Breaking the Diet-Binge Cycle: Can I Give Up Dieting?
This is one of the most common and deeply-ingrained beliefs of women in general, and especially those who struggle with food, weight and their bodies. Every single woman I have worked with in my practice, who had been dieting, restricting food and/or counting calories, has expressed the fear that if they gave up doing so, her appetite would be so huge and uncontrollable that they would never stop eating - or that they would only eat food that she thought of as ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, and ‘fattening’.
More often than not, this fear gets reinforced by actual experiences of overeating, binge-eating or eating otherwise ‘forbidden’ foods, when they release control and eat without restriction. These experiences are then seen as proof that it is indeed not safe to renounce the rules and follow one’s appetite, as that will lead to never-ending ‘overindulgence’ and weight gain. To avoid that, they decide to diet harder, restrict further, be more disciplined and ‘strong’ –this is how the diet-binge cycle, a never-ending battle against one’s appetite, begins. And no matter how confining and draining this cycle always is, the fear of what might happen if they let go of, at least, trying to be ‘good’, weighs heavier.
Ironically though, the answer to our big question is: No. You will not keep eating forever, nor will you eat anything and everything, if you stop dieting –not if you make a few essential shifts in the way you think about and treat hunger and your body, which is exactly what we will be discussing in this article.
This belief is actually one of the biggest myths that perpetuates, rather than helps you overcome, your difficulties with food. Below, we will see why that is so, starting with the physiological evidence for it.
Research has shown that dieting/restricting causes a variety of biochemical imbalances, the most significant being blood sugar imbalance, which has been proven to lead to cravings and bingeing. We know that, when balance is restored in the body, by eating a whole, normal diet, the urge to binge is dramatically decreased, which points to dieting being the cause of, rather than the solution to bingeing and overeating. There is a wealth of information on the physiological effects of dieting, which I encourage you to look up, to find out more about that.
Underlying beliefs and mental representations
In this article, our primary focus will be on the inner, mental and emotional roots of this deep-seated fear. To uncover those, we will begin by shedding some light on the mostly unconscious beliefs and images that support it.
Behind the fear that, if we let go of control, we’ll never stop eating, lies the belief that one’s hunger -and women’s hunger, in particular- is insatiable, bottomless, inherently ‘wrong’ and thus, unsafe. And since hunger comes directly from the body, by extension, we also see the body as greedy and threatening, often treating it as if it needs to be tamed and monitored at all times by our conscious mind and will-power.
In this context, the body itself is seen as the source of our struggle and we are faced with a dead end dilemma that feels a lot like a life sentence; either we fight indefinitely, tirelessly deploying new ‘weapons’ (diets, exercise, resolutions, etc.), in the hope that we will eventually be able to annihilate the ‘enemy’ (hunger, appetite, the body’s needs and desires) for good, or we get defeated, let go and have our worst fears (gaining weight, getting fat) come true. This is precisely the rhetoric of the diet and weight-loss culture, the messages of which we are subjected to from a very young age.
However, even if policing the body provides an illusion of safety, it also condemns us to a perpetual internal battle that takes a huge amount of energy to maintain, leaving no space for relaxation, freedom and enjoyment. And that is deeply exhausting –let alone, clearly, not effective.
The real source of excessive hunger and cravings
What we fail to understand is that the real reason we overeat or eat ‘forbidden’ foods, when we loosen control, is not that our hunger is insatiable or that our body is greedy –rather, it is as a result of the control and deprivation that we have imposed on our body in the first place.
Control fosters rebellion, in any form and all relationships. Whatever we resist, persists. Anything that we push down by mere force is bound to bounce back up, with force equal to that which we have initially applied to it –it’s a law of nature. When you continually suppress your appetite, through your will-power, you essentially push the energy of that desire and body instinct down. This energy though does not disappear, as no form of energy does. It remains there and builds up, until it reaches a point, when it just needs to be released -through eating- and it will do so in whatever way and in as much time and space as is available. The longer and harsher the pressure you have applied to it, the more intense and ‘out-of-control’ the discharge will be –and this is when it turns into a binge or overeating episode.
In simple, relational terms, the binge in the diet-binge cycle only happens because your body is not at all sure if and when it will have the chance to eat freely again. Instinctively and from experience, it knows that it will soon go back into its ‘cage’, where it will be forced to eat only types and quantities of food that someone else has dictated (the mind, diets, books, gurus, etc.). So, under the circumstances, it tries to make the most out of what it is being given, because it simply knows it won't last –similar to what an adolescent would do, if she were allowed a single night out, with no restrictions, after having been restrained at home for weeks, or months –or even years.
What to do instead
If the source of our over/binge-eating is our self-imposed control and restriction, it makes sense that, instead of increasing control, which will only lead to further and stronger rebellion, we need to do exactly the opposite; lift the restriction, relax the pressure. If the deeper reason our body acts out, in a way that feels sabotaging, is because it does not trust us, we need to restore this trust, by giving it permission to eat what and how much it wants -without an expiry date, without guilt and without the threat of punishment by further restriction.
At the beginning, especially if you have been dieting for a long time and it has become a way of life for you, it might feel overwhelming. Suddenly, there is so much choice, so many options. Just take it slow and give yourself time to adjust to this new way of relating to food and your body. You might want to start with one meal a day, where you allow your body to take over and solely guide your food choices, and then build on that over time.
You might also notice, initially, the urge to eat all the food that you wouldn’t let yourself have before, and/or the same sense of urgency as when having a binge. This is the most crucial point; it is when we usually panic and are tempted to start dieting again and, simultaneously, our greatest opportunity to break the cycle.
Instead of reaching for the safety net of restriction, remind yourself that this is a normal response, for all the reasons discussed above, and assure your body that it is safe to relax and enjoy the food, because it will not be taken away this time. Remind it too that it is safe to stop when you are full, because you can have more of it later, or at any other time you truly want to. This simple permission-giving often releases a lot of the pressure and manic energy that typically accompanies a binge.
Rather than think about the calories and whether what you are having is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simply savour each bite. The more you enjoy the food, the deeper you will get satisfied and the less the urge to binge on it will be.
The minute you start seeing your body as a trusted friend, rather than a feared enemy, is the minute it actually turns into one. Of course, this is a (re)learning process that requires time and commitment, and which can be much easier to navigate with support. Habits are resistant and the mind can be tricky, so if you worry that you won’t be able to do it on your own, do not hesitate to reach out for help from someone who has the skills to safely guide you through it –it is possible and totally worth it.