One of the biggest issues I hear clients and friends struggling with is binge eating. Many people will come into the gym I work at and when asked about their nutrition, they say "well... I'm trying. But you know, sometimes, I'll be really good, and then sometimes I'll be really bad." It breaks my heart to hear this because I know how hard it is to break that cycle.
When I was in college there was a time where I would eat well all day, I would get my workouts in, have a great shift at work, and on the way home pick up a bag of puffy cheetos, peach rings, and either crackers or chocolate and I would finish that all in one night. Once the body gets used to that amount of calories and sugar it becomes incredibly difficult to cut that out of the diet. These "episodes" are usually linked to an activity as well, which makes it even more difficult. My habit was work, pick up the snacks, get home, hide myself in my room, turn on Netflix, and then wolf all of that food down.
In order for me to break those habits I stopped bringing money with me to work, so I wasn't able to stop at the convenience store on my way home. I also decided to read instead of watch Netflix before bed. It has taken time, and I still feel that draw to consume bite-sized snacks while I watch Netflix, but it certainly does not have the same control over me anymore.
I truly believe that knowledge is power, so this week I am going to break down why we binge eat, what the certain characteristics of Binge Eating Disorder (BED) are, and quickly delve into food addiction. Hopefully with this information and your own self-awareness, you too will be able to help yourself, or those around you, manage their binge eating episodes. :)
So what is BED?
BED is the acronym for Binge Eating Disorder. The National Eating Disorder Association describes BED as :
Binge eating disorder is a severe, life-threatening and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating.
The next sentence from the website then says that BED is the most common eating disorder in the US. . . Just let that sink in.
In an article published in the Current Drug Abuse Review, they included a test that was done on rats where they were given highly-palatable foods. The rats consumed larger-than-normal quantities of the food despite the negative consequence - and not just the regular discomfort. They would actually shock the rats feet when they had consumed large enough amounts, and even then, the rats would not stop eating. The important piece here is the "highly-palatable" foods.
The New York Times published an article in 2013 on "The Extraordinary Science Being Addictive Junk Food". Now I have to say, I am not angry person. I have a hard time getting mad or angry at/with people. But this article really made the steam come out of my ears. I will give you the quick summary.
The article told the story of a meeting of the major food brands in the world - Coca-Cola, Kellogs, Nestle, etc. The CEO's met to discuss the obesity crisis in the US and in this meeting they were presented over 100 slides about the obesity "epidemic" and that many of their products had high concentrations of salt, sugar, fat (ie. highly palatable food), which are the largest contributors to unhealthy weight gain. After the presenter finished explaining how there needs to be industry wide limits set on these products, the CEO of General Mills brought up the "fickle" consumers. His point was basically that we can produce all the healthy versions of things as we want, but people will always buy what they want to eat, so why bother changing the standards. Cue the cartoon-like steam bellowing out of my ears and upside-down smiley faces.
(I promise this has to do with binge-eating, just bare with me.)
So when I was going to the convenience store after work, I could have grabbed the protein drink thing, or just not go to the convenience store, but when I was seeking out comfort and something to "treat" myself, I was walking into a trap. All of those foods we love to eat during these binge eating episodes have literally been designed to be delicious and tempting. Clever marketing schemes, ingredients, and these large companies involvement in "research" studies so the results are favourable to them - have all been used strategically to make us buy more. Now I get to the fun part - a little bit of neuroscience! (simplified - of course).
We now know that these large corporations are using marketing and specific ingredients to make us uncontrollably crave their products more. So why can't we just have it once and be okay? Why do we feel like the pull to McDonald's, the candy store, and Pizza Pizza is impossible to resist?
It is widely understood that the consumption of food is highly related to the reward systems in the brain. Many substances that individuals develop addictions too also feed these reward systems. Endorphins, cannabinoids, and enkephalins (peptides related to endorphins), are released when these substances are consumed and give us that high feeling. When we consume foods that are highly palatable (told you I would tie this all together), we get a greater response from these systems. When the binge-eating episode is done, we are left with a number of receptors in the brain that are waiting to be filled by these neuro-chemicals. The longer you go without filling these receptors, the more agitated you feel.
You brain has created more receptors for these happy "hormones", but you aren't filling them. So if you aren't registering any more happy hormones, you must feel angry then? Agitation, anger and stress all cause the body to move farther from homeostasis into the fight-or-flight system. The brain will try and get your body back to the rest-and-digest by sending you signals to find something to satisfy your cravings - to make you happy again. For some, they reach for harmful drugs, but for most of us who understand the dangerous effects of addictive substances, we reach for comfort foods. All of these mechanisms are really well explained in this article, just have google ready to figure out some of the more technical terms.
So what does this all mean? And what can you do about it?
Basically what this means is that big corporations have exploited the mechanisms in our brains that are supposed to keep us relaxed and happy to put more money in their pockets. What's worse is that society then puts massive pressures on us to eat healthy, and look like supermodels, so when we do give in the pressures of the food industry, we have the fashion and fitness industry making us feel guilty. More sadness = more desire for comfort foods.
So what can you do about it? Here are my tips and tricks to help kick those cravings and take back the control.
1. Take it slow
There are some people out there who can do the cold turkey thing and it actually lasts. They are not the majority. So I always like to suggest to my clients to take it slowly. Ease into changing your ways. Being overwhelmed by a massive change in lifestyle can be more stressful than helpful, and as we know now - stress = comfort food.
2. Treat Yo'Self
This may seem counterintuitive to what we are trying to accomplish, but it is actually really important. Often times when people feel like they are being restricted, they end up over-indulging and then giving up entirely. So the next tip I give my clients is to pick a day where you treat yourself to one thing that you love. I don't suggest they eat an entire tub of ice cream, or a large pizza to themselves, but I do think it is important to allow ourselves enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Just not every day ;)
3. Check in with your mental health
The final piece of advice I give clients is to check in with themselves. As I have mentioned, many binge-eating episodes are related to stress and sadness. So I work with my clients to practice celebrating "little-wins", to evaluate the health of all relationships in their life, and to check-in with their stress levels. Toxic relationships, negativity, and unnecessary stress can make it really difficult to get your mental health in the kind of place where you feel confident enough to change your ways. If people around suck the energy out of you, and your job is making you so stressed that you are letting other aspects of your life fall apart, you will start to believe that you are not worthy of good health. So I really try to help my clients work on their mental health, as well as their physical health.
It is really tough to avoid the temptation to indulge in the foods that have been designed to tempt us, but I hope with the information I have presented today, along with a plan to keep your mind well, that you feel better equipped to beat those cravings and do something really good for you body :)
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's most recent research, her travel adventures, and her personal fitness journey.