Top Tips for Ending the Binge Restrict Cycle, from a Registered Dietitian

June 23, 2023


Anne Carroll, MS, RDN

Need help ending the binge and restrict cycle? Perpetual dieting, avoiding certain foods, or restricting both when and the amount that you eat, can lead to both physical and physiological deprivation, which can then trigger a binge episode. 

Contrary to popular diet culture belief, you actually do need to eat consistently throughout the day, listen to your hunger and satiety cues, and honor food cravings for successful weight management, and to support overall health. Eating regular meals and snacks also helps to ensure steady blood sugar, which can help prevent overeating. These practices help to build a healthy relationship with food and are key elements to a sustainable approach to weight loss and maintenance. 

Here, our Registered Dietitian Nutritionists breakdown what you need to know about binge eating and their top tips to stop the binge and restrict cycle.

What is Binge Eating?

Binge eating can look different for each person, but it typically describes an occasion where you overeat to a point of feeling uncomfortably full, usually in a short period of time. During a binge, people may experience some loss of control, potentially followed by feelings of regret or guilt.  Binge eating often results as a consequence of periods of restriction, and can also be associated with dysregulated emotional eating. (1)

Restriction can be in the form of restricting when you eat, as well as the types of food and amount that you eat. Intentional avoidance of certain foods that you label are “bad”, or other food rules, and certain diets can all be considered forms of restriction, that can lead to subsequent periods of overeating or binge eating.

It is important to note that occasional episodes of overeating or binge eating is different from binge eating disorder (BED), which is a serious eating disorder with specific diagnostic criteria including the amount of food, duration and frequency of binges, and associated psychological and physical symptoms. (2) BED should be treated with an interdisciplinary team of healthcare professionals including a psychologist (or other mental health professional specializing in eating disorders), as well as a physician, and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

Consequences of Binge Eating and Restricting

From a physiological perspective, going too long without eating will cause your blood sugar levels to drop, which can cause you to overeat or binge during your next meal, potentially resulting in a blood sugar spike. This pattern of drops and spikes in blood sugar over time can negatively impact several things including your metabolic rate, your hormone and energy levels, and can ultimately lead to weight gain. (3)

From a psychological perspective, restricting can cause obsessive thoughts about food and intense cravings, which can lead to compensatory overeating. Restricting can also cause anxiety and stress around food in general, and in social eating situations.

The Cycle: Restrict, Binge Eat, Repeat

It’s important to listen to your body and recognize when it’s telling you that it’s hungry or full. When you ignore your hunger feelings and deprive yourself of food, your body sends out even more signals that increase hunger and cravings—that’s when your brain and your stomach go into a battle where both sides lose.

This battle of restriction and hunger can cause a loss of control ending in binging. Binge episodes result in an excess of food and calorie intake, which can trigger feelings of regret and shame. Post-binge feelings, unfortunately, start the cycle over, as many will start restricting again to “make up” for the binge episode. Now we’re back at square one.

Break Away From Binge Eating

Let’s end this cycle by practicing mindful eating, honoring hunger and fullness cues, enjoying food, and fueling the body with nutrients. These practices can help prevent overeating and binging, and reduce negative thoughts and feelings.

Nutrition and eating shouldn’t be a battle. Restricting now will likely lead to overeating later. So next time your body says, “Hey! I’m hungry!”, honor it. It’ll thank you in the moment and in the long run.

Top Tips For Ending The Binge Restrict Cycle: The ABC’s

1. AVOID stressful or triggering situations: Understanding your own triggers and stressors that may cause you to fall into unhealthy habits and negative self talk is important. Have a plan when you eat out with friends, when you grocery shop, or when you come home from a stressful day at work. Developing coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety that do not involve food is essential.

2. BE MINDFUL: Slow down and take some moments in your day to check in with yourself: Ask yourself, “Am I hungry? Am I full? When was the last time I ate? What am I in the mood for? Am I making choices that align with my goals? Am I fueling my body with a balance of nutrients that will help keep me satisfied?” Answering these questions will help you make mindful choices around food. We find plating meals and snacks, and limiting distractions like scrolling on your phone or watching TV while you eat, to be helpful when practicing mindful eating.

3. CUT YOURSELF A BREAK and end negative thoughts: Falling “off track”, meaning eating in a way that may not be aligned with your personal goals, is normal. Practice kind self-talk and avoid telling yourself things like, “I clearly have no self-control,” I don’t deserve to eat dinner,” or, “I’ll make up for it tomorrow by restricting even more.” Negative thoughts lead to negative actions and negative results. Be nice to you! You deserve it.

4. DON’T RESTRICT: Don’t go more than a few hours without eating. This helps keep your metabolism going and your blood sugar levels steady, which can prevent overeating later. Craving a specific type of food? Honor it, by plating a portion of that food and enjoy it. If you find that you have difficulty controlling your portions of certain types of foods, try and consume those foods in the absence of fatigue, stress, or feelings of being overly hungry, as those are times that we typically are more susceptible to emotional overeating. For example, if you often feel out of control around cookies, try plating a couple with some fruit after a balanced meal, versus snacking on them on an empty stomach in a stressful situation when you’re hungry. Check in with your emotions and hunger level before you start eating potentially triggering foods. 

5. ESTABLISH A PLAN: Do you have a busy day tomorrow? Will you be on the go? Will you have time to cook or to stop and eat? Decide ahead of time where and when you’re going to stop for lunch. Plan ahead by meal prepping and having meals ready to go. Portion out snacks that you can easily take on the go and always keep some with you to avoid going too long without eating.

6. SAY GOODBYE TO DIET CULTURE: Don’t label any foods as “good” or “bad.” If you stumble upon an Instagram model telling you how to eat, run for the hills. Any diet that cuts out all of your favorite foods, tells you to skip meals, or has you restricting too much is not sustainable or effective. Focus on healthy eating patterns, balanced meals, and living a healthy lifestyle. 

Final Thoughts On Ending The Binge Restrict Cycle

Whether you are trying to lose weight, or simply want to improve your health, the binge and restrict cycle won’t help you achieve your goals, and it can be very stressful and emotionally taxing. We understand it can be a difficult pattern to break, especially in the context of our diet culture. But living in the binge and restrict cycle can have negative consequences on both your mental and physical health. Honoring your hunger and fullness cues, as well as food cravings, and practicing mindful eating can all help to break the cycle. Feeling like you need more support? Our Registered Dietitian Nutritionists are here to help

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or application is intended for reference and educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately qualified and licensed medical services provider.

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