Binge eating can feel so horrible, but it is often very misunderstood. Binge eating is not some kind of personal failure, lack of willpower, or food addiction, despite what so many like to claim. If you’re wondering how you can stop binging on sugar, or stop binging in general, this post will help you understand the underlying reasons you may binge eat, so you can move toward peace with food and your body.
Binge eating typically happens as a result of a combination of a few things: restriction, emotional distress, and/or trauma. And if diets you’ve been on have put strict rules on how much sugar you can or should consume, it’s possible you’ve developed a bit of a preoccupation with the substance. Believe it or not, allowing yourself to eat sugar is one great way to eventually stop binging in general.
What is binge eating?
Binge eating is eating that feels out-of-control. There is often emotional numbing or “checking out” going on during the eating process. It is typically consuming “larger than normal” amounts of food in a short period of time, usually more than the body needs for physical nourishment, and becoming uncomfortably full afterward, although some people do not feel too full, no matter how much they eat.
During a binge, you may feel unable to stop, out of control, or totally tuned out from your current experience in your bodymind. You may plan a binge hours ahead of time, or it could be unplanned and spontaneous.
If you are trying to understand yourself better and your relationship with food, one thing I want you to know is this – binging is serving a psychological purpose, even if it feels utterly worthless and horrible. If this is you, I’m sending you all the love and patience and peace you desire.
Here is a great interview with Amy Pershing, a binge-eating expert, on Food Psych with Christy Harrison.
Why binge eating happens
1. Restriction – physical and otherwise
Binge eating and binge eating disorder are fundamentally restrictive. I know that can be extremely confusing, but it is true. So if you currently try not to eat sugar, or you have a belief that sugar is bad, or that sugar is addictive, and you ALSO end up binging on sugar or crave sugar constantly despite those thoughts, you could be binging as a way of coping with the real or perceived deprivation.
So cutting out sugar is likely to help you stop binging on sugar. Sorry to say.
Sugar addiction is a hotly debated topic and an interesting discussion. Here is some research that supports the side I’m on – sugar restriction eventually leads to increased cravings and disinhibition. The few studies that show sugar addiction is a thing are in animals, not humans. Plus, who really wants to live without sugar forever?! Nope, not me. I do recognize that for those who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction, sugar can really feel similar. But even so, I do not support the notion that anyone needs to give it up entirely.
Binge eating can also be a reaction to emotional, psychological, or spiritual restriction. Not speaking up for your needs, not living life the way you authentically desire, or not having enough connection or pleasure in your life can make you more likely to lean on food as a coping mechanism or a way to soothe yourself. Because women are socialized to adhere instead of speak up, the patriarchy could be to blame, at least somewhat.
Strict rules for eating and living can trigger binging or cause you to develop binge eating disorder. For more about why food rules trigger binge eating and what to do about it, I suggest learning more about intuitive eating. Here is an article I wrote about that. And if you want my take on why other types of rules we live under can cause us to have unmet needs (restriction), sign up for my biweekly newsletter. I wax on about how our cultural and problematic conditioning keeps us stuck in low self-worth and attempts to fix that by shrinking our bodies.
2. Chronic dieting
If you’re trying to lose weight and binging anyway, some deprivation effects are clearly going on. General food restriction (ie not eating enough) by doing things like calorie counting, doing a keto or low carb diet, or any other type of food group or food amount restriction – can also feel like deprivation in your body (not to mention your spirit). Lack of proper nutrition is deeply felt by every cell in your body, including those in your brain, so simply put – not eating enough can trigger a sugar binge, or binging on any type of food.
Binge eating is most common at night. If you don’t eat enough during the day… maybe skimping on carbs and fat at lunch and depriving yourself of afternoon snacks, you may find yourself more likely to have the urge to binge eat at night.
In addition to being more hungry at night because of not eating enough during the day, it is common to be less busy (so less distracted from our emotions), more likely to be alone, and more likely to have easy-to-access food around. This is why prioritizing eating a filling breakfast and lunch are the best things to do to make you less likely to binge eat before, with, or after dinner.
3. Emotional unmet needs
Emotional eating is often misunderstood. Is it normal to eat for comfort, like ice cream to deal with a humid day, your grandma’s lasagna after a long car ride with screaming children, or any kind of traditional cultural food when you feel disconnected. This is a wonderful, life-affirming beautiful part of being human.
And it could be argued that eating food for emotional reasons is not a major problem, even if you are doing it every day. But if the quantities are enough to make you feel physically sick or uncomfortable, then it is likely leading you to feel even worse physically and could be raising your blood sugar.
Not feeling free to express your emotions can be deeply uncomfortable to the psyche, even if it feels super “normal”. Due to cultural systems that make productiveness the height of human achievement (ah, hem) you may be exhausted after work. Or, if you work in an environment that doesn’t promote your self-expression, maybe your creativity feels cut off. Perhaps you don’t feel safe expressing your needs at work. Do you feel like you are constantly having to prove yourself because you are a woman, or in a larger body? You bet that takes a toll.
Stress is a huge factor these days for all of us. Our lives are incredibly busy. Too much stress and not enough stress management skills can lead to using food as a coping mechanism.
If you have gotten into the habit of using food to soothe any sign of a difficult emotion, ie emotional eating, it can easily turn into a binge if the emotions are severe enough and if you haven’t learned other helpful tools for dealing with difficult emotions. And if all of that is happening AND you are starving because you’re on a diet – perfect storm.
4. Complex trauma (or PTSD)
60-70% of folks with binge eating disorder have a trauma history. What happens when someone is stuck in a trauma response is their nervous system is activated and they are seeking an escape from this feelings. It could be shame that is triggered – a really bad conversation with a boss or a doctor in which you were made to feel like you were bad or wrong.
During a binge, you are likely to feel temporary – but real – relief from difficult emotions you were struggling with before the binge. Anxiety, loneliness, fear, depression, and stress are common reasons that someone may binge eat. That emotion may be something you are consciously aware of, but it could also be something that is buried deep down. This is how trauma shows up.
Binge eating vs binge eating disorder (BED)
If you feel triggered to binge eat most days of the week, and it’s happening week after week, it’s possible you could be diagnosed with binge eating disorder (BED). Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder and is extremely under-diagnosed due to lack of awareness about eating disorder nuance by healthcare professionals and body-size bias (weight stigma), which is rampant. Some experts, including one of my teachers, Fiona Sutherland, believe than many people diagnosed with binge eating disorder, actually have atypical anorexia. This article from Project Heal explains how common anorexia is in larger-bodied folx. The original piece in the NY Times is right here.
So, the difference between binge eating and binge eating disorder is the frequency and intensity of the episodes and the amount of emotional distress that corresponds. BED also includes moderate to severe mental health disturbances. If you think you may have binge eating disorder, you could tell your doctor if that feels safe. You could also send me a message and I can help direct you toward the care that you need.
But do know this – you can heal. And a rigid diet and weight loss is probably not going to be how you get there, no matter how much you don’t want to hear that.
How to recover from a sugar binge
After a binge, it is common to feel intense feelings of shame, disgust, or guilt toward oneself. Unfortunately, these feelings often perpetuate the binging cycle. One important way to heal from this binge cycle is to work on self-compassion. Think about what brings you peace and soothing other than food. Something simple like aromatherapy can be a help. The simple act of choosing to care for yourself in that delicate moment – when you’re feeling horrible after a binge – can go a long way to helping the next day feel a lot better.
Make sure you drink plenty of water and don’t skip your next meal. You deserve – and need – to eat tomorrow, no matter what happens today.
How to stop binging on sugar
1. Get adequate carbohydrates at meals and snacks
Make sure you’re feeding yourself enough during the day (especially carbs and fat). That means eating breakfast and lunch, and at least one snack in the afternoon (some people need a morning snack too). If you’re hungry at 3 in the afternoon but you try to suppress your appetite by drinking water, diet soda (not that there’s anything wrong with diet soda), or eating plain carrots, you are very likely to be EXTREMELY hungry when you’re done with work.
After eating enough during the day for a week, see if your urge to binge at night lessens.
2. Give yourself permission to eat all foods, including sweets
Forbidding yourself from eating your favorite foods is not likely to last long without backfiring. The more you lean into unconditional permission to eat, the more you will learn to trust your body. Another important point here – if you tell yourself that you need to stop eating sugar – you are just setting up that deprivation mindset that will keep you stuck.
3. Stop trying to lose weight
Did I lose you? I know this one is hard, and can even feel impossible. But one way to fast track your progress to healing your relationship with food and stop binging on sugar, is to put weight loss on the back burner. When you’re actively pursuing weight loss, you are probably not going to be eating enough and will be feeling deprived, even if for a little while you can convince yourself you’re not. It is so common for diets to backfire in binge eating. Instead of freaking out and running away from this right now, maybe just start with a pros and cons list and see where that takes you. I get it. It is a HUGE task to stop blaming your body for being the problem.
4. Make a loose plan for how you will eat
You do need a general idea of how you’re going to feed yourself throughout the week. If that’s food you make, takeout, freezer meals – great. Remember that food rules do not help you in this scenario. Just have enough food accessible to you so you don’t run into a food emergency. That is a really good setup for a binge episode.
(if you want to change your eating habits, like eat less cheezits or more vegetables down the line, great. But if you’re dealing with binge eating, now is not the time)
Make sure to plan for snacks too. If you need some healthy snack ideas, include carbs and/or protein (all 3 is great too) in your snacks as well. So if you like cheezits, try adding some nuts to them. If you like fruit, add cheese. If you like yogurt, add granola. You get the idea.
5. Find ways to feel, heal, and deal with your emotions
This one is, of course, not simple. Be curious about a craving, rather than immediately blaming yourself for having it. If you are overly stressed, try some soothing techniques like spending time outdoors, getting more sleep, or talking to a therapist. If you have some deep trauma that you are aware of, I suggest putting the project of controlling your body on hold and finding someone who can help you process your past.
6. After a binge – use extra self-compassion
This is very important – talk kindly to yourself. Say things like “it’s ok. I’m okay.” Do something that soothes your nervous system like deep breathing, looking at the stars in the sky, lighting some incense, or using aromatherapy.
The day after a binge, maybe the next day, unpack it. Ask yourself why you were triggered. Did you eat enough earlier in the day? Did you binge on foods you’ve labeled as “bad”? Is subtle restriction showing up? Was there an experience today where I did not get my needs met?
Try not to just tell yourself that you’re lazy or broken or gross or lacking willpower. These phrases may feel more comfortable to you because they are what you’re used to. But I promise you, shaming yourself is not going to help you stop binging on sugar either.
7. Get support
I see the most amazing people drastically change their relationship with food by working regularly with me. I’m not saying I’m the only option (obviously), you need to find the right person who you connect with and you feel safe and comfortable with. But I believe we all deserve to have peaceful and abundant relationships with food. Working with someone 1-1 allows you the space to really understand why food is such a strong coping mechanism for you. Being guided by an expert is a game-changer. That said, I also always recommend group support for binge eating and body image troubles. Being heard and speaking your truth about an experience that can feel so shameful is deeply healing.
So, to sum up – binge eating often happens because of physical and emotional unmet needs.
If you are restricting yourself – in actuality, or just the feeling that you should be “eating better” to lose weight, it can lead you to feelings of failure and an urge to binge eat. Sugar cravings are often due to deprivation or a perceived future deprivation (a belief you should stop eating sugar).
If you are dealing with binge eating on a regular basis, I promise you – you can heal. First things first – make sure you’re eating enough. It is often quite hard to know how much to eat if you’ve been a chronic dieter for 20 years. Working with someone who can guide you on this to make sure you’re eating enough, and help you work through how surprisingly difficult this may be could be super helpful.
If you want some simple strategies to start making peace with food and understanding your binge eating, download my free guide – 5 Steps To Peace and Freedom With Food.
Binge eating is also an issue that thrives in secrecy and shame. Group support can be extremely supportive for helping you unpack the reasons you binge eat, and find sustainable solutions. If you’re ready to get help with your binge eating, consider reaching out to me.
My group program, the Love Food Again Program, is something to consider. It is a comprehensive group program with lots of individual support built in to help you really turn your relationship with food inside out – shake it up – and find empowerment to make food choices that feel good to you – not like more rules and control.
You deserve a happy relationship with food and your body. You can get there.
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.
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