The binge/restrict cycle is an eating pattern that forms when we go through periods of restriction and yo-yo dieting, and then *can’t take it anymore* and overeat, or binge, simultaneously feeling a loss of control around food.
Do you struggle with periods of chronic dieting and then periods of feeling out of control around food?
Have you ever felt like you needed a plan (AKA, a diet to follow) in order to feel in control around food?
Do you struggle to trust yourself in new food environments?
If you answered YES to any of these, you might struggle with the binge/restrict cycle. If you’re like “the WHAT cycle?!”… Keep reading and let’s unpack it together!
So, first, what is the binge restrict cycle?
The binge/restrict cycle begins with restriction. While you might feel like overeating or binge eating is your fault and a lack of willpower, that could not be farther from the truth.
The first step in the binge/restrict cycle is dieting. Yep, you read that right. In fact, in order to truly heal this vicious cycle, you must stop restricting first.
Now, of course, not everyone who goes on a diet ends up binge eating. That’s true. There are many factors at play here that contribute to bingeing.
However, it is the pattern of chronic dieting and long term restriction that most often results in feeling out of control around certain foods.
Here is an overview of the binge/restrict cycle in action:
- Decide you want to lose weight.
- Restrict your food intake. Maybe you skip meals, follow a low calorie plan, or try to reduce your portion sizes.
- You are unable to sustain this level of restriction and you run out of willpower.
- You binge.
- Feel a negative emotion afterward: you may feel guilty, remorseful, or ashamed.
- You overcompensate by restricting to make up for the “damage” you’ve done.
Yo-Yo Dieting and the Binge Restrict Cycle: Why do we overeat?
Binge eating is complex, y’all. But working with clients who are stuck in the binge/restrict cycle, I can definitely tell you some of the overlapping themes I see again and again.
Binge eating is rarely just about food. In fact, I would argue that food is just one contributing factor to binge eating. Binge eating is both physical and psychological.
What do I mean by that?
Physical causes of binge eating are things like hunger, skipping meals, or not eating enough total calories. These create a physical sensation of restriction and hunger.
The physical feelings of restriction may be contributing to binge eating for you. This response is even more drastic if you have been restricting long term.
But what about the psychology of binge eating? Feelings of lack of willpower, mental exhaustion, and chronic stress all play a role in binge eating or overeating.
You get home after a long, stressful day. You are hungry and tired because you haven’t eaten regular meals today, and you’re emotionally exhausted. Realizing you haven’t planned anything for dinner, you’re starving now.
You turn to food for comfort. You know you shouldn’t; but you don’t have anything prepared, and you know you have your favorite snacks in the pantry.
In the scenario above, you can see how both the physical and psychological factors are at play here! When you combine the physical and psychological causes of overeating, you have a perfect storm brewing that is almost too strong to resist.
This scenario could lead to mindless overeating or binge eating – depending on your situation!
I hope understanding the binge/restrict cycle gives you some clarity and insight into why overeating happens and helps you see that it’s not all your fault or lack of willpower on your behalf. Binge eating is the result of both physical hunger and psychological exhaustion.
I work with countless women who feel negatively about themselves because they cannot overcome overeating. Yet, after truly understanding how overeating habits form, they recover from this behavior and form healthy, new patterns!
Know that it is possible to change this pattern and create new, healthier ones!
Side Effects of the Binge Restrict Cycle
The tumultuous binge/restrict cycle will leave you with a lot of side effects that can start to take over your life. There are so many, but I will discuss some of the main ones here.
Weight cycling: This phenomenon happens when you swing from undereating to overeating. Your weight reflects these drastic changes.
While this might seem normal in our culture, weight cycling is actually harmful. It has been associated with poor health outcomes – both physical and mental! Chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease as well as psychological conditions like depression have all been tied to weight cycling. This means that yo-yo dieting is harming your health!
Unhealthy relationship to food: Naturally, this is a consequence of jumping from diet to diet. This happens the more we listen to what others tell us to eat rather than our own intuitive senses with food.
Loss of control: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, feeling out of control around food is a direct result of chronic undereating and restriction mindset.
Exercise may become your control mechanism: You may develop unhealthy ways to overcompensate for your overeating tendencies. Exercise and chronic dieting go hand in hand here.
Negative relationship to self: Through the binge/restrict cycle, you learn to stop trusting yourself around food.
This contributes to a negative relationship with yourself. You may get stuck in the shame cycle, where you feel remorseful about your food choices and that feeling harms your self esteem over time.
How do I know if it’s binge eating or mindless overeating?
There is a big difference between a true binge episode and overeating. Binge eating is characterized by a feeling of loss of control. It feels more like a compulsion rather than a choice.
Overeating may still leave you with an ‘out of control’ feeling, but you are still able to exercise control and stop yourself. Overeating is oftentimes a byproduct of not being mindful around food.
Whether you struggle with overeating or bingeing, you likely will benefit from understanding the binge/restrict cycle and taking steps to manage it!
In my approach with clients, we use a three step process to overcome overeating habits.
Firstly, we work together to find the optimal amount of food you need to eat in a day. Eating enough is the Number One thing you can do to begin overcoming binge behaviors.
Secondly, we show you how to manage your emotions throughout the day. If you are “stuffing” your emotions down all day, then you likely are eating your feelings when those emotions resurface at night.
Lastly, and most importantly, once you have a healthy foundation of eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day, we work to manage your stress by creating healthy coping mechanisms.
At the end of the day, bingeing is a coping mechanism causing you to feel comforted and rewarded in the moment. But these behaviors can be replaced with healthy coping mechanisms that benefit you long term rather than just making you feel good in the moment.
Where to go from here?
If you struggle with binge eating, you would likely benefit from an intuitive eating approach. Binge eating can be one symptom of a serious eating disorder that requires a unique approach to food in order to heal.
If you struggle with overeating and chronic dieting, you likely will need to spend some time focusing on healthy coping mechanisms! A healthy relationship to food and your body should be your top priority.
If you suspect you may be dealing with either condition, reach out to me and let’s set up a call to chat through your situation! I would love to get to know you better and see if we can point you in the right direction!
Read more about whether or not intuitive eating is right for you.
If you are ready, apply to work with me to heal your relationship with food!
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