Binge! How to Think About and Deal With the Super Munchies
If you’re like me, you’ve had quite a few dour moments of self-introspection after an unexpected case of over-eating. Those moments are never pleasant, and if we’re not careful they can become debilitating. Anxiety, self-loathing, and a few lingering pounds are just some of the possible side-effects of a dip into the dietary dark-side.
The instincts to binge lurk within all of us and dealing with them is never easy. I’m an avowed health nut and just the other day I found myself in a familiar situation. It was late at night and I was walking home with a deep feeling of dejection. Why? I was overcome with an uncontrollable hunger (or some other animal spirit) that compelled me to wolf down a burger, gyro, and ice-cream bar on my way home from my girlfriend’s house. It was a walk of shame.
As always, the bout was entirely unexpected. I don’t remember feeling all that hungry, and the mental switch from conscientious nice-guy to rabid eater was sudden and vicious. I’ve had these moments all my life, and dealing with them has never been easy. I still don’t know how to stop them in the first place, but with some research and personal practice learned how to limit their adverse consequences and keep them from stalling other areas of my life.
Addiction, eating disorders, and the desire to binge have a complex causality that’s rooted in our genetics, socio-economic position, personal psychology and food environment. Understanding these causes doesn’t provide a solution to binge eating and other food addictions all by itself, but it does allow us to have a clearer focus on the issues we can directly control and have a greater appreciation for the subtle nature of the problem.
A lot of the over-eating problem is rooted in our biology. Modern genomics has uncovered a wide variety of genes that respond to their environment in complex ways that collectively mediate our body’s patterns of hunger, metabolism, and satiety. For example, a study conducted in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found that one gene that strongly regulates hunger, MC4R, has over 30 different phenotypic variations in obese people. Another paper published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that Binge Eating Disorder (BED) was strongly clustered in families, and the effect was independent of a shared environment. The study suggested that the heritability of BED was 57%, meaning the biggest indicator of whether or not you will have a problem with binge eating is decided when you are born.
The point of these statistics isn’t to scare you or install a sense of fatalism about your dietary problems. There are many actionable steps you can take to reduce your propensity to binge and we’ll go over them in detail. The point is that anyone who frames their binge eating as a moral failure is giving themselves unnecessary grief. When I first learned about the genetics of over-eating I was dismayed and felt an instinct to reject the news. I didn’t like the idea that biology is destiny. Of course, it’s not destiny, but those thoughts were inescapable when I first began studying the data.
However, after time the fatalism gave way to clairvoyance. I realized that downing cheeseburgers at 3 in the morning didn’t reflect on my value as a person, and that forgiveness was a better policy for dealing with the problem than scorn.
And as we’ll see, learning to accept the reality of binge-eating can help prevent you from using dieting strategies that are disastrous to your well-being.
There’s an optimist in all of us that makes rosy projections about the strength of our will, the steeliness of our resolve, and our ability to achieve anything if we just set our mind to it. This inner-voice is often used to good effect and certainly has a place in our lives. Lord knows I’ve often had to rely on that voice to get me through some tough times. But when it comes to our diet we need to be careful about trying too hard.
Why? Because when it comes to hunger, self-indulgence is a sort of anchor on our psyche and self-neglect usually takes our desires to stuff ourselves and stores it away until it re-appears in ugly, violent bursts.
Several studies have shown that people who go on restrictive diets significantly increase their chances of binge-eating when they come off it. For instance a study published in Behavior Therapy found that 62% of a control group of obese women had binge eating episodes after going off a low-calorie diet. This type of finding is not unique, and the general consensus is that heavy-dieting leaves people very susceptible to binge-eating once they start eating regularly again, particularly women.
Confidence in our abilities can serve us well in many areas of life, but with eating habits understanding the nature of the problem is key to overcoming it, and focusing too much on our food can disrupt healthy balances in how we regulate ourselves.
Evidence on the psychology of eating suggests that we eat better when we try to please less people. Appeasing folks is a tricky game, and failure usually causes people to turn inward and fixate on items in their life that are easily controlled……like the food they put in their mouths. This fixation can cause loopy emotional detachments within us that wreak havoc on our dietary habits.
For example, a paper by the American Psychological Association suggested this mechanism explains why people with very high expectations of themselves have a high occurrence of binge eating. They use other people’s opinions as a proxy for self-worth and failure results in a negative self-perception, which causes them to turn their attention to static areas in their life so they can avoid the pain of self-awareness. This detachment causes reduced self-discipline and over-eating is a common result.
It’s A Zen Thing
Eating too much often has as much to do with maintaining a healthy emotional balance in our life as it does with having a herculean will. It’s “zen like” in the fact that trying less can often result in better outcomes. It’s when we push too hard that we get ourselves in trouble. So the next time you’re chastising yourself for downing that gallon of ice cream, take a deep breath and relax. You can take solace in the fact that it happens to all of us, and a little forgiveness is usually the best antidote.
Author Bio: Jonathan Bechtel is the founder of Health Kismet, a health food and nutritional supplement company that merges community and health with busy lives. He attained a Bachelors of Science in Nutrition from the Ohio State University. He believes in the power of public outreach and has been a lifelong advocate for healthy living. His biggest hobby is helping others and always extends an open hand to anyone with questions.
Javaras KN, Laird NM, Reichborn-Kjennerud T, Bulik CM, Pope HG Jr, Hudson JI. Familialityandheritabilityofbingeeatingdisorder: resultsofacase-controlfamilystudyandatwinstudy. Int J Eat Disord. 2008 Mar;41(2):174-9. PubMed PMID: 1809530
Branson R, Potoczna N, Kral JG, Lentes KU, Hoehe MR, Horber FF. Bingeeatingasamajorphenotypeofmelanocortin 4 receptorgenemutations. N Engl J Med. 2003 Mar 20;348(12):1096-103. PubMed PMID: 12646666
Christy F. Telch, W. Stewart Agras, The effects of a very low calorie diet on binge eating, Behavior Therapy, Volume 24, Issue 2, Spring 1993, Pages 177-193, ISSN 0005-7894, 10.1016/S0005-7894(05)80262-X.
Heatherton Todd. (1991). Binge eating as escape from self-awareness. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 86-108. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=search.displayRecord&uid=1991-33164-001