How to Stop a Binge in Its Tracks

How to stop binge eating before it does too much damage!

Posted Feb 14, 2019

Most people who struggle with binge eating say once they start to binge it takes on a life of its own... and they don't dare step in front of that locomotive speeding down the tracks until it's run it's course, usually through the end of the day at minimum.   

We can more affectionately describe this as the "screw it you already blew it" response, which may be the single most damaging thought an overeater can ever have.  "Screw it you already blew it" is what turns a few hundred extra calories into a few thousand.  Or five cupcakes into fifteen.  Or an extra slice of pizza into a whole box.  

But, as difficult as it may feel, there are ways to stop binge eating smack in the middle of a binge!

Acknowledge the Genuine Physical Components Which Contribute to the Binge.

If you want to learn how to stop binge eating, you'll need to consistently nourish your body, day in and day out.  It seems there may be an evolutionary mechanism in the brain which says something like "If calories and nutrition are scarce for significant periods of time then we'd better hoard them the moment they become available."  So fasting, dieting, skipping meals, etc. may set your body up for the very strong desire to binge the moment you cross the line, and it could signal to your brain that a concentrated form of calories is finally available.  (Most of us binge on concentrated sources of calories in bags, boxes, and containers... not broccoli.)  Eat regularly, reliably, and nutritionally, and your binging urges should become a lot more manageable. 

Also, if you've begun binging on sugar or flour, you've set a metabolic imbalance in motion with which you'll need to contend.  Sugar gives you a high for approximately 18 to 39 minutes, followed by the inevitable crash unless you forestall with (you guessed it) more sugar!  Your brain knows this and doesn't want to experience the suffering, so this part of the "locomotive" is biologically genuine.  The solution is to "take the early pain" because, as they say in business "your first losses are your cheapest losses."   The crash is inevitable, so get it out of the way and get your body back on a healthy, nourishing cycle as quickly as you can.  (Some water, leafy greens, and very light exercise can also help re-stabilize your system.)

Address the Fight or Flight Elements of the Binge.

A binge feels like an emergency in your body.  It's almost as if you actually needed those chocolate bars, chips, pretzels, pizza, etc. to prevent starvation... as if someone was going to find your bones by the refrigerator in the morning if you didn't eat them right there and then.  We think that's because your fight or flight mechanism has been activated.  Your brain and body are getting all revved up for what it thinks is a scarce and essential opportunity to grab the "food" resource.  ("Food in quotes because much of what we binge on today is more of a "food-like substance" manufactured by industry rather than anything that nature truly intended for us.)

Thankfully there are reliable ways to take your body out of this emergency state.  Some of them may seem trite, but they can work wonders, so please don't dismiss them prematurely:

  • Say, "Feelings Aren't Facts!"  Remind yourself that just because every bone in your body feels like you need to binge more in order to survive, it doesn't mean you actually have to.  This is the go-to "wake up" mantra you can use the moment you realize you're under the influence of a binging urge.  Then, once you're "awake" and realize what's happening...
  • Welcome the Craving: You can't eliminate cravings without having cravings.  Experiencing a craving and not giving in means it will be weaker next time.  The only way to extinguish cravings is to go through them.  They usually get remarkably better within 100 hours after you've changed your behavior.  You might be only 100 hours from freedom!
  • Tense All Your Muscles and Take a Very Deep Breath:  Take a whopping deep breath and tense up all your muscles... then let it all go as you sigh out in relief.  Repeat this at least three times.  What you're doing here is trying to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.  That's the part of your neurology that slows you down and takes you out of fight or flight mode.  It's what would be active to bring your heart rate back to normal and get you to stop sweating once danger had passed in nature... e.g., the tiger was nowhere to be seen anymore. 
  • Neutralize Illogical Thoughts:  Once you're out of fight or flight mode, you'll be in a much better position to deal with the illogical thoughts which sustain a binge.  For example, if you have the thought, "I already bought it so I have to eat it," tell yourself that if it's not good for your body, that it's much better off in the garbage than in your stomach, starving children in Asia notwithstanding.  Or if you find yourself thinking, "This is my last chance to eat something like this," tell yourself that's absolutely not true.  You're a free human being in a free society—you can choose to eat whatever you want whenever you want. You're just making the judgment now to eat healthily.  (If you always use the present moment to eat healthily, then you'll always eat healthily.)  Or perhaps you hear the thought, "It doesn't make a difference, you can just start again tomorrow," in your head.  If so, remind yourself that our brains work in such a way as to strengthen the connection between urges and behaviors that are repeated together.  So if you indulge in the urge today, you'll have an even harder time resisting tomorrow.  "If you're in a hole, stop digging!"  

Once you've stopped the binge, it's important to ask yourself whether there was indeed an authentic hunger underneath.  Sometimes that's emotional, but more often I find with my clients it's actually physical, and they need to find some healthy food to "seal the deal" and banish the overeating urge.

For more information on a system you can use to stop overeating and binge eating please see my Psychology Today blog post "How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps."