(This post is dedicated to coach Ben Tormey for helping me finally kill my inner binge demons. If you are in need of someone to help you cope with binge eating, there is no one that I recommend more highly than Ben.)
I've struggled with binge eating for as long as I can remember.
Some people might be shocked by this, but for those of you who know me offline and have seen me scarf down not just one whole – but two or more pizzas – you already knew this.
For the most part my binge eating is completely under control; that is, I only binge eat for funsies. Let's face it, there are few things more fun than shoveling a bevy of delicious pastries down your throat until you create the perfect environment for mandatory nap time. I take that back. It's more fun if it's after all-you-can-eat sushi.
Anyway, I don't know anyone with a more powerful "inner fat kid" than myself. Here's how I was able to squash binge eating in its tracks for both me and my clients:
1. Fix the physiological triggers.
In my experience, the cause of binge eating can be broken into both the physiological and psychological.
Astute readers will realize that I've always said that you can never truly decouple these two things, but here's what I mean – there is almost nothing that you can do to stop binge eating if you create a physiological environment that creates insatiable hunger. In particular, there are two things that will physiologically cause this to happen:
- Excessive cardio. (For some reason, this seems to impact women more than men.)
- An overly-aggressive calorie deficit.
I always start here if a client has binge eating issues. If you are trying to control your binge eating and doing excessive cardio you need to drop all cardio until you get your binge eating issues under control. Yes, all cardio. You can always slowly bring cardio back later.
If cardio is not the issue, then it's important to check your calorie and protein intake.
As a rule of thumb, work your way up to 12-13x your weight in calories for women and 13-14x your weight in calories for men. You should be consuming at least your weight in grams of protein and slowly increasing your carbohydrates to hit your caloric goals after that requirement is met.
It's worth noting that I train about 80 people in Fitocracy's "Weight Loss Made Simple" group. Most of the students have 20-30% or more of their bodyweight to lose and also suffer from binge eating. A majority of these cases were resolved after getting men and women to consume upwards of 200g and 150g of protein respectively. (The patterns in obese individuals that I have seen warrant a whole separate article... or book...)
2. Manage your willpower.
Whenever I travel home to my family's house, I always feel the urge to binge. I haven't figured out exactly why, but I suspect that it has something to do with going from my New York apartment's paltry pantry to my sister's cooking – which, if I had to use one word to describe, it would be "crack." (My sister runs epicureanbb.com)
About a dozen times over the last three years, I tried to will myself to abstain from binging. Almost all dozen of those times, I failed. It took far too much willpower to abstain. Each time that I failed, my self-esteem took a bit of a hit.
The last few times, I tried something different. I planned to fail.
I dieted perfectly the week leading up to my trip home and then fasted all the way up until I got home. Once home, I binged on as much as I wanted and tried to practice moderation. (Tried being the key word.)
The result? A much lower intake in overall calories (There was barely a blip on the scale. Compare to the usual +5 lbs in water weight.) without needing to dip into my precious willpower stores, as well as the feeling of control throughout the entire trip home.
There is a world's difference in planning a binge vs. attempting to abstain from binging and losing self control. The latter will tax your motivation and willpower far more than the former.
You should always err towards planning to fail for a special occasion, rather than leave adherence to chance. In particular, birthdays, holidays, and big feasts should be planned. Don't assume that you're just going to will yourself to get through these events unscathed.
3. Use a "totem."
I want you to think about the phenomenon of dreaming for a second. In particular, the fact that when you're dreaming, you never know that you're in a dream.
Think about just how incredible this is. Seriously. Your dream might contain pink elephants walking around, pigs flying, and Quest protein bars growing on trees, all while you're trying to finish your last exam to graduate from school, and you still won't know that it's a dream.
Binge eating is no different. Before every binge begins, it is preceded by a psychological trigger. Think of this trigger as a little voice inside your head saying something along the lines of:
"It's ok to eat one more pistachio, Dick. It's just one more."
"You had a great week of dieting, Dick. Time to gorge yourself with cake."
"I know that you're super hungry now, so go ahead and binge. You can always fast the next day."
If you take note of the thoughts that precede every binge, you'll only end up with one or two. These are binge-inducing thought patterns.
If you examine the times that these thoughts have occurred, you'll realize that their rationale is completely false. Examine them objectively; historically, you've never benefitted from giving in to these thoughts.
Guess what. These binge-inducing thought patterns are no different than dreams in that you don't know that they're occurring while they're occurring. That is, your binge will seem just as rationally justified as stopping at a red light or taking out the garbage when it smells too much.
So how do you stop these thought patterns from occurring? You can't. You can only disrupt them.
In the movie Inception (which, by the way, might be the best movie of all time, and I will fight you to the death if you disagree with this statement) the characters all have a "totem" which tells them whether or not they're in a dream. A totem might be something like a spinning top or a Rubik's cube. Characters are extremely familiar with their totems and can sense the difference between their totem within a dream vs. their totem in real life.
Similarly, I want you to create a "totem" around these thought patterns. Rather than an object, your totem will be a checklist of characteristics belonging to a particular thought pattern.
For example, I'll often feel the urge to binge when I accidentally go over my caloric maintenance during a diet. This urge/thought pattern has the following characteristics which I will use as my "totem."
- It's triggered when I'm approaching caloric maintenance on a day that I should be at a caloric deficit.
- It's justified by the notion that I can just fast the next day.
- I'll feel the thought pattern start to "egg me on." It will tell me that I could benefit from binging, because if I have a mini-binge then fast the next day, I'll consume less overall calories.
- It's usually accompanied by the feeling of anxiousness, loss of control.
- I'm usually with someone else.
- I'm six drinks in or more.
Let's say that I feel this urge coming on. I mentally go through this checklist and objectively think about whether it meets the characteristics. For the most part, I realize that this thought pattern matches my totem.
I then objectively examine the historical results by giving in to this thought pattern and see that binging will leave me feeling worse off overall. The sheer examination of this thought pattern acts as a disruptor, and I am less likely to binge because of it.
I used to think that overcoming binge eating meant that I no longer felt the urge to binge. On the contrary, I'm now quite positive that because of the way I'm hardwired, I will always feel the urge to binge eat. But the tools above are just enough to keep the demons away.
That is, unless I encounter this bad boy again...
(14 restaurant minute record for consuming the Pho Challenge, baby!)