Breaking the Binge-Restrict Cycle: Strategies for Sustainable Healthy Eating Habits
What is the binge-restrict cycle?
Many people struggle with maintaining a healthy relationship with food, especially in a culture that feeds us a steady diet of unhealthy, unrealistic, and unachievable messaging about what our bodies and lives should look like.
As a result, it’s not uncommon to fall into a cycle of binge eating followed by rigid calorie restriction, with the assumption that restricting food will “make up for” the binge. Instead, the restriction only perpetuates the cycle.
Because this approach doesn’t work for weight-loss or health, this behavior invariably leads to feelings of guilt and deep shame—and the binge-restrict cycle can also have negative effects on both your physical and mental health, including heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, and feelings of anxiety and depression.
Breaking the cycle is possible with the right strategies and mindset. It’s not a matter of harnessing willpower or self-control. Instead, digging into understanding the underlying causes will help you take back control, create sustainable habits, and develop a healthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime.
Understanding the binge-restrict cycle
The binge-restrict cycle is usually triggered by feelings of deprivation or restriction — stemming from calorie-counting diets, ingrained rules about “good” and “bad” foods, or feeling pressure to achieve and maintain a particular weight or size. These feelings of restriction and lack often lead to intense cravings for the very foods you’re trying to restrict, which can eventually result in binge eating episodes.
After a binge, feelings of guilt and shame often set in, which can then reinforce your drive to take even more drastic measures to control your food intake. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, craving, bingeing, guilt, and then more deprivation, and it’s hard to break.
But the binge-restrict cycle isn’t the result of any personal weakness or lack of willpower. Instead, it’s a body’s natural and predictable response to diet culture — including restrictive eating patterns and reaching for impossible beauty standards.
When you accept the truth that diets don’t work and that your dress size doesn’t determine your health or your worth, you have a firmer foundation for developing strategies to break this harmful cycle and develop sustainable eating habits for a happier and healthier future.
Strategies to break the cycle
Addressing the root causes of the binge-restrict cycle is the first step in breaking its hold. There are several effective strategies that can help, including mindful eating, cultivating a positive body image, and rejecting diet culture.
Mindful eating is the simple act of being fully present and engaged when you eat. This involves putting aside distractions like phones and TV screens and paying attention to all five senses while you’re eating — how your food looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels — in addition to actively noticing your body’s hunger cues.
It’s also important to note the thoughts and feelings that arise as you’re eating, and to accept them without judgment. When you savor every bite of food without distraction or judgment, you can more easily identify and address the emotional triggers that can lead to binge eating episodes.
Read more about how to develop a practice of mindful eating farther below.
Holding onto unrealistic ideals and expectations about your body can perpetuate the binge-restrict cycle, because you’re constantly comparing yourself to something you’re not, rather than accepting yourself where you are. When you instead embrace your unique shape and size in the moment, you’re saying “no” to external pressures to conform to unhealthy standards. Learning to accept and love who you are is an effective tool in eliminating any sense of deprivation that can lead to binge eating — and will lead to a happier and fuller life overall.
Calorie-restrictive diets by their very nature lead to feelings of deprivation, which can often trigger binge eating episodes. When you reject diet culture to instead focus on intuitive eating, and when you adopt the understanding that bodies can be healthy and strong at every size, you’re better able to cultivate healthy and sustainable eating habits for a lifetime.
Developing sustainable eating habits
Developing healthy eating habits requires effort and patience, but finding the rhythms and practices that fit your lifestyle and goals will support greater health and happiness for the long-term.
A few strategies that can help include meal planning, focusing on nutrient-dense foods, and making sure you’re getting regular physical exercise.
When you plan your meals and snacks in advance, it’s easier to make healthier choices. For instance, when you make a grocery list and stick to it, you can avoid processed and sugary foods and instead bring home more nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods. Plus, you can’t binge on salty, sugary snacks that aren’t in your cupboard.
And when you prepare your meals in advance — like spending a weekend afternoon making ready-to-go healthy meals for the week ahead — you can not only save time during the week but also prevent impulsive choices later when you’re feeling tired and hungry. You might even reduce food waste.
Rather than counting calories or trying to cut out certain foods, you can focus instead on eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods — including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Nutrient-dense foods provide your body with the nutrients you need to be healthy and strong. These healthy foods will also keep you feeling satisfied, so you’ll be less likely to fall into a binge-restrict cycle.
Regular exercise can improve your relationship with food and your overall well-being. Movement can reduce stress and boost your mood, which can help you avoid binge eating episodes. Find activities you enjoy — such as hiking, yoga, gardening, or dancing — and commit to engaging with your body on a regular and consistent basis.
Mindful eating to break the binge-restrict cycle
Mindful eating is a practice that brings you into greater awareness and intentionality around your eating habits. Developing a mindful eating practice can help break the binge-restrict cycle by deepening your connection with your body, getting to the root of any unhealthy eating habits, and cultivating a healthy relationship with food.
The first step in developing a mindful eating practice is to eliminate distractions. This means no eating lunch at your desk or watching television during dinner — and no checking email or scrolling through social media, either.
When you enjoy your meal in a calm and quiet environment, you can learn to savor your food. This includes focusing on all of your senses during your meal — how your food smells, what it looks like on your plate, what it sounds like when you take a bite, and what the food feels and tastes like in your mouth. You may also notice how a particular food makes you feel in your body — for instance, you might feel tired after consuming a sugary snack, while a fresh piece of fruit may leave you feeling energized.
Take your time when you’re eating, rather than rushing through a meal. You might try putting your utensils down between eat bite and chewing slowly. Mindful eating additionally involves a practice of gratitude, which can shift your mindset from restriction to abundance.
You will also want to pay close attention to your body’s cues for hunger and satiety, rather than letting external pressures like the time of day or how much food is on your plate dictate your eating behavior. If you’re eating only when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, overeating is unlikely.
It’s especially important to let go of any judgment you might feel about yourself or your eating habits. Mindful eating instead invites you to practice self-compassion, and to find satisfaction and pleasure in eating.
It can be difficult to break the binge-restrict cycle of eating, but it is far from an impossible task. Using these strategies and more, you can develop a healthier relationship with food, and you can reach out for professional help for support on this journey.
You can absolutely address and leave these harmful habits behind, and choose instead to develop healthier and sustainable eating habits. It might take time and patience, but a lifetime of improved well-being is worth the effort.
Our Eating Experts are Clinical Psychologists at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy that specialize in combining hypnosis and therapy for issues surrounding food. To get in touch or learn more about how combining therapy and hypnosis can help you, please contact us here.
To make an appointment, please click the button below:Appointments