Have you ever found yourself standing at the pantry, wrist-deep in a jar of extra-crunchy peanut butter with a pile of king-size candy bar wrappers at your feet?
If so, you’re not alone.
Binge eating is an increasingly common behavior characterized by the intense and immediate urge to devour food, often in large quantities.
Sufferers frequently report feeling powerless and ashamed during and after an episode. As a body image counselor and eating psychology coach, I work frequently with clients who binge.
Although it's complex and challenging to reform (due in large part to the compounding emotional, cultural, nutritional, behavioral, and biological triggers that influence the “out-of-control” drive to eat) one tool that I’ve found invaluable for reducing binge eating and regaining sanity around food is inquiry.
Curiosity during compulsive-eating experiences offers gentle, real-time opportunities to investigate beliefs, identify needs, and modify behavior. So, the next time you find yourself sprinting to the kitchen with dreams of devouring BBQ chips by the fistful, stop and take this quick survey instead:
1. Am I hungry?
2. Will eating satisfy me?
3. Is that true?
The first three questions may seem redundant, but they’re absolutely essential. Oftentimes binge eating is initiated by reasons other than physical hunger.
Many people peruse their cabinets in search of entertainment, comfort, and peace of mind—none of which are satisfied by food. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with emotional eating (everybody does it), binge eating results when we curb our underlying sentiments through frantic, guilt-ridden consumption.
These mood-related cravings are less associated with biology than they are habit. That's why taking a moment to investigate whether or not you are experiencing physiological hunger cues is vital in determining what you’re truly craving when the urge to binge strikes.
4. What do I really need in this moment?
If physical hunger isn't at the root of your desire to eat, you may benefit from redirecting your energy toward other forms of self-care.
Do you need a nap or a good cry? Do you want to call a friend or get outside in the fresh air? Would you benefit from taking a jog or getting a massage? Do you have thoughts and feelings that you need to process through writing, prayer, or meditation? Do you need a hot shower? Do you want a hug? Should you clear your schedule, take time off of work, or ask someone for help?
5. Am I sitting down?
6. Have I put my food in a dish?
7. Am I undistracted?
8. Am I willing to eat slowly and mindfully?
Now, assuming that you are, in fact, hungry or are consciously choosing to eat emotionally, the above four questions will help to deflate the “out-of-control” aspects of bingeing and bring a level of peace and relaxation to the experience.
Can you recall a time when you stood nibbling at leftovers in the chill of the open refrigerator, feeling no less hungry minutes later than when you first began? That’s because the brain plays such a large role in metabolic function and appetite regulation that distracted grazing rarely proves satiating.
However, sitting down, slowing down, and using beautiful tableware helps to activate and engage the senses, making it much easier to tune into your body and enjoy the pleasures of nourishment without becoming uncomfortably stuffed.
Allowing yourself to eat whatever it is that you want with awareness and dignity often leads to decreased consumption and decreased stress.
9. Am I still hungry?
At some point during a binge, take a moment to assess whether or not you are STILL hungry. You don’t need to polish off the bag of chips or scrape the bottom of the cookie jar to declare an end.
Instead, consider stopping when you no longer feel the overwhelming impulse to munch.
10. How does my body feel?
Is the roof of your mouth sore from downing salty snacks? Is your stomach feeling bloated? How is your head? Are you feeling jittery or sluggish? For many people, binge eating is an out-of-body experience.
Checking in with yourself and intentionally evaluating your physical symptoms can help to increase awareness and stop a binge in its tracks. When you notice that a self-soothing behavior has resulted in unpleasant sensations, it’s much easier to put down the cereal box and move on.
For even more insight and added recovery power, continue with curiosity AFTER a binge by asking:
11. What am I restricting?
Many binges are the direct result of restriction—either mental or physical. So, get honest with yourself and inventory your food rules.
If your thoughts around eating include judgment and guilt, or if you’ve vilified certain foods and macronutrients in an effort to manipulate your body, binges are probable.
12. What do I really need?
Now that the compulsion to eat is behind you, remember the question you asked yourself BEFORE the binge, “What do I really need in this moment?”
Recall your ideas and consider what realistic actions you can take in the future to cope with unwanted feelings, to reward yourself, or to unwind.
While emotional eating is a normal human behavior, most binge eaters experience an imbalance wherein food is the primary means of self-care. Expanding your arsenal of coping mechanisms and forgoing food-related judgment can certainly lessen the disparity.
13. What can I learn from this experience?
After recovering from a binge, stop to consider what underlying issues the binge might represent. What can you learn from the details of when, where, how, and why bingeing took place?
Does your compulsive-eating history reveal patterns or common elements that could be investigated further? What personal thoughts, toxic dietary beliefs, or undesirable circumstances do you sense are contributing to “out-of-control” feelings around food?
Inquiry is certainly not an immediate cure for binge eating. But when practiced regularly, it transforms compulsive eating into an act of personal discovery and becomes an empowering step toward food freedom that significantly decreases the duration, frequency, and volume of binges.
When you learn to surrender to the eating experience and elevate questions over condemnation, there’s bound to be much more self-compassion and fewer candy bar wrappers at your feet.