Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder.1
It is a mental health condition characterized by recurrent episodes of binging (consuming large amounts of food), a feeling of loss of control during the binge, and guilt or shame afterward.
If left untreated, BED can lead to obesity, which is associated with other serious health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and gallbladder disease. BED is typically treated with psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medications.
Lifestyle strategies can also prevent binge eating. It's important to note that these strategies are not substitutes for professional BED treatment, but they can be used alongside professional treatment.
Strategy 1: Stop Restricting Yourself
If you diet with extreme restrictions on your food intake, your body may respond by overeating later. Some diets promise a way to lose weight quickly and implement intense guidelines (such as cutting off entire food groups or only drinking juices for a week).
Extreme diets are not sustainable in the long run. If you stay away from food that you love or that your body needs, your cravings will increase and you might later consume a large amount of the food you didn't let yourself eat.
Stay away from any diet that includes:
A promise of fast weight loss
Grouping foods into the "bad" category
Elimination of whole food groups, like carbohydrates
No need to exercise
Rigid menus and limited food choices
Instead of participating in unhealthy, fast-acting diets, look into making healthier choices within your meals. For example, choose lower-calorie salad dressings that you like, rather than suffering through a type you don't enjoy.
And be aware of your own habits, for example, if you tend to overeat while watching television, turn off the TV when you eat.
Strategy 2: Don't skip meals
Skipping meals is another factor that can exacerbate binge eating. Similar to restricting your calories through a diet, skipping meals can leave you wanting to eat more later and increase your likelihood to binge eat.
Incorporating a regular eating pattern into your routine has been shown to reduce the chances of binge eating later on in the day. If you start skipping meals, you’ll begin to crave more. By skipping daytime meals and restricting calories, many people find themselves binge eating late into the night.
Breakfast jumpstarts your metabolism and provides you with energy for the rest of the day. Consider eating a high-protein meal in the morning so that you’ll be less likely to become hungry. Eggs, almonds, chicken breast, oats, and Greek yogurt are examples of high-protein foods.
Try to eat three meals a day, with snacks in between, about three to four hours apart.
Strategy 3: Stay hydrated
Staying hydrated has many benefits, but it can also help curb unwanted cravings and reduce overeating. In one study, 24 adults who drank 17 ounces before eating consumed fewer calories than people who did not drink water before a meal.
Water can also boost metabolism and may contribute to weight loss.
Strategy 4: Eat your fiber
Eating unprocessed foods, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help you feel full and potentially moderate your compulsive eating. Fiber moves slowly through the digestive tract, keeping you feeling satiated longer, and may cut down on food cravings.
Most fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are rich in fiber.
Fiber-rich foods help control cholesterol, blood sugar, and reduce the risks of diabetes and heart disease.
Strategy 5: Exercise and relax
Stress can trigger binge eating, and exercising often reduces stress levels. A small study showed that aerobic activity significantly reduces binge eating episodes in the long term. Simply taking a 30-minute walk, riding your bike, dancing, or swimming can help prevent binge eating.
Yoga is another type of exercise that has been shown to reduce binge eating. In addition to exercise, practicing mindfulness, participating in breathing exercises, and enhancing your mind-body connection can promote relaxation and reduce stress eating.
Sleep also affects hunger and appetite, and it has been suggested that BED may be linked to insomnia.
Try and get at least eight hours of sleep a night to reduce the risk of late-night binge eating. Doing a nighttime yoga routine can help relax the mind and body for sleep as well.
Strategy 6: Practice Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating means eating when you feel hungry and stopping once you are full. It involves giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, but with curiosity and no judgment.
We are all born with the ability to eat when we are hungry and to stop when we are full—but many of us lose that intuition about eating for a variety of reasons as we grow up. Intuitive eating is about trusting your body to make good choices around food and reclaiming that ability.
Becoming aware of what you eat through intuitive eating and regaining your natural relationship with food can help control compulsive eating. One study that followed patients for eight years found that intuitive eating was associated with lower odds of binge eating.
Intuitive eating is also linked to better psychological health. In the same study, people who engaged in intuitive eating were also less likely to have depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, unhealthy weight control behaviors (e.g., fasting, skipping meals), and extreme weight control behaviors (e.g., taking diet pills, vomiting).
The 10 principles of intuitive eating include:
Reject the diet mentality
Honor your hunger
Make peace with food
Challenge the food police
Discover the satisfaction factor
Feel your fullness
Cope with your emotions with kindness
Respect your body
Honor your health with gentle nutrition
To practice intuitive eating, pay attention to your hunger cues and eat only when you are hungry. Don't categorize food as good or bad, and give yourself the freedom to eat whatever you want. This is an ongoing process and it may take years to unlearn unhealthy eating habits like compulsive eating and dieting. Patience is key, and remember that the benefits are well worth the effort in the end.
When to get professional help
While these strategies can help, a treatment plan designed by a mental health professional is often needed to control binge eating. To start your recovery from BED or to stop overeating for good, you should get professional help to get to the root of why you are binge eating.
If you think that you or someone you know might have an eating disorder, talk to your doctor.
Signs of an eating disorder that needs treatment include:
Concern or embarrassment about eating behaviors
Secretive eating habits
Preoccupation with weight or body image
An unhealthy body weight because of eating problems
If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237.
Binge eating can be distressing, but there are ways you can reduce this behavior. Work towards identifying triggers, implement exercise, reduce stress, and hydrate properly. Establishing a healthy relationship with food is possible, and investing in your health is imperative for a happy, healthy future.
If your binge eating continues or gets worse, you need to see a mental health professional. Getting help for binge eating can be tough. Since binge eating is typically done in secret and is usually associated with feelings of guilt and shame, it can be difficult to open up about it and reach out for help. It's important that you know that you aren't alone and that getting help is an important step toward recovery.