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Have you been struggling to break free from the restrict-binge cycle? If so, you’re not alone. This pattern of restrictive eating followed by binging can be hard to break out of. But it is possible. In this post, I’ll help you to understand the restrict binge cycle and its function, plus I’ll outline some steps that can help you stop the restrict-binge cycle and reclaim your life. Keep reading to learn more.
What causes the restrict binge cycle?
The restrict-binge cycle is often caused by physical, emotional, and psychological factors. For example:
- Physical: Having food rules or not eating enough during the day. For example, someone might only allow themselves to eat a certain number of calories per day, or they might only eat specific foods. This can lead to feelings of deprivation, which can then trigger a binge.
- Emotional: Difficulty in processing emotions, such as sadness, anger, or stress, can lead people to try to comfort themselves with food. This can then start the cycle of restrictive eating followed by binges. Restriction can give a false sense of control, but it is not something that can be sustained long term. Likewise, bingeing can help to dissociate, numb or escape thoughts, feelings, and/or physical sensations, but the relief is short lived.
- Psychological: Perfectionism and self-criticism are common psychological drivers of restrictive eating behaviors. People who engage in these behaviors often have unrealistic expectations for themselves and are very hard on themselves when they don’t meet their own standards. This can lead to a pattern of restrictive eating followed by binges as a way of punishing oneself.
What happens when you restrict then binge?
When we restrict food, our wise bodies see this as a threat of starvation. This creates physical and psychological
deprivation which naturally leads to binge eating.
You see, the body is wired for survival, not weight loss. If it senses that it’s not getting enough energy from food, it will activate certain functions that will make sure that you eat. These natural urges are intense very hard to control on a conscious level.
That’s why trying to white-knuckle yourself through deprivation driven eating is extremely difficult. However, it may be useful to remind yourself that this is just your body’s way of trying to keep you alive at all costs. Binge eating is a completely natural response to food deprivation.
Of course, no thanks to diet culture, many of us start to feel guilty after an episode of chaotic eating. Diet culture teaches us that restricting is “good” and eating “too much” (bingeing) is “bad”. And that’s when the urge to restrict in order to “compensate” for the binge comes from. Which starts the cycle all over again, as you can see from the infographic above.
When you don’t eat enough (restriction), your body protects itself by increasing hunger hormones. Ghrelin is the main one that stays elevated even after a normal sized meal (1).
Leptin, which is the hormone that signals fullness, may be suppressed in response to restriction. Your body just wants to make sure you’re eating enough.
This combination, along with other mechanisms your body activates in order to correct the energy deficit, are what drive the compulsion to eat.
The function of the restrict-binge cycle
Undereating and overeating can definitely help us to distract ourselves from negative emotions. For example, restricting food and dieting can give you a sense of “control” when everything around you feels unstable.
But as we just saw, on a body level, food restriction will activate your body to seek food. And eating can also help relieve negative emotions because food IS pleasurable, and it’s normal to seek it out for comfort.
This isn’t “bad”, as diet culture would have you believe. However, relying on food for emotional regulation doesn’t really get to the root of the difficult emotions. And until we unpack and work through them, food will only be able to provide temporary relief. Here’s what happens emotionally during the binge restrict cycle, that keeps it feeding into itself:
Common emotions experienced during a binge
Common emotions experienced after a binge
- Lack of control
What happens to your body when you restrict food?
The binge restrict cycle effects can impact both your physical and mental health. On a physical level, your body actually perceives calorie restriction as a threat to survival and makes biological adaptation to preserve energy and keep you alive. The brain senses a threat to survival and sends signals to you body that result in:
- Slower metabolism: Your body works at a lower energetic level and energy from food is stored as fat in order to protect you from an energy deficit.
- Increased hunger hormones: Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increases, driving you to seek out food.
- Decreased fullness sensation: Leptin (the fullness hormone) is reduced (2), in an effort to make sure you eat enough to compensate for the restriction.
On a psychological level, food restriction can cause detrimental mental health harm, in the form of:
- Increased stress levels
- Sense of lack of control
- Heightened anxiety
- Loss of self trust
- Increased risk of eating disorders
Does undereating cause binging?
Yes, this is very common, even in people who are not experiencing eating disorders. Maybe you have noticed that you were so busy during the day, that you forgot to eat lunch. When you get home that afternoon, you’re ravenous, and it feels like you have to eat everything in sight.
That’s just your normal, survival mechanisms working to make sure you eat enough. And that’s why when we’re undereating, the drive to compensate for the lack of energy (food) can lead to chaotic eating and bingeing.
That’s why one of the solutions for binge eating is to eat more, not less. By making sure that you’re adequately nourished throughout the day, it’ll be less likely that you binge from a place of food deprivation. Intuitive eating can also help you to nourish yourself from a place of body trust.
How to stop the restrict binge cycle
It’s important to remember that having an emotional connection with food is part of having a healthy relationship with food. Dealing with urges to restrict and binge has NOTHING to do with willpower and everything to do with meeting your physical, mental and emotional needs.
It’s also vital that we let go of food guilt and shame. We do not have to feel shame around something that keeps us alive. Also, sometimes food is your only way to cope until you develop other self-soothing strategies.
Food is a direct metaphor for what’s going on in our lives. That’s why it’s important to slow down and take a look at what may be driving the drive to restrict and binge. Here are some tips:
- Stop and name your feeling: When you find yourself restricting and bingeing for emotional reasons, stop and take a moment to identify what you are feeling. This can be difficult, but it is an important step in addressing the problem. Once you have a better understanding of what’s driving your behavior, you can work on finding healthier ways to cope. And remember: there’s nothing wrong with eating for emotional reasons, and no need to feel guilty about this.
- Think about how to best meet your emotional needs: Once you understand what’s driving the urge to restrict and binge, think about how you can best meet your needs. This may mean different things to different people, but some ideas include movement, journaling, talking with a friend, or listening to music. And if a nice bowl of chocolate ice cream seems like it’s the only thing that will do the trick, go ahead and enjoy it!
Here is an infographic with tips that can help you better “feed” your emotional needs:
- Make sure you’re eating enough: Plan satisfying, balanced meals, and eat at regular intervals throughout the day in order to let your body know that it’s not under the threat of starvation. This can help interrupt the cycle at the restriction level.
- Ensure that you get adequate sleep and rest: Poor sleep negatively affects the key hormones of appetite regulation (3), thereby potentially increasing the urge to binge. It can also increse stress, which can drive emotional eating.
- Keep a food and mood journal: For some people, keeping a food journal can be helpful. Once you know what triggers the urge to restrict and binge, you can start to develop coping mechanisms that will help you break the cycle.
- Seek professional help: If you are struggling with this issue, I urge you to reach out for help. This can be an extremely difficult pattern to break on your own, which is why seeking professional help can be so beneficial. As a Registered Dietitian, I specialize in helping people to understand and break the restrict-binge cycle, through one-on-one counseling. Click here to schedule a free 15 minute discovery call.
How do you recover from a binge day?
First, it’s important to give yourself grace yourself. Binge eating is often spurred by difficult emotions, so it’s important to consider this from a place of non judgement. Remember that you are human, and that everyone eats from a place of emotions from time to time, and that’s perfectly OK!
Next, try to take some time to figure out what triggered the binge in the first place. Was it stress? Boredom? Sadness? Insufficient food intake? Once you have identified the trigger, you can start to work on strategies to cope with that trigger in the future.
Finally, focus on nourishing your body with adequately After a binge, it’s common to feel guilty and like you need to restrict your food intake. However, this can actually lead to more of the restrict binge cycle in the future. Instead, try to eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day that include a mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water!
Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, by taking the time to understand your own emotions, you can find a way to break free from the restrict binge cycle and learn to have a healthy relationship with food. It will take time, patience, and hard work, but it is possible. Remember that you are not alone; millions of people struggle with the restrict binge cycle every day. With support from family and friends, as well as professional treatment, you can overcome this challenge and reclaim your life.
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…