugar and processed foods.

Attempting to change our body and eating habits to fit into society’s version of health often starts with a diet.

The diet and wellness industry have thousands of diets, lifestyle changes, meal plans, and programs to choose from. Each one promises to make us healthier and happier. We may feel excited and relieved that we are finally taking back control. We look forward to our future selves and the things we will do, what we will wear, and the people we will meet when we reach our perfect body.

The second stage: restriction and hunger

The second stage of the cycle is the actual dieting. This is the period when we are restricting our food intake, and it can last anywhere from a day to months. Restriction can look like cutting down our food intake through smaller portions, calorie counting, or skipping meals. It may also be restricting food groups or categorising food as “good” and “bad”.

Most people cannot maintain this restriction for long periods of time. This is not due to a lack of willpower but our biology. Our body has an increased drive for food in times of food scarcity and this is an important physiological mechanism that has kept us alive in periods of famine. When our brain senses that food is scarce, it responds by:

  • Increasing our hunger hormones so we have an increased desire for food.

  • Decreasing our fullness hormones so we need to eat more to feel satisfied.

  • Increasing our thoughts about food, particularly the foods we are restricting.

The third stage: binge eating

Trying to ignore our intense hunger pangs and food cravings is extremely difficult. Eventually we reach a breaking point and begin seeking large amounts of food that were previously off-limits.

There can be a sense of urgency as we seek out all the feel-good foods. We have little control over what we eat or how much we eat, we are simply focused on eating as much as we can whether it tastes good or not. We may even tell ourselves that this is a one-off thing, and we will go back to being “good” tomorrow. It can feel freeing no longer being constrained by the diet mentality.

The fourth stage: guilt and shame

The last stage is what happens post-binge, after the euphoria of eating has worn off and we are left with a stomach-ache while feeling guilty and ashamed for breaking our diet rules.

We promise to never do it again and decide to gain back control of our eating. We devise new diet rules and we will keep ourselves on track this time with food diaries and regular weigh-ins.

We are back at the beginning of the cycle, ready to restrict our food intake once again.

How to break the cycle

Escaping the binge-restrict cycle does not start with addressing the binge eating, it requires us to stop restricting.

This can feel scary for many people who have been on a diet almost their entire lives. Feeding yourself consistently with adequate food is a foreign concept to many of us who were taught to eat less. But this is so important in stopping the intense hunger cravings and food thoughts that come with restriction. Here are a couple of tips to get you started.

1. Eat regularly

Eating every 3 hours with 3 main meals and 2-3 snacks across the day is a great place to start. This will ensure our blood sugar levels remain steady, sustain our energy levels and keep our brain fed. This helps our body know that regular food is coming in and allows our appetite hormones to normalise.

2. Change how you think about food

Naming food as either "good" or "bad" is a subtle way that we can restrict food. Categorising food in a binary way can lead us to feel guilty for enjoying dessert or ordering a pizza.

If we feel we have eaten a "bad" food, this can lead to a “what the hell” feeling and result in a binge episode. When we view all food on a level playing field, it loses the ability to make us feel morally superior or inferior for eating it. Yes, some food is more nutritious than others, but by giving yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, you are free to choose the foods that feel good to you in that moment without judgement.

It's not easy... but it's worth it

Breaking out of a restriction mindset is not easy. You will be surprised at different ways restricting food has become normalised in your own eating patterns. It will take time to unlearn these behaviours but give yourself grace and know that with time you will develop a calm relationship with food. Seeking support from a dietitian and psychologist who specialise in disordered eating can make all the difference in escaping the binge-restrict cycle.

Get support

Nutrition in Mind dietitians specialise in eating disorders and disordered eating through a non-diet, weight-neutral approach. Find out more about our telehealth sessions today.

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