A Brain Science Perspective on Binge Eating + How to Break Free from the Habit

I’m sitting her in a coffee shop where I just enjoyed some tea and a cupcake (gluten-free for me ;), having fully enjoyed experience of eating.  To think, in the past I feared cupcakes and would avoid them at all costs…

Flashback to 2013….I remember a particular morning I woke up, feeling bloated and disgusted with myself. I had binged the night before going completely mindless with food. For me, binge eating started as an occasional occurrence in middle and high school, but once I started my first year of college, it had become an daily nightmare. I was in my 4th year of college at the time, which had been incredibly stressful with the number of classes I was taking, trying to balance my extracurriculars and social life, and uncertainty about my future career.  

Journal entry from 2013

Journal entry from 2013

I look back with compassion on the writings of my younger self.  I wish someone could have told her that overcoming binge eating wouldn’t always be a linear process. There were some days I would learn a new concept or tool and do really well my eating. “Yes!!! Finally! I’d tell myself… this is the answer.” Inevitably, the new “diet high” would wear off and I would be back to where I started.  Then I’d beat myself up and wonder if something was wrong with me or even binge to escape the sense of unworthiness I felt.

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Journal entry from 2013

Journal entry from 2013

Looking back, I wish someone had told me to be gentle with myself.  After all, I was doing my very best. I wish someone had told me that change and healing isn’t always linear.  At the time, I think it’s something I understood theoretically but didn’t fully embody especially having come from a culture and expectation of “Straight  A’s” all the time.

So let me tell you this, if you struggle with the dieting-binge eating-repeat cycle, there is nothing wrong with you.  You just need a better understanding of yourself and your biology.

Binge eating is a HABIT that can absolutely be broken.  When it comes to retraining habits, it takes TIME and PRACTICE.  I’m not saying it’s always easy - after all, when you’re talking about habits, these are stored in our in the basal ganglia of our limbic system (i.e. our prehistoric “animal brain”).  Our brains are biologically designed to automate behaviors and go mindless with routine situations. Think back to when you first learned how to drive. Wasn’t driving something that at first required your full attention? Then eventually you learned how to accelerate and break properly, your brain stored this into your long-term and our muscle memory.  These days, you probably have many instances where you zone out on the road and forget whole parts of the journey. Our “animal brain” therefore explain why so many of us feel like we’re out-of-control with food - where we feel that donuts in the break room are calling to us or we just find ourselves eating out of the fridge at night.

When we’re learning new information, making decisions, and developing habits, we accessing our neocortex.  In particular, the prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain where plan ahead and exercise restraint with compulsive behaviors, such as calling an ex-boyfriend or deciding to choose a some baby carrots over a bag of chips.

So what is the #1 tool you need to start breaking free from binge eating? Simple. It’s AWARENESS.

Awareness is the opposite to going mindless. When start observing yourself, you start bringing your prefrontal cortex back into the picture.

So if there is one key to stop binge eating, I invite you start paying attention.  To start observing yourself, rather than fighting or resisting. To become a detective to find clues of what might trigger you to eat when you’re not hungry.  To observe the the thoughts, feelings, and resulting actions that surround this binge eating habit you want to change.

Even if you still continue to overeat or binge this week, one thing you can do is to start narrating the occurrence in the moment to develop your observation muscle (e.g. I’m walking to the cupboard and opening it.  I am grabbing some cookies… I am opening the package, etc.). Eventually, with enough practice, you’ll learn to interrupt binges and even stop them before they start.

Of course, this takes practice and it takes time and repetition for our brain and bodies to wire.  One mistake I made for a long time as someone who used to struggle with food was not getting support.  In my experience and for my clients, having the emotional support and accountability was key to helping us build new habits and finally break free from the bad habit of binge eating.

If you are looking for support and are ready to find your freedom with food in the next few months, I want to let you know that the next Food & Body-Love Group Coaching Program will be starting in May 2019.  In this program, you’ll get the understanding of why you’re eating mindlessly/binge eating and the tools support to start breaking free from the yoyo-dieting and binge eating cycle. If you are interested, feel free to apply for a Breakthrough to Food Freedom Consult here.