Are you stuck in the Diet-Binge Cycle?

Sometimes you feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, fluctuating between two identities: the life where you’re a super human eating only the “healthiest” food groups, restricting calories, working out extra hard at the gym, basically going “all out.” Then there’s the other life: the life where you eat less healthy foods or junk foods, and you eat them in excess because “I was so good all week and I’m going to get back on track starting Monday. Soon I won’t be able to ice cream again so I might as well finish off the pint, right?”

Does this story sound familiar to you?

If so, you’re not alone.

This is not what actual healthy eating should look like. No matter if you’re vegetarian, vegan, paleo, gluten-free, counting your macros, or just trying to follow the food pyramid.

But this is how a large number of people function on a daily basis.

This experience is called the Diet Binge Cycle. It’s what happens when we get stuck in a cycle of restricting and binging. Not everyone who diets will experience this, but if you have, you know how much it sucks. It’s pretty simple really. You restrict, you indulge, you over indulge, you feel shame, you recommit to the restriction with the promise to do better. Rinse and repeat.

When you’re dieting it can be as simple as, “Well, I’ve already had one slice of pizza, might as well have three more.” Whereas if you weren’t dieting to begin with, and didn’t feel like this food was off limits, you may have been perfectly happy with two or three slices of pizza, knowing that you would always be able to have more if you wanted.

I experienced this recently after my 30-Day Sugar Reduction in October of 2018. The 30 Days I spent without sugar weren’t so bad, but I did miss sugar particularly when I was stressed out. I fantasized about what sugary treats my boyfriend and I would indulge in once we’d completed the challenge. I made a list: Sour Patch kids, dark chocolate, DQ frosty, cookies, etc. Stuff I normally wouldn’t have even thought about. What was meant to help me wean myself off excess sugar had the exact opposite effect and for at least the next two weeks (let’s be honest, next two months) I consumed more sugary treats than I had before.

Although it’s defined as a cycle I think this illustration from body & mindset coach Whitney Catalano explains it best.

Basically people stuck in this cycle live in two extremes, and it can really mess up your relationship to your body. If you feel like you can’t trust your body, like your body is something you have to force into submission and get under control, you may need to have a check-in with yourself. Is your body a gluttonous monster that can’t seem to stay lean, or is it just trying to cope within the Diet & Binge Cycle?

The only way to break the cycle is to stop restricting. To stop dieting. Easier said that done, I know, but that’s exactly what I’m trying to do right now. When you’re in this cycle and you stop restricting you’re going to (you guessed it) start binging, but this time, instead of promising yourself you’ll do better on Monday (or after the holidays) you just…let yourself keep eating. And eating. Until finally your body realizes that it doesn’t have to binge, because the food isn’t going away.

I know, it sounds scary if you crave that control. On this subject, Whitney writes:

“One of the hardest parts of diet recovery is waiting for that post-diet binge phase to naturally end. It’s easy to freak out about this natural need to binge during recovery because it feels like you’re going to binge for the rest of your life.

The pendulum is a reminder that binge eating for the rest of your life is just as unsustainable as dieting for the rest of your life.

You will eventually stop binge eating. But you have to give yourself permission to do so without jumping into a diet or restriction mindset in response.”

Now, as with most things, it’s a lot more complicated than just “stop dieting!” Our relationships with food and our bodies are interwoven with many other emotional factors. Food and controlling one’s food is often a coping mechanism for an underlying issue. It’s going to take some self-work and it’s going to take time. And that’s ok.

You may also find therapy helpful! I could write a whole article on the wonders of therapy, and I believe every person can benefit from it, when they’re ready.

Soooo this is where I’m at: After allowing myself to indulge over the holidays I got to the point where I didn’t feel deprived anymore. The binge period was over. By the time January rolled around I knew I had two options: get back on ride and start the new year off with a restrictive diet or trust that my body knows how to feed itself. I’m exploring the latter.

“But how? HOW EMMA? How do you not just eat cookies and chips and pizza all the time, without rules!? Without guidelines?!”

Well, I do have some guidelines. There’s this thing called the Intuitive Eating movement, which I will probably blog about in more detail in a future post, but for now I’ll share with you some of the basics I’ve lifted from that.

  1. I eat when I’m hungry and I don’t eat when I’m not hungry. My schedule is irregular, so it’s hard for me to have consist eating times anyway. I try not to eat late at night if I can help it, because I know it’ll make me feel gross the next morning, sometimes I do anyway.

  2. I buy foods that I want to eat. I love sweets, but I also love healthy food! When left to it’s own devices, my body doesn’t require constant junk. Right now in my kitchen you will find: apples, almond butter, Kashi Go Lean cereal, baked potatoes with a ground turkey/frozen veggie mix, pre-made salads from Trader Joe’s, whole wheat pasta, carrots and hummus, hot chocolate, etc.)

  3. I eat until I’m satisfied. No more and no less. Sometimes this means saving or throwing away 1/4 of whatever I was eating, rather than cleaning my plate. It could also mean going back for more.

  4. I try to be mindful about my choices. Last weekend I bought a bag of viking gummies at IKEA and ate 3/4 of the package plus 3 cookies all in one day. However, just a few days ago I didn’t buy the bag of cookies at Trader Joe’s that I wanted because I knew if I did I’d eat a cookie every day until the bag was gone. And I don’t really need that. Instead, I tried a free sample of the cookie at the free samples station, my craving was satisfied, and I moved on. Without remorse. I know those cookies are there and I can buy them whenever I want.

“But what if you gain weight?”

Well, I might. I DO like to work out regularly, so that factors into my overall health. But I might gain some weight. And maybe that will be ok. Have you ever thought about that?

At the end of the day YOU know what’s best for your body. You know what foods make you feel energized, satisfied, and happy. You know what foods might make you sick, whether it’s an allergy or a preference. You are the one who decides if a diet works for you or not. Just know, if you’re stuck in the Diet & Binge Cycle, it doesn’t have to be this way. This experience may be common, but it’s not healthy, and you can break out of it and live somewhere in the middle. It may takes a while (like, years) but it is possible. You just gotta…