How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps
A weird but systematic way to stop overeating and binge eating.
Posted January 14, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Almost 70% of people in the United States are overweight and almost 40% are obese, partly due to the economic persuasion of the food industry.
- People who struggle with binge eating at night often have had too little to eat during the day.
- To stop binge eating while stressed, it helps to remember the physiological effects of the food one gravitates toward overeating.
If I said I could show you how to permanently stop binge eating and overeating today if you wanted to, would you think I was crazy? Many people would, especially if they've been struggling for a lifetime. Some even report feeling compelled to binge, as if someone were pointing a gun at their head saying "keep eating or I'll shoot!" Others feel they 'need' their junk, not so much for pleasure, but just to feel normal.
I know this pain all too well...
Not only from my 27 years of experience as a psychologist, author of a popular weight-loss book, and a consultant to the food industry—but from personal history as well. I'll spare you the full story, but let's just say there’s probably nothing you've done with food I haven't done myself:
- Eating out of the garbage
- Stealing my roommate's food without telling him
- Driving to multiple fast-food restaurants just so no one person would know how much I was eating
- Eating off the floor
- Repeatedly stuffing myself way past the point of physical pain
This went on for almost 30 years while I tried to fix my problem from the vantage point of a psychologist. "Must not be what I'm eating but what's eating me," I thought. But this was not the case, and this paradigm really slowed down my efforts to fix the problem.
But approximately 10 years ago, I stumbled on a solution and kept a journal to work it all out for myself which I later turned into a book. I couldn't imagine I'd ever have 600,000 readers and tens of thousands of followers. In the end, though, I’m in a rather unique position: I haven't met another psychologist who has worked extensively with the food industry and also struggled with their own personal eating hell. Certainly not to a successful conclusion. So I hope you'll at least consider this three-step solution, no matter how odd it may seem. After all, what if it works?
STEP ONE: Understand and Confront the Forces and Myths in Our Culture That Keep People Fat.
There's an abundance of misinformation and misunderstanding which prevents the majority of our population from losing weight for good. You need to confront this head-on if you don't want to be one of them. Let's go through the myths one by one:
MYTH: "It's not what you’re eating, it's the emotions eating you!"
TRUTH: It’s actually a part of your brain that isn’t primarily responsible for emotions that’s doing the damage.
It's common to assume people overeat primarily for emotional reasons. The idea is that we're looking for "comfort food" to escape painful emotional states and fill the empty hole in our hearts. From this idea stems the notion we must first nurture our "inner wounded child" back to health if we ever hope to lose weight for good.
But there’s a big problem with this idea: The reptilian brain is very involved in food addiction, and the reptilian brain does not know love. Instead, when it evaluates something new in the environment it thinks, "Do I eat it? Do I mate with it? Or do I kill it?" Love seems to exist much more in the higher, more recently evolved parts of the brain—the parts you think of as "you." So do spirituality, music, art, friendship, work, and all your long-term goals like diet and exercise.
We think a large part of what happens when you "lose control" or change your mind about your diet in the face of a tempting treat is that survival mechanisms in the reptilian brain have been mistakenly activated and misdirected towards the treat. This is why people feel like all their best-laid plans go out the window at the moment of temptation. Those plans are in their higher brain, but the reptilian brain is taking over.
MYTH: If we can’t control ourselves around food, we don’t have willpower.
TRUTH: There are extremely powerful economic-persuasion systems that are set up to get us to binge and overeat. These systems are so successful that almost 70% of the population in the United States are overweight and almost 40% are obese.
The food industry spends billions of dollars engineering food-like substances to target our lizard brain with hyper-palatable concentrations of sugar, starch, fat, oil, salt, and excitotoxins which hit our bliss point without giving us the nutrition to feel satisfied. Then the advertising industry spends billions convincing us we need these things to survive (both physically and mentally). Of the 5,000+/yr food advertising messages beamed at us through the internet and airwaves, only a handful are about eating more fruits and vegetables. And many of these are targeted at us from the time we are small children! ("Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated"—The Borg)
There's some very interesting research that may shed light on the impact. Mammalian studies which bypass the normal pleasure apparatus show an abandonment of survival needs to self-stimulate via artificial means.
For example, psychologists Millner and Olds wired an electrode directly into rats' brains and allowed them to activate it by pressing a lever. In experiment after experiment rats pressed the lever thousands of times per day. Starving rats ignored their food. Nursing mother rats abandoned their pups. Rats would crawl over painful electrical grids to press the lever. One could argue their survival drive was hijacked by the chance to obtain this artificial pleasure.
Now, I'm not saying anyone is putting electrodes in our brains. At least not physical ones - chemical electrodes are another story. That's not stretching the truth too far, I think, when in most cities today you can walk out of one fast food joint and see another one directly across the street! It's no wonder so many people insist they no longer like fruits and vegetables. Their survival drives have been hijacked by the artificial pleasure buttons the food industry has to offer.
The point of all this is that our reptilian brains are under attack by enormous forces, and while this part of us doesn’t know love, it does have access to our fight or flight mechanism, which can convince us we need these things as a matter of survival.
In my own experience, as well as thousands of readers and clients I've helped, the best way to deal with this is more a game of unflinching domination than one of loving yourself. When an alpha wolf is challenged for leadership by another member of the pack, it doesn't look at that member and say, "Gee, I think someone needs a hug! Instead, it bares its teeth and snarls aggressively as if to say "Look, I'm the boss here. Get back in line or I'll hurt you!"
It's like that.
Now, don't get me wrong. There is definitely an association between food and emotion, but emotions do not "make" you overeat. Mammals in the studies above over-stimulated themselves with artificial pleasure regardless of whether they were stressed, and people overeat when they're happy as well as when they’re angry, sad, lonely, tired, anxious, or depressed. It seems the engineered intensity of pleasure available for minimum effort can bypass all these feelings.
MYTH: Guidelines Are Better Than Rules. Eat Well 90% of the Time, Indulge Yourself 10%.
TRUTH: Guidelines wear down your willpower by requiring constant decision-making. Consider well-thought-through rules for your most troublesome trigger foods and/or eating behaviors.
As discussed in my previous post, guidelines wear down your willpower by forcing constant decision-making. Every time you’re in front of a chocolate bar at Starbucks, you have to ask yourself "Is this part of the 90% or part of the 10%?" Rules, on the other hand, preserve willpower by eliminating decisions. Decision-making has been consistently shown to deplete willpower in studies. Better to use a rule like, "I'll only ever eat chocolate on the last weekend of each calendar month" because it eliminates your chocolate decisions most of the time.
MYTH: Avoid tempting food and environments.
TRUTH: Cultivate confidence, not fear.
Sometimes overeaters are told to avoid fast food restaurants, birthday parties, etc. Many believe they need a separate pantry and/or shelf of the refrigerator where other people’s tempting treats are kept. Sometimes they even ask their spouses and children to keep tempting treats in a locked drawer. The underlying belief behind this idea is that external temptation is the problem.
While there's no reason to hang out in a bakery all day if you’re trying to lose weight, and while some people might find it helpful to avoid temptation as a kind of "training wheels" exercise to get started, I find it's much better to cultivate confidence vs. fear.
I have good reasons to hang out in Starbucks. Yes, there are many tempting treats on the counter but my friends go there. Sometimes I like to just sit there and read or do a little work. So I define clear rules for myself regarding those treats and confidently follow them while I enjoy the rest of what the environment has to offer. You can't avoid temptation without seriously shrinking your life.
STEP TWO: Make at Least One Clear Food Rule.
What's your single most troublesome trigger food or eating behavior? For example, if you tend to overeat in front of the television, you might make the rule, "Except for Saturdays, I'll never eat while watching television again." Or perhaps you reliably have healthy days when you drink pure water in the morning, so you say, "I will always drink 16 oz. of pure spring water before I eat anything in the a.m." Or maybe you just eat too quickly without really experiencing your food. In this case, you can say, "I'll always put my fork down between bites."
Any rule you create is fine—as long as it doesn’t restrict your overall calories and nutrition too much—and provided the rule is crystal clear, such that if 10 people followed you around all week they'd all 100% agree whether you followed it.
Also, you can change your rule(s) whenever you want, provided you take at least a half-hour for written reflection and are clear about why you want to make the change, and allow at least 24 hours before the change takes effect.
Last, it's very important to note that despite the fact we can change the rules, we write them as if they were set in stone. It's kind of like telling a 2-year-old they can never ever cross the street without holding your hand, even though you know you're going to teach them to look both ways when they're older. You say "never" because you know they're not anywhere near mature enough to even entertain this dangerous idea. Similarly, you can say "never" to your reptilian brain, even though you know you might change the rules later on. Turns out our reptilian brains act like 2-year-olds around tempting foods.
STEP THREE: Separate Your Constructive vs. Destructive Thoughts About Food
OK, now here’s the weird part. The last and most powerful part of this strange method involves deciding that all your destructive, impulsive food thoughts no longer belong to you. Instead, they belong to a kind of inner enemy associated with your reptilian brain. (You can call it your "Food Monster" or "Binge Lizard" or anything else that’s not a cuddly pet.)
Then, come up with a name for your Food Demon's voice. For example, my Food Demon doesn't talk, it Squeals. Any thought, feeling, or impulse which suggests you will ever break your rule again is that voice, which you will learn to recognize and ignore.
Finally, come up with a crude name for everything your inner enemy craves. For example, my Demon Squeals for Demon Slop.
The idea is to help you more easily recognize and ignore the inner voice which has to this point been responsible for all your bad choices around food.
Let's illustrate in a little more detail so you can see how this works. Suppose I have a rule which says I never eat chocolate on anything other than the last Saturday and Sunday of the month. Then, when I'm standing in line at Starbucks and there’s a chocolate bar calling to me at the counter, I become aware of a thought like "Gee Glenn, you worked out really hard this morning so you can definitely afford a few bites." Or "Hey Glenn, chocolate is made from cocoa beans, and those grow on a plant, therefore chocolate is a vegetable." At that point, I'd say to myself, "I don’t want that, my Food Demon does. It's Squealing for Demon Slop. I never eat Demon Slop!"
And that’s it.
As crazy as it sounds, this very crude, very primitive technique can give you the extra microseconds you need at the moment of impulse to wake and remember who you are and why you made the rules in the first place. It’s not a miracle, and most people have to experiment with a variety of rules and behaviors before everything really comes together for them...but it really can quickly restore your sense of power and agency with food, especially if you’ve been struggling for a long time.
"I don’t eat Demon Slop and I don’t let my lizard brain tell me what to do!"
Try it. What have you got to lose? After all, what if I’m right?
Now, there are some very specific applications of this process that answer some very frequently asked questions about binge eating. I'd like to cover them briefly here.
How to Stop Binge Eating at Night
Nighttime overeating is a very common problem, and it's often the last one people solve as they are recovering from binge eating, but it doesn't have to be as difficult as it feels. The most important thing to do first is to identify the cause. Which of the following might apply to you?
- Over-restricting during the day: More often than not, I find people who struggle with binge eating at night tend to have had too little to eat during the day. Perhaps they are trying to stick to a diet that is too rigid, or which causes them to lose weight too quickly. When that's the case, the brain often fires the "be less discriminating with food and feast" at nighttime, when willpower is lowest.
- Not enough self-care during the day: Just as over-restricting calories during the day can cause the brain to rebound with a feast response at night, so too can too little self-care. In particular, subjecting yourself to constant pressure and decision-making without enough input-and-decision-free breaks can wear down your willpower too. There are only so many good decisions you can make in a day. If this is you, try to add another two five-minute breaks completely away from other people, electronic devices, and the necessity to respond and/or make any decisions. It can make a big difference. So too can a short period of meditation, and journaling or free-writing.
- Not enough sleep: Paradoxically, nighttime eating can be exacerbated by not getting enough sleep. And of course, eating at night can interrupt your sleep too, creating a downward cycling snowball. Pay a little more attention to your sleep patterns, consider going to bed at a standard time, make the bed for sleep only, consider talking to your doctor about supplements and medications, etc.
If you struggle with nighttime overeating, you might also want to try making your nighttime food decisions in the morning. Plan out your evening meal and be sure it's substantial enough for you to look forward to, then prepare it and leave it in some Tupperware or a plate, so you'll know all day that it's just sitting there waiting for you to eat. You might even consider taking a picture of it and carrying it around on your smartphone all day, glancing at it a few times on breaks to remind you what's waiting at home.
How to Stop Binge Eating After Work
To stop binge eating after work, you must do similarly to the instructions above to stop overeating at night. The only difference is that most people who complain of overeating after work are talking about stopping at fast-food establishments on the way home and binge eating in their cars.
To overcome this, prepare something substantial for yourself in the morning and take it with you to work, all sealed up in Tupperware. If it's cool enough outside that you can leave it in the car, leave it on the driver's seat so it's the first thing you'll see when you get back in the car, otherwise put it in the refrigerator at your job. Then, take a different route home for the next 30 days. It should be one that doesn't require you to pass all your old haunts. You should be fine to go back to your standard route soon, but protect your new habit by creating a cocoon in which it can develop.
If it's impractical to take a different route home, or you're unable to find the time and energy to prepare food for yourself to take with you in the morning, you can still implement the above method by stopping at a different restaurant and establishing a new routine there. For example, if your overeating after-work routine habitually takes you to McDonalds where you get a cheeseburger and fries, you might consider going to Wendy's and getting a baked potato with nothing on it, and a salad with the dressing on the side. (Any different restaurant which serves healthy options will do. We are just trying to break the routine.)
How to Stop Binge Eating Sweets
You can very effectively use the standard method described in the video and text above to stop binge eating sweets. The key, I find, is in how you define what a sweet actually is. See, your Food Demon (reptilian brain) is always hard at work looking for loopholes in your food rules. So if you say something like, "I will never eat sweets on a weekday again," it will immediately say something like, "Honey doesn't count, right? What about muffins? They aren't technically just a sweet. Oooooh, what about mounds of ketchup on french fries? The sugar in that doesn't count either, right!?"
The solution to this is to define exactly what "sweets" means inclusively rather than exclusively. In the above example, I'd ask a client to fill in the sentence, "The only sweet tastes I will ever consume on a weekday again are (fill in the blank)." For me personally, the only sweet tastes I include in my diet are whole fruit and berries. For other people, it's whole fruit, berries, stevia, ketchup, and any sauce which is primarily intended to be savory vs. sweet.
You don't have to limit the list to any specific number, but you do need to be very specific about what's on the list. Then, you assume everything else is off-limits and your Food Demon can't argue.
How to Stop Binge Eating Sugar
You can stop binge eating sugar in the same way you stop binge eating sweets above. It's necessary to be very specific about what sugar actually is, and what sweet tastes you will include in your diet.
In the case of sugar in particular, if you still wish to allow processed foods in your diet, you may wish to define where a sweetener must appear on the label in order to qualify as sugar. For example, many of my clients don't consider food to have "sugar" in it if there are no sweeteners at the fourth position or above on the label.
How to Stop Binge Eating When Stressed
It's an odd thing, when you think about it, that we would even entertain binge eating when stressed, because we know recovering from the digestive bloat and self-loathing which occurs after we overeat will make us feel more stressed. I tell my clients, "If you have six problems and you overeat, you'll have seven problems." Moreover, the time and energy it takes to recover is time and energy which could've been used to solve the problems we felt stressed about in the first place! "If you're in a hole, stop digging." Overeating causes stress; it doesn't fix it.
To stop binge eating when you're stressed, it can be helpful to think of two things. First, research the physiological effects of the food you gravitate towards overeating. For example, if you love sugar, it might be helpful to know that the average sugar high lasts only 18 to 36 minutes. Thereafter, your blood sugar will have been destabilized, and it will take hours for you to recover. In the meantime, you'll have low energy and quite possibly depression, anxiety, and/or jitters. Or, if you love salt, you might wish to know that excess sodium can be associated with hemorrhagic strokes even in the absence of high blood pressure.
It's also helpful to remember we do not just overeat for "comfort." See, most of us aren't binging on whole, natural foods. Instead, we turn to some sort of industrially concentrated form of sugar, starch, salt, fat, oil, or excitotoxins. These are supersized doses of pleasure things that didn't exist in the tropics while we were evolving. A better word for them might be "drugs." What we are actually doing when we overeat things we know aren't good for us is "getting high with food."
Knowing that helps many people to think twice about overeating when they're stressed because they don't want to think of themselves as abusing drugs. I know it's a bit of a stretch, but there's at least some truth to it, and I find when clients can tell themselves, "Wait a minute, I'm about to get high with food again" in the moment of temptation, they can often stop and make a healthier choice.
How to Stop Binge Eating Forever
The key to stopping yourself from binge eating forever is in the recognition of the fact that you can only ever eat now. Now is the only moment you can use your hands, arms, legs, mouth, and tongue to put food in your mouth. Now is the only moment you can choose to chew and swallow anything.
Your Food Demon will tell you that you simply cannot maintain your food rules forever, but this ignores the fact that forever is an infinite string of now moments. For example, as you are reading these words, you don't know what the next ones are going to be. All you know is that now you are reading, and as you process each successive word on the page, you realize it is still now. It is, isn't it?
It would be silly for me to tell you that you couldn't ever hope to read this whole post because it's way too long because you know that if you only keep focusing on the passing words as you encounter them now, eventually the post will be done. A good reader doesn't even entertain the thought that they couldn't read the whole thing, because if they did, that would distract them from integrating the meaning and significance of the words as they read them. In order to concentrate on reading, the reader must remain focused in the present moment, and in so doing can read even the longest book.
That's how this works. You focus on eating healthy and following your food rules now and ignore the Food Demon's attempts to distract you. That way all your energy can remain targeted at the goal. You can only ever use the present moment to eat healthy, so if you always use the present moment to do so, you will always eat healthy. Forever.
Olds, J.; Millner, P.; (1954). "Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain." Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Dec;47(6):419-27
Baumeister, R. F.; Bratslavsky, E.; Muraven, M.; Tice, D. M. (1998). "Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74 (5): 1252–1265.
Gailliot, M. T.; Baumeister, R. F.; Dewall, C. N.; Maner, J. K.; Plant, E. A.; Tice, D. M.; Brewer, B. J.; Schmeichel, Brandon J. (2007). "Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92 (2): 325–336
Casey, B. J., et al. (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 1498-5003.
Story, M; French, S.; (2004). Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US. Int Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; 1 (3). Published online 2004 Feb 10. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-1-3
West, H. (2016). 10 Clever Ways to Stop Eating at Night. [Blog post. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-ways-to-stop-eating-late-at-nig… ]