If you find yourself losing control around food and falling into a frenzy of secretive eating, you might well wish that this is going to be the very last time. Never again you vow, as you bring down the hatchets of self-control and discipline, reining yourself back into your ‘good eating’ patterns with a renewed resolve.

And maybe it starts out so successfully at first? The super-light breakfast of fruit and yoghurt, followed by the welcome hunger pangs later that morning as you know you are finally getting this food thing sorted. You feel lighter, clearer and focused. Food is fuel. No longer do you need to eat the tempting office cakes or Mum’s creamy dessert.

And this period of eating control may go on for days or weeks or even longer.

Then one day, out of nowhere, you find yourself tumultuously falling off the cliff into the valley of the binge. It started with an itching, nagging, feeling of deprivation, as if something was missing. You couldn’t stop thinking about food. Temptations everywhere, taunting you.

Then, the argument, accompanied with feeling anxious, tired, stressed and wham bam, you have suddenly demolished three biscuits from your kitchen cupboard in seconds. How did this happen?

Suddenly, everything after this is a blur. Nothing matters more than finding more food and satisfying this insatiable craving. Within a few minutes, you have eaten chocolate, pastries, cereal, croissants, bread – every single thing that you have avoided with an iron-rod will for days. Very fleetingly you feel euphoria and release from eating. Soon afterwards, the black, looming cloud of shame descends and the reality of the situation sinks in. What have I done you think? Guilt, self-loathing, and disgust linger.

You feel unattractive. You feel greedy and ashamed. You feel very alone. You want to stop. You are not sure how to do this.

9 ways to stop binge eating

1. See dietary restraint as the problem

It is unusual that binge eating begins out of nowhere. It is likely preceded by dietary restraint.
Dietary restraint can be:

  • Delaying eating – ‘I’m not hungry now; I’ll just wait a little longer’.

  • Eliminating food groups - ‘Carbs are the enemy’; ‘I must eat 100% clean’.

  • Under-eating, dieting, restricting, counting calories

If you binge eat regularly, you will likely see dietary restraint as the solution. ‘If only I could gain control of my eating, it would all be okay’.

You try to gain control, by introducing ‘RULES’: calorie limits; food types to be eaten or precise quantities to eat. This thinking is seductive offering the allure of the perfect eating plan.

It is also faulty thinking though.

We know from starvation studies, that when the human body is deprived of food, bingeing is often one of the inevitable outcomes. This is along with a constant preoccupation with food, tiredness, feeling cold and poor concentration to name a few. When you deprive your body of the energy it needs to survive and maintain proper function, it will scream out for this deficit to be replenished. You will crave; you will dream and obsess about food all day long.

This has an evolutionary survival advantage for us. Our ancestors would have been regularly faced with fluctuating availability of food. We are programmed to restore the deficit of energy experienced in the famine when food is then available in the feast. Your body will fight back. You can become stuck in a diet – binge cycle.

2. Focus on sustainable weight loss

You might feel very uncomfortable with giving up the notion of dieting. You might see dieting as the solution to weight loss.

We know that dieting is not a sustainable means to achieve weight loss though. Numerous research studies evidence the fact that diets don’t work long-term.

In the short-term (weeks) diets might appear to be successful. Long-term they disrupt your metabolism and slow it down. They interfere with your natural hunger, as you ignore your body signals and follow outside rules. They can damage your relationship with food.

If they were really so effective, why are there so many ‘new diets’ constantly on the market?

3. Permit all foods

If you completely ban certain foods and see them as naughty or forbidden, you might want to eat them more.

If you have ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’, this dichotomous thinking might also trigger the ‘I’ve blown it effect’ if you eat something ‘forbidden’. To change this, you begin to allow all foods to be genuinely permitted in to your eating regime.

Short-term you might feel terrified of doing this and want to gorge on certain foods. This is a natural backlash against deprivation. It is temporary.

Long-term, this will not continue, as long as you stop dietary restraint. I speak from experience. If you are allowed as many chocolate muffins as you desire, the appeal of them somewhat lessens!

To avoid overwhelm with this task, introduce previously forbidden foods back into your normal regular eating routine only one food at a time.

4. Trust your natural hunger

As you gain confidence with your eating, start to listen to your body. What food are you hungry for right now? Trust that as you begin to tune in, that your body will tell you what it needs.

5. Sit down and slow down

Binge eating is often carried out on the run; at the cupboard door; in the car or at the fridge. It is often a dissociative and trance-like experience. You might not even fully taste the food or notice the experience of eating.

When you eat, ensure you are calm and relaxed before eating. Take some time to be quiet and slow down your breathing.

Set a place and make it look attractive. When you eat, savour each mouthful by eating slowly and chewing your food well. Be mindful of the eating experience. Notice the flavours and subtle tastes and textures. How much do you enjoy the food? Do you feel satisfied by the eating experience?

6. Start a food and feelings diary

This is a fantastic tool to help you gain valuable understanding and insight into your eating behaviour. You record the food eaten; the time of day; where you are; hunger levels, feelings, thoughts and significant events.

You may have kept diaries before that were very food focused. This is different. It is helping you to understand your relationship with food so you can begin to have better self-awareness. Once you gain awareness, you are in a stronger position to consider change. You can also learn your emotional triggers:

  • Do you eat when you are bored?
  • Do you eat when you are happy?
  • Do you eat when you are sad?
  • Do you eat when you are anxious?
  • Do you eat when you are scared?
  • Do you eat when you are angry?

What is it that you really need in these moments? Do you really need food? How do you deal with your feelings? Can you name them? Can you respond helpfully to them? Can you reach out for help?

If you find this area particularly tricky, counselling can offer a safe place to begin to explore your emotional world and make sense of it.

7. Challenge your thoughts

With 60,000 + thoughts a day running through your mind, and many of these being repetitive, you will understand the power of your thinking. Our thoughts, mood and behaviour are all interlinked.

‘I’ve blown it’ – ANXIOUS – eat more than ever

'I’m too fat’ – DISGUSTED – restrict and then binge

'People are looking at me’ – ASHAMED – withdraw from others.

Becoming aware of your thoughts can be an illuminating process. You can learn to accept your thoughts and not act on them. You can learn to challenge your thoughts and be kinder to yourself.

8. Be kind and compassionate

You may be very unkind, punishing and critical of yourself. You may feel that you never meet your standards. Being judgemental and unkind doesn’t really help you. You might hope that it will drive you into action. Usually, it simply demoralises you and keeps you stuck and helpless.

Think about how you can be kinder to yourself in your thoughts, actions and behaviours. Maybe you have slipped into the habit of being kind to yourself by using food as a reward. Perhaps food has become your number one pleasure? Seek out other ways of finding pleasure and feeling good.

Sometimes you might choose to use food as a reward. However, it is helpful to have a whole repertoire of other strategies to fall back on too.

9. Get support

If you are struggling and feel out of your depth to cope alone, then it is a brave and courageous step to seek support. It is unlikely that the binge eating problem will just resolve itself miraculously. It could get worse. Be brave, be bold and reach out.