I’ve been running a few “Empowerment Workshops” online with some amazing women who wanted more knowledge to fully GET why we overeat, eat emotionally, and binge, and how to get out of that cycle. So, I wanted to write a post about the diet-binge cycle to help you realize how it affects your body, your brain, and to also help you identify if you are in it right now.
I like to explain it as the story of a bad romance (yay lady gaga song playing in the background!) or as the cycle we go through when we are in an abusive relationship, because sadly, they are pretty similar.
Also, get ready, because I have some homework prompts for you at the end of this post, to help you identify your own diet-binge cycle and if you are in it right now.
So, here it goes…(I’m numbering them, but imagine these stages in a CIRCLE.)
How does the diet-binge cycle suck you in so easily?
- It begins with RESTRICTION: We start out with the “hopeful” idea that we can control and change our bodies by losing weight. So you decide it’s time to go on a diet or follow certain food rules that limit your food options and how much you take in. We are conditioned to believe this form of control is possible through media and advertising campaigns that ell us that if we try X or Y “nutrition” plan we will all look a certain way (skinny) and that this will give us happiness, validation, and “health.” Maybe a doctor told us our BMI is too high and we need to lose weight. We might believe that everything will just fall into place and be better when we are “in control of our bodies and food” again. The backstory is that, most of us who want to feel “in control” again, come from a place of feeling “out of control” around food. So basically, we might be overeating, or eating emotionally and, logically, we think the only other option is to get back into the “diet/ healthy food plan wagon” as the only solution to “get back on track.” Just to quickly unpack some objections, BMI is NOT an indicator of health and being a heavier weight does not equal unhealthy. Also, BMI does not even take into account if you have muscle! Here is a good scientific article that shows the research behind BMI being a very weak tracker of health. Studies also show that going through this process of restriction over and over again can actually stunt your metabolism, as your body tries to protect itself from famine by becoming more efficient with fewer and fewer calories. This phase looks like researching diets or health/nutrition books, staring endlessly at before and after photos or “fitspiration” (maybe even old photos of yourself), formulating a strict meal plan, adding up calories, setting up a workout schedule full of exercise you may not even like. Soon (usually Monday!) you begin following these rules and move into….
- FOOD OBSESSION (TRIGGERED BY SCARCITY MENTALITY.) The first few days you might feel invincible, strong, and impressed at your own willpower, which you are solely relying on. you probably cut out certain foods or food groups and are counting numbers. Things such as exercising solely for enjoyment or eating mindlessly do not exist in your agenda. You track your steps, your food numbers, and strictly believe the “calories in/calories out” idea that diet books make you believe. Your metabolism is probably slowing down and your heart rate might be lower because your body is protecting you. Here is when the scarcity mindset starts. As soon as you do not allow yourself to have something (both physically, but also emotionally because you judge yourself negatively when you eat that food) you begin to think about it more and more.Scarcity mindset is part of our primal brain that was meant to protect us back when we had to forage for food and shelter, and nothing was guaranteed. It means that when something is in short supply, it also becomes all you can think about, and you make irrational and emotional decisions based on the feeling that what you want cannot be had.Example-every time there is a snow storm here in NYC, I am afraid I won’t have access to food, so I start noticing grocery stores more, and thinking of certain foods I need to have in my apartment right now, in case I cannot get a hold of them later for a long time. Suddenly, foods I don’t even care about much become a priority to go purchase, because we might be out of them during a snow storm, and i begin to think about food more often.During the obsession phase you might make yourself separate dinners from your family. You begin to fear foods and feel like you cannot trust yourself around food, because if left alone to your own devices, you would eat everything in the fridge. You might show up to a party with your own food, pack your lunch before work (to feel in control) obsessively enter everything you eat into a food diary etc.Because you are in scarcity mindset, the thing you have denied yourself is also the thing you can’t stop thinking about…which leads to…
3. THE BOXING MATCH BETWEEN YOUR WILLPOWER AND YOUR BRAIN. (AKA: THE STRUGGLE.) The food obsession begins to take over and you spend a lot of time and energy resisting and holding on to willpower so that you avoid overeating. This is a stage were you might find yourself even over eating on your “safe” foods. I’ve had clients describe how they even binged on vegetables in this stage. Your scarcity mindset is all encompassing. You daydream of donuts or pizza, or you spend an entire social gathering thinking about how to get through without breaking your rules, or you resent your boyfriend for taking you on a date because now you have to watch him eat the food you can’t have.
The intensity is so powerful that it feels like a pack of elephants couldn’t stop you from acting out on your urge. This is the perfect combo of restriction and obsession. It is what nutritionist Christy Harrison calls “the restriction pendulum” and you are on one side of it. Harrison writes,
“When the pendulum swings over to the side of restriction—which diet culture frames as “success” and “being good”—inevitably there’s going to be a swing back in the other direction, because your body perceives restriction as dangerous. To your body, diets (or “lifestyle changes,” or “eating plans,” or whatever they’re calling themselves now) feel like famine. Even the most seemingly “gentle” diet is a swing of the pendulum over to the side of restriction.”
When that happens, your body’s natural response is to have the pendulum swing over to the other side, which leads to….
4. THE MUNCHIES/OUT OF CONTROL EATING/I’M ON BINGE MODE LEAVE ME ALONE.
Call it however you want, the point is that a pendulum can’t just stop in the middle when it’s been pulled over to one side. It HAS to swing the opposite direction with equal force.
Your body is exactly the same. It won’t find stillness and peace until it’s responded to the restriction. So if we restrict, restrict, restrict (or “eat clean, eat clean, eat clean,” or whatever our restriction du jour is calling itself)…then we end up eating to the point of discomfort. This might look like “going on autopilot,” or it might look like eating way past our fullness signals. In my own experience, this sort of eating is FEAR BASED EATING. It is not based on trusting your body and working with your desires and cravings because you are still balancing out the “pendulum.” So you eat almost because you “have to.”
This might translate in black and white thinking around food. So we are eating EVERYTHING NOW because we know we won’t allow ourselves to have it tomorrow, we might also be feeling a sense of real “relief” as we eat mindlessly and without having to count numbers for a change. We eat almost for relief, but also overdoing it because we just broke all our food rules, so what the heck, we might as well continue and start again tomorrow…
Once the high of the binge wears off and we feel overstuffed etc…This feeling becomes…
5. SHAME ON ME/I MUST BE DAMAGED AND BROKEN/WHY CAN’T I CONTROL MY FOOD!!!
Self-blame, guilt, shame. We think we have no self-discipline, we’re out of control, we simply can’t be trusted to eat certain foods, we’re uniquely broken while everyone else can just have a bowl of ice cream without polishing off the whole carton…
We get into a spin where we decimate our own characters as though what happened was about our minds, our lack of willpower.
But it’s not.
It’s physiological. A survival impulse encoded into your body. We are just responding to the diet binge cycle, we are swinging from one side of the restriction pendulum to the other, and we go back and forth, round and round, until we GET out of this cycle.
How do you get out?
First you identify and really GET how you are IN IT, and how the more you try to feel in control, the less control you are bound to have around food.
Then, we reclaim ourselves through empowerment, community, education, and knowledge. Here are some questions I strongly recommend you ask yourself so that you start becoming aware that you are NOT ALONE, you are NOT DAMAGED, and that this cycle CAN be broken.
When I read this piece by Savala Trepczynski for Bust Magazine, I really loved and cried reading it. I cried for my younger self who didn’t know better and thought that the only solution was to keep controlling, to hold on tighter and keep punishing myself, and for everyone out there struggling with food and still stuck in the restriction cycle.
There are so many Health at Every Size resources and sustainable solutions and yet diet culture’s messages continue to dominate the mainstream making us think that restriction equals “health,” and that controlling our food makes us somehow more worthy of praise and validation. Trepczynski writes,
“And I’m grieving, because I’m learning how much I died—my life seeping out between tiny meals and weigh-ins—during my diet decades. Because even when diets don’t actually threaten to kill you, diets will end you in other ways. They will chop off your fingers and toes so it’s harder to hold the good and harder to walk away from the bad. They’ll wind your joints in barbed wire until your range of motion is coffin-like. They’ll turn you against your body’s ancestral blueprint. They’ll pit you against your sisters, friends, mothers, strangers. They’ll pickpocket you. They’ll exhaust you. They’ll nick your vocal chords. They’ll worm into your soul and fuel infighting. They’ll wrap fingers around your throat and squeeze, forever.”
Want some actionable steps? Start journaling!!!
Homework for BABES:
- Do you recognize when you are in the restriction cycle, or in the binge cycle? Can you tell if you are in a stage of the diet-binge cycle right now?
2. What did the restriction phase look like for you? (ex. I avoided all carbs, counted numbers, had a fitness app and counted every step, felt “in control” but spent a lot of time in my brain thinking about how to control my food.)
3. How did you feel when you were in restriction? (ex. I put off a lot of things until the weight came off, I felt powerful and in control of my body etc.)
4. What did the obsession/willpower phase look like for you? (ex. I brought my own food to parties, I made my own special dinners, I only ordered the low-carb option on the menu etc). How did that feel?
5. What did the struggle phase look like? (I stared into the pantry wishing I could eat, certain foods were triggering to me etc) Can you recognize your signals that your “willpower” is fading? How does that feel?
6. What did the binge/overeat phase look like? How did you feel leading up to the overeating, and how did you feel during? Are you thinking at all, or operating on autopilot?
7. Finally, what does the guilt/shame phase look like for you? What thoughts do you have? What is your confidence level in yourself?
8. Has there ever been a time in your life when you didn’t feel restricted, and solely relied on your body to tell you when and what to eat? How did that feel? (for many of us, we may have to go back to childhood to find this time)
Write or say this phrase outloud 5x each day first thing in the morning, maybe put the message on your phone or mirror, and/or right before bed:
“I recognize when I’m in the restriction cycle, how much it harms my body and mind, and can practice self-care instead.”
*Also, take Dr. Kristen Neff’s FREE test on self-compassion HERE, to help you see how kind you are being to yourself and your body today.
Until Next Time!, Carolina
PS: Book a free consultation HERE if you want to work together.