Science-Based Ways to Stop Binge Eating With Healthy Food Habits

A guide to making intuitive eating habits and letting go of perfectionism

Dipanshu Rawal
Dec 3, 2020 · 13 min read
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I remember sitting in my room all day long, binge-eating and binge-watching, to distract myself from reality. I was showing a few symptoms of depression. I wasn’t ready to admit that my life was sinking, and I needed to do something about it. Rather I’d distract myself with Netflix and burgers.

That’s where my relationship with food started becoming toxic. I became overweight, and you could tell that from how many inches I had gained around my belly. I also looked older than my age. From a slim high school teenager, I was entering my 20s with an overgrown belly.

And only when I underwent therapy sessions, my life started getting back on track. But it took me 3 years after that to realize my complicated relationship with food. For a long time, I thought my main target was weight loss. And that wasn’t true.

I was working with a life coach, a few months ago, and she pointed out my blind spot for food, i.e I was using food as a coping mechanism to avoid uncomfortable emotions, and wasn’t aware of it. I started having flashbacks of my hidden memories that I chose to ignore in the first place.

Somewhere in the middle, I had an epiphany that I had an over-desire when it comes to food. The food had the power to alter my mood. When I looked it up online, I saw that it’s scientifically proven that your food can alter your mood.

I was curious to know, and maybe once you must have thought this to yourself as well — how’d it feel not to be bothered so much about the food and taste, and how’d it feel to have normal eating habits?

I became a vegetarian because I thought maybe abstaining from eating meat would be the answer to my suffering. I didn’t lose weight, but I witnessed so many amazing changes in myself like I became more compassionate in nature, and I started loving pets. Sadly, weight loss wasn’t one of the changes.

When I was working with my coach and discovered my real food issues, I knew I had to tackle binge eating. That one habit was costing me a lot physically.

Tackling binge eating had so many more promising benefits than only weight loss. I had to face my emotions and be comfortable with them, i.e., better emotion-regulation at the end of the process.

“There are people who won’t customarily eat an entire row of cookies, or hear food calling their name from other rooms, or who don’t grind up food in the garbage disposal for fear of eating it, or get it back out of the garbage so they could eat it.

Of course, my binge eating was just a cover-up for the larger issue: Trying to fill the emptiness”
SARK, Transformation Soup: Healing for the Splendidly Imperfect

Here’s the moment of truth — most of our weight-related and food-related issues are concerned with psychological issues.

In this study published on the NCBI website, titled “It is not the diet, it is the mental part we need help with,” the researchers talk about food as a coping mechanism.

Our psyche can be so impactful on our food behavior that we can also develop eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa.

I never heard of this term or any eating disorder until I met a friend undergoing this. And she has been such an influence on my journey of improving my relationship with food. Talking to her made me realize how disordered eating can turn into eating disorders, and I became aware and inspired to bring substantial changes in my food habits.

When someone indulges in abnormal eating patterns and food habits as a coping mechanism to avoid uncomfortable emotions and feelings, that’s known as disordered eating.

For those struggling with an eating disorder, however, the thoughts are generally all-consuming; the individual thinks about calories, taste, food avoidance, or where to buy food, etc.

A study about eating disorders conducted in Duke University Medical Centre, USA, with 50 eating disorder patients as participants who completed a medical examination, clinical interview, and symptom self-report measures states, Findings suggest that negative reactions to emotional responses may contribute to the development or maintenance of dietary restraint.”

All this concludes that to improve my relationship with food; I also had to look beyond my diet and food habits. To make sure I become aware of my current food issues, I needed to continue with small action steps while being mindful of the patterns.

That’s when I worked with an expert for a month.

Step One: Consult an Expert

I enrolled myself in a program by Helen Wong, who is a nutrition consultant and a counselor. A lot of my progress and development in this area — I owe it to her. I worked with her for a month, had 3 personal 1-on-1 sessions, and she also offered me her course material.

I intend to share all the lessons I learned and all the tips I tried working with an expert, so you can take this home and work this out step by step.

Here’s a snap of my notes from one of my sessions with Helen. I’ll be covering these in detail within this post.

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The first question I was asked, “Why do you want to lose weight?” And my first comment was — “I want to look good and feel good.”

Well, that’s a terrible start. Fixing your weight will not make you happy. It will only cause you to obsess over it. If you’re starting this journey for the wrong reasons, your results won’t ever be satisfactory.

Life is maintaining a sweet balance between self-acceptance and self-improvement. “Getting healthy” is probably the best intention to have while starting this kind of a journey.

It didn’t happen in one day, and I didn’t start all these action steps in one go. It takes time, and that’s the truth. With patience and persistence, these actions helped me improve my relationship with food.

Because I was desperate to make this change, I persevered through uncomfortable times during the process. I had moments where I thought of quitting or the moments like “nobody is watching, I can do whatever I want,” but eventually, your determination and commitment will guide you through the journey.

Step Two: Don’t Follow A Diet

I have tried the keto diet and even intermittent fasting. They haven’t worked for me. Well, they might have worked if I were consistent.

The first step was to stop dieting and putting up dietary restrictions. That meant no intermittent fasting or any other kind of food restrictions.

This 5-year prospective study published on the NCBI website states,

“Fasting generally showed stronger and more consistent predictive relations to future onset of recurrent binge eating.”

This doesn’t mean I was free to eat junk and unhealthy food whenever I want. This step meant I am getting ready to be mindful of how much and what my body needs. There are other ways to be followed in this regime — taking control of portions, eating at the same times every day, planning your meals, enjoying some sweet and fried food once in a while.

This featured post on WebMD by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD mentions,

“Many experts say you can do that without going on a ‘diet.’ Instead, the key is making simple tweaks to your lifestyle.”

Step Three: Make A Meal Plan (3+2+0)

This comes directly from Helen’s program.

She advocates having a 3+2+0 meal plan, i.e., eating 3 complete meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and having 2 snacks in-between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner. Practice eating nothing except these meals and snacks.

The key here is to have meals at the same time of the day. It’s being disciplined with your food and mealtimes.

Planning your meals

Planning my meals a day ahead helped me keep a check on my cravings. This will only take a few minutes every day, and the results are gratifying.

Also, while planning meals, I started keeping a check on the components of my meals. Initially, my meals had many refined carbs, and refined carbs make you hungry even more.

According to a post by Healthline,

Since refined carbs lack filling fiber, your body digests them very quickly. This is a major reason you may be hungry frequently if you eat many refined carbs, as they do not promote significant feelings of fullness.

Furthermore, eating refined carbs may lead to rapid spikes in your blood sugar. This leads to increased insulin levels, a hormone responsible for transporting sugar into your cells.

When a lot of insulin is released at once in response to high blood sugar, it quickly removes sugar from your blood, which may lead to a sudden drop in blood sugar levels, a condition known as hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar levels signal your body that it needs more food, which is another reason why you may feel hungry often if refined carbs are a regular part of your diet.”

In simpler words, all this biochemical jargon means — eating refined carb foods, like white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, and sweet desserts, makes you feel hungry more frequently. Whereas eating more protein foods can reduce your appetite.

This doesn’t mean you quit eating carbs altogether. Eating too much protein can cause kidney damage and other digestion issues. That’s why we need to consume a balanced meal.

I am a vegan, and a lot of people ask me how I fulfill my protein requirements. Adding more protein to my diet meant means consuming soy milk, mushrooms, plant-based protein powder, and different pulses.

As soon as I increased vegetables and proteins as a part of my meals, I started feeling more fulfilled in my hunger.

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Photo by Perfect Snacks on Unsplash

Creating a supportive environment

If I see a diet coke in my refrigerator, I’d definitely get cravings to open it and have a sip. The same goes for having a pack of nachos on your nightstand.

A simple tip for this is — having more healthy food around you that you want to eat more, and have less unhealthy food around you that you don’t want to eat.

Slow down while eating

Almost every one of us eats in a hurry. We don’t enjoy our food.

According to Zen Habits, if we slow down while eating, chew our food properly, talk less while eating — our food will become exponentially tasty and joyful.

Eating slowly also makes you feel full faster.

Harvard Health mentions,

“The theory is that, by eating too quickly, people may not give this intricate hormonal cross-talk system enough time to work.”

Step Four: Perform Grounding Exercises When You’re Triggered

Like I mentioned earlier, I used binge eating and binge-watching as my defense mechanisms. Whenever I had an uncomfortable situation or unpleasant feelings, I’d distract myself with Netflix and snacks.

Whenever I turned on Netflix, my hands started looking for some snacks. And because now I was aware of this trigger response, I did some grounding exercises to overcome this.

To start the grounding exercise, gently close your eyes and breathe deeply to the count of 4, hold to the count of 4, and exhale to the count of 6. Do this breathing slowly and gently for 10 breaths.

This grounding exercise immediately shuts off your cravings and puts your focus on the present moment.

A report from the Psychology Department of the University of London mentions,

Studies show promising results where mindfulness exercises have been repeatedly practiced over a longer period of time. The results of these studies provide tentative support for Buddhist models of craving that suggest mindfulness practice may confer unique benefits in terms of both craving reduction and reducing the extent to which craving leads to consumption.

Some other activities you can perform when you feel triggered —

  1. Drink a glass of water. A lot of times, we misunderstand our body signals of being dehydrated to being hungry. Having a glass of water readily tells you if you were only feeling dehydrated.
  2. Take a walk. You can also try Kinhin (Walking Meditation). Like other forms of meditation and mindfulness practices, this will push you to let go of desires and cravings and be present in the given moment.
  3. Talk to a friend who knows about your binge-eating triggers and can help you distract your attention to something else. Peer support is an underrated strategy to overcome hardships in life.

Step Five: Practise Intuitive Eating

According to the Journal of Counseling Psychology, “Intuitive eating is characterized by eating based on physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than situational and emotional cues.”

My coach asked me to rate my hunger on a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being the most hungry, and 0 being the least hungry, before and after eating a meal. Ideally, before the meal, I should be feeling at least 7/10 or 8/10 hungry. And after the meal, I should be feeling at least 3/10 on a hunger scale.

This seemed weird at first, and in fact, I forgot to rate my hunger the first few times. Because as soon as I saw food on the plate, I’d start eating right away. Eventually, I’d learn how to continue this intuitive eating and rating and make it a part of the routine.

According to this research published on the NCBI website,

Males and females who reported trusting their body to tell them how much to eat had lower odds of utilizing disordered eating behaviors compared to those that did not have this trust. Females who reported that they stop eating when they are full had lower odds of chronic dieting and binge eating than those who do not stop eating when full.

Intuitive eating has been proposed as a healthier, more effective, and more innate alternative to dieting for weight management.

Opting for smaller portions

Another supportive activity to intuitive eating is to opt for smaller meal portions and servings. If I felt hungry, I would get more food on my plate. But I started my meals by having small portions. If I had more food on my plate than I wanted to eat, I’d still eat it because it’s in front of me, and I won’t want to waste it.

According to a small clinical trial conducted by Leanne Redman (Associate professor of clinical sciences at Pennington Biomedical Research),

“People who reduced their caloric intake by just 15 percent over two years experienced a significant decrease in their metabolism. These folks also saw improvements in biomarkers associated with slower aging and longer life span.”

This, however, doesn’t mean you must eat less. Trust your body and eat according to your hunger — that’s what intuitive eating is all about.

Mindset Shifts I Needed to Make

“You have the opportunity to rewrite patterns that are not aligned with the reality you choose to attract and create.”
Amy Leigh Mercree

Our thoughts create our reality.

It’s not optional. It’s a definitive requirement to work on our mindset to bring a significant change in our lifestyles.

Our mindset directly impacts our results. So, if we want to make substantial changes in our actions, we have to start from our mindset.

Letting go of perfectionism

If it were up to me, I’d want to go hard on myself and improve everything immediately. I won’t lie — I tried to do so. But things don’t work that way.

I was beating myself up for not being perfect with my plan — for not eating dinner at the pre-determined time.

But then my coach helped me realize — Slow progress is also progress. I started focusing on making 5–10% changes every day and making them substantial and long-lasting.

A study published on the American Psychological Association website mentions

Self-critical perfectionism relates to an increased risk for binge eating symptoms because it engenders frustration of the psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Celebrating small wins

This helped me tackle perfectionism. Perfectionism wanted me to go on a roll of binge-eating throughout the day only because I had some candy in the morning. My perfectionist brain would go — oh, now I have ruined my commitment to the ‘no sugar’ rule, so let’s go crazy with eating anything now.

I celebrated small wins — like today, I had a healthy and fulfilling breakfast. This helped me stay in the process longer and protect myself from doing any self-harm to my confidence.

Creating an identity shift

Studies show how self-compassion can be helpful to those with binge-eating disorders. If you repeat to yourself, “I am fat, and I have unhealthy eating habits,” you are condemning yourself.

But, creating an identity shift means upgrading your self-talk to the kind of person you aspire to become and changing the sentences to something like — “I am learning and growing to develop healthy eating habits. I exercise regularly, and my food nourishes my body.”

Important Points to Remember

  • We are what we eat. And our habits of consuming food dictates the kind of body and self-image we will possess.
  • Healthy eating habits impact a lot of our outer and inner image. Likewise, unhealthy eating habits usually brings down our confidence and self-esteem.
  • It’s not a one day job to improve your eating habits. Give it some time, relax, and enjoy the process. Take help, if and when required.
  • Letting go of perfectionism and making peace with reality will help you make significant progress. Celebrating small wins is an amazing way to tackle perfectionism.
  • Practicing intuitive eating and being mindful of our food helps us create healthy eating habits and eventually eliminate binge eating.
  • Eating slowly and balanced meals impact our digestive systems positively.

I had fun improving my relationship with food. It improved my digestive system, and I experienced better energy levels throughout the day. It was tough, I struggled, and it’s still not perfect. Will we ever be perfect, though?

I guess the key is to enjoy the journey, isn’t it?

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Thanks to Anangsha Alammyan, Shreya Badonia, Lucy Milano, and Niharika Sodhi

Dipanshu Rawal

Written by

Certified Habit Coach || I help my clients improve their emotional health with simple habits || Check more here: https://www.dipanshurawal.com/hello

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Dipanshu Rawal

Written by

Certified Habit Coach || I help my clients improve their emotional health with simple habits || Check more here: https://www.dipanshurawal.com/hello

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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