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Beyond The Plate – Delving Into The Complexities Of Binge Eating Behaviors

Written by: Amparo Penny, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Amparo Penny

Binge eating is a nuanced behavior that goes beyond the simple act of consuming large quantities of food. While occasional overeating is common, such as having a second helping at special holiday events or indulging more than usual at the movies or a party, binge eating delves into a complex interplay of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Recognizing the multifaceted nature of binge eating is essential and requires an individual to adopt a holistic perspective to treat this behavior effectively. Distinct from sporadic overeating, binge eating transitions into a disorder when the behavior intensifies, becoming more frequent, obsessive, and disrupting an individual's routine. It is marked by a profound sense of loss of control during the episode, precipitating subsequent feelings of guilt, shame, and distress.


Photo of an iceberg.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), binge eating disorder (BED) is the second most common eating disorder, experienced by approximately 2.7% of women, 1.7% of men and 1.8% of adolescents. Binge eating disorder is distinguished by a regular occurrence of eating more food than most other people would in a similar situation. Other signs include:


  • Eating substantial amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a two-hour period.

  • Feeling that eating behavior is out of control.

  • Eating even when full or not hungry.

  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes.

  • Eating until uncomfortably full.

  • Frequently eating alone or in secret.

  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty, or upset about eating.

  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss. (courtesy of Mayo Clinic)

To tackle these behaviors effectively, it's vital to acknowledge that the roots of binge eating go much deeper, stemming from profound connections between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This article explores the intricate layers beneath the surface, specifically delving into the fear of losing control and dichotomous (black-or-white) thinking, and explores how intuitive eating principles and mindset shifts can play a crucial role in understanding and addressing binge eating triggers.


Fear of loss of control in binge eating


The fear of losing control is a significant emotional trigger that often underlies binge eating behaviors. This fear can manifest in various aspects of an individual's life, and when it becomes intertwined with eating habits, it creates a powerful and challenging dynamic. Binge eating may serve as a coping mechanism for individuals experiencing heightened stress, emotional turmoil, or situations where a person feels overwhelmed. The act of consuming large quantities of food becomes a way to regain a feeling of control in the face of external chaos. 


Another contributor to this fear is a person’s perceived inability to cope with unresolved emotions, usually due to a lack of other practical coping skills to deal with life's challenges. When individuals struggle to face their unresolved emotions, the fear of facing these emotions directly can lead to a desire for distraction and can drive individuals towards binge eating. Binge eating can provide a temporary escape, diverting from emotional pain and discomfort. It becomes a way to assert control over one aspect of their life when other areas may feel unmanageable or overwhelming.


Black-or-white/all-or-nothing thinking


Alongside the fear of loss of control, “black-or-white/all-or-nothing” thinking serves as another influential factor in the occurrence of binge eating. Black-or-white (all-or-nothing) thinking is also known as "dichotomous thinking," a typical cognitive thinking pattern involving viewing situations, emotions, or behaviors in extreme, polarized terms. Thinking in absolutes happens when someone only sees one extreme or another, such as viewing a situation as either "amazing" or "a disaster ." Anything that challenges these viewpoints is either ignored or discounted, leaving no room for in-betweens or shades of grey. In the context of binge eating, this cognitive distortion can significantly influence behaviors, emotions, and attitudes towards food.


Individuals who engage in black-or-white thinking often set rigid food rules, categorizing foods as either "good/bad" or "healthy/unhealthy ."This dichotomous labeling can create a sense of moral judgment around eating choices, as well as the person subsequently internalizing the judgments based on what they ate (i.e., "I ate something horrible. Therefore, I am horrible"). 


Dichotomous thinking, characterized by an all-or-nothing mindset, often intertwines with perfectionistic tendencies. Individuals subscribing to this belief feel compelled to execute tasks flawlessly, adhering to the notion that if something cannot be done perfectly, it doesn't count. For instance, someone might initiate a strict diet plan, a commitment that becomes challenging to sustain due to the regular ebb and flow of life. Faced with the certainty of deviations from their strict regimen, the individual may perceive any deviation as a drastic failure, akin to "falling off the wagon."


This perceived failure, especially when accompanied by instances of overeating, may trigger intense feelings of guilt and shame. In response, individuals may resort to compensatory behaviors like imposing severe dietary restrictions to "make up" for their perceived lapse. However, this restriction can inadvertently set the stage for rebellion against the self-imposed rules, initiating a pendulum swing toward the opposite extreme—binge eating.


This oscillation between strict adherence and indulgence in binge eating often stems from emotional distress and the absence of flexible thinking. Dichotomous thinking contributes to a negative self-perception, where the individual evaluates their success or failure solely based on their ability to adhere to rigid dieting rules. This distorted self-image establishes a cyclic pattern of shame and guilt surrounding episodes of binge eating, perpetuating the detrimental impact of dichotomous thinking on one's relationship with food, their body, and their self-worth.


It’s not “just” about the food – Go beneath the surface 


Intuitive eating, emphasizing tuning into the body's signals and fostering a healthy relationship with food, provides a holistic framework for understanding binge eating. This approach recognizes that it's not just about the food on the plate but also addresses emotional and mental aspects. Intuitive eating encourages a mindful approach that is integral to breaking the cycle of binge eating driven by the fear of losing control.


Intuitive eating helps break the binge eating cycle by 1) tuning into the body's natural hunger and fullness cues, 2) identifying triggers and patterns associated with the fear of loss of control, and 3) cultivating a sense of self-compassion. Intuitive eating encourages being present during meals, savoring each bite, and recognizing when the body is satisfied, promoting a more intuitive relationship with food. It also assists in identifying specific triggers and patterns associated with the fear of loss of control, which is a crucial step in developing tailored strategies to address these triggers and disrupt the cycle of binge eating. Finally, it helps the individual foster a sense of self-compassion as they work through the fear of loss of control, which can reduce the shame often linked with binge eating episodes. Intuitive eating reminds the individual that healing is a process and setbacks are a natural part of the journey. 


Mindset shifts are crucial for overcoming binge eating in the long term. Changing the perspective from viewing food as an enemy to understanding it as fuel, nourishment, and enjoyment is pivotal. Mindset shifts encourage the individual to focus on progress rather than perfection, celebrate small victories, and cultivate a flexible outlook rather than a rigid perspective.


Employing beneficial techniques from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a valuable approach to assist individuals in challenging dichotomous thoughts, exploring alternative perspectives, and discovering a more balanced middle ground in their relationship with food and self-image. Utilizing specific mindfulness techniques from DBT, such as breathing and grounding exercises, can help them stay present during moments of distress. Mindfulness exercises can be a powerful tool to navigate the unknown and regain a sense of control, especially when an individual feels that many aspects of their life are out of their control. 


DBT assists the individual in challenging their dichotomous thinking patterns by introducing room for flexible thinking; this can manifest as reframing negative thoughts into neutral ones, considering the grey areas, and exploring flexibility in eating habits. For example, instead of labeling a decision to eat a particular food (or food group) as a failure or "falling off the wagon," an individual can shift their mindset to recognize this as a part of a balanced and varied eating pattern. The individual can develop the skill to challenge the notion that situations, emotions, or food choices must be either perfect or disastrous. DBT reinforces the concept of “gray areas," emphasizing that life and eating habits can exist on a spectrum without the need for extreme categorizations.


Other aspects of DBT assist the individual in building emotional regulation skills to empower them to cope with challenging emotions without resorting to binge eating. This may include identifying and labeling emotions neutrally and developing sustainable coping mechanisms. One effective tool is the concept of "urge surfing," where the individual learns to “ride out” the waves of emotional intensity without acting on the urge to binge. This involves acknowledging the intense emotion and subsequent urge, observing it without judgment, and allowing it to pass naturally.


Conclusion


Understanding binge eating requires a nuanced exploration that goes beyond the mere act of consuming food; it involves going beneath the surface to uncover ineffective thinking patterns that contribute to the behavior. Understanding the fear of losing control is crucial for individuals to take proactive steps to empower themselves with effective coping strategies. Understanding dichotomous (black-or-white/all-or-nothing) thinking proves beneficial in comprehending how individuals may develop a negative self-perception, evaluating themselves as either successful or unsuccessful solely based on their adherence to rigid food rules. This distorted self-image can lead to a cycle of shame and guilt surrounding binge eating episodes. Fostering a more balanced mindset is crucial for individuals entrenched in black-or-white/all-or-nothing thinking patterns.


By embracing the holistic principles of intuitive eating and incorporating mindset shifts, individuals can unravel the complexity of their behaviors, address underlying triggers, and embark on a transformative journey towards a healthier relationship with food and themselves. Therapists and counselors play a pivotal role in helping individuals recognize and break free from black-or-white/all-or-nothing thinking patterns. Through ongoing support, education, mindfulness, and emotion regulation techniques, individuals can gradually shift towards a more flexible and balanced mindset, reducing the likelihood of binge eating behaviors driven by dichotomous thinking.


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Amparo Penny Brainz Magazine
 

Amparo Penny, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Amparo Penny is a licensed clinician and health and mindset coach, who helps people stop obsessing about food and their bodies and get their sanity back. She helps people end black or white thinking around food and exercise and change their mindset to developing healthy habits FOR LIFE. This was what helped to end her 20+ year battle with her body, yo-yo dieting, and using exercise as punishment. And now it's her mission to help others end this battle and find food freedom!

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