Have you ever felt like you’re stuck in a dieting loop?
You try a new diet, hoping for weight loss. You feel good for a while, and then eventually the diet becomes harder to follow. You stop making progress…and -frustrated and hungry – you binge. You feel guilty, ashamed, and like a failure. So you go back on the diet. And the cycle begins anew.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re probably caught in the binge and restrict cycle.
In this article, I detail what causes the binge restrict cycle and walk you through five steps to finally break free from bingeing.
Let’s do it.
What causes the binge restrict cycle?
Restriction has another name…
That amazing new meal plan or “lifestyle change” you saw on TikTok or Instagram, no matter how alluring at first, is probably a restrictive diet. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Restrictive eating eventually leads us to feelings of deprivation, even those plans that allow “free foods” or “unlimited vegetables” or whatever gimmick helps the plan claim it is not a restrictive diet.
But I call shenanigans!
If it restricts foods, food groups, calories, macros or eating times, it’s a diet. One of the harms of dieting is binge eating and the shame that can go along with it.
While dieting, to cope with feelings of deprivation, you start bingeing on all of the foods you’re cutting out. This leads to guilt, which then leads you back to restriction, and the cycle starts all over again. Ugh.
The biology of the binge restrict cycle
This cycle is not your fault. It’s actually your biology in action trying to protect you from what the brain perceives as a famine. The brain can’t tell the difference between a restrictive diet and a famine. Your body’s protective reaction is all the same.
When you diet, the brain slows down your metabolism to conserve energy. At the same time, it sends out hormone signals that make you hungry, inducing you to eat.
This protective mechanism helps your body recover from the “famine” and protects you from future famines by adding on a little extra weight.
So, if the binge restrict cycle were a fire, restriction is the match – and a heavy splash of lighter fluid.
Stress and emotions feed the binge restrict cycle
Stress can also contribute to binge eating and to the binge cycle. Even in the absence of restriction, some folks use food to soothe their emotions. Using food as a coping mechanism is not always a problem, but using it as your ONLY way to self-soothe can perpetuate binges.
Coping with the guilt, shame and feelings of failure brought on by deprivation and bingeing only feeds the binge restrict cycle. In our fire metaphor, stress and emotions are the kindling.
So many dieters feel they have no control around food because of the stress and emotional toll restriction takes on the brain and body. Without understanding the science behind the harms of dieting, folks identify as emotional eaters. Some even feel addicted to food and believe food avoidance is the solution.
In the absence of restriction, however, when people give themselves unconditional permission to eat what they want, when they want, emotional eating lessens and feelings of food addiction diminish and even disappear. It seems counterintuitive, but it works.
So, figuring out if you are restricting and finding ways to cope with difficult emotions can be key in helping to break free from this pattern.
How do I know if I’m restricting?
Most clients I see don’t believe they are restricting or dieting, when in fact, the “wellness” lifestyle or food rules they’ve adopted over the years add up to restriction, either physical or mental.
Physical restriction and mental restriction fuel the binge restrict cycle. Let’s take a closer look at each and why they contribute to bingeing.
Physical restriction happens when you’re withholding food for any reason. Examples of physical restriction include:
- Calorie restriction/counting (Noom, MyFitnessPal, WW, etc.)
- Macro counting
- Time-based restriction, such as intermittent fasting
- Food group restriction (like low carb diets, no processed foods, etc.)
Generally, following any program that decides for you what, when or how much you’ll eat will lead to restriction of some kind.
Physical restriction fuels binge eating for many reasons, including but not limited to:
- The diet does not meet the body’s total energy needs (a.k.a. calorie needs), increasing hunger signals.
- The body’s need for a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) is out of whack, which increases cravings.
- Without adequate nutrition, the body produces fewer mood boosters, like serotonin and dopamine, prompting folks to seek food to cope with negative mood.
- Because of lack of nutrition, the body may not be able to produce enough hormones to regulate appetite normally.
- Feelings of guilt, shame, failure or other complex emotions prompt us to use food as a coping mechanism.
Physical Restriction Examples
To illustrate this, let’s say you’re following the Keto diet or the Whole30, both of which limit starchy carbohydrates. If you’re not getting enough carbs, your brain will send some hard-to-ignore cravings your way for – guess what – carbs!
Low carb devotees sometimes call a binge a “cheat day.” But when you zoom out, what you can see is happening is a restrict – binge – restrict – binge cycle that won’t end until the restriction does.
Another example – maybe you eat just enough to meet a daily calorie goal, under what your body actually needs, because you want to lose weight. But you find that at night you get REALLY hungry. You might even feel out-of-control around some foods.
This feeling of being out-of-control or needing to “cheat” is your biology responding to a lack of energy (i.e. your calorie goal is too low) or imbalanced nutrition (not enough carbs in the above example). A hormone cascade of hunger signals brings on a binge to compensate for the restriction.
Mental restriction often is harder to recognize, but it frequently comes in the form of food rules. For example, “I can’t eat past 7pm,” or “I can only eat sweets on the weekends,” or “I can’t keep ice cream in the house” are examples of mental restriction.
Diet culture fuels mental restriction by constantly changing the rules. Wellness companies create a demand for their product by increasing our dissatisfaction with our bodies or eating choices. We respond with the desire to “fix” ourselves or keep up with the latest trend. It never ends.
Mental restriction examples
Let’s take a look at how diet culture fads turn into mental restriction:
1) The gluten-free trend
The notion that gluten free diets are somehow healthier for the general population caught fire in the 2010s and hasn’t gone away. Gluten free diets are not “healthier” for you unless you are allergic/sensitive to gluten.
Nonetheless, the trend has led many to this restrictive thought – “I should avoid gluten” – and added yet another log to the fire fueling binge eating.
2) The “sugar is poison” debacle
The idea being perpetuated by influencers and others that sugar is “poisonous” and will cause diabetes (it is not poisonous and does not cause diabetes) has caused widespread harm.
Restrictive thoughts such as “I have to cut out all sugar,” are actually disordered and have contributed to eating disorders such as orthorexia nervosa.
3) The low carb fad
The suggestion that carbs cause weight gain and that they should be cut or limited in our diets (they don’t – in fact, the brain is fueled exclusively by glucose only available in carbs) has stuck around, yet hasn’t improved our collective health.
It has, however, encouraged restrictive thoughts such as “I shouldn’t eat carbs,” which perpetuates feelings of guilt when eating carbs, the binge restrict cycle, and disordered eating.
These diet culture examples add an emotional layer to restriction: if we break the rules, we are bad – a failure.
Or if we don’t follow the latest wellness trend, we wonder if we’ll be unhealthy or fall ill to a disease.
Or we worry we’ll lose the camaraderie of following the same “lifestyle” as our friends or gym buddies. The shame, loneliness and negative emotion that ensue and all fuel the restrict and binge cycle.
Five tips to break the binge restrict cycle
Tip #1: Find balance without restriction
My top tip for halting the restrict binge cycle is to eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. Start with a meal within 1-2 hours after you wake up. Eat enough at each meal to stay satisfied for 3-5 hours.
Satisfying meals and snacks have several basic components:
- Proteins – the building blocks of the body
- Fruits and veggies – fiber-filled, vitamin-packed goodies
- Starches and whole grains – for satisfaction, brain-power and long-lasting energy
- Fats – provide flavor, vitamins and help keep you fuller longer
- Fun foods – to keep feelings of deprivation at bay
See my article on building a nourishing meal for longer explanations of each meal component above.
I recommend eating three or more components in a meal and two or more components in a snack. Examples could include:
Breakfast: Avocado toast slices with eggs and strawberries
(fat + carbs + protein + fruit)
Lunch: Tuna salad rollups with lettuce, pickle slices, tomatoes, fruit, potato chips
(protein + fat + carbs + veggies + fruit + fun food)
Dinner: Thai curry with mixed veggies, tofu, chopped peanuts, rice noodles, mango + sticky rice
(veggies + protein + fat + carbs + fruit + fun food)
Snack: Greek yogurt with blueberries and walnuts
(protein + fruit + fat)
Having some fun foods on a regular basis – sweets or savory snacks like cookies or chips – not only keeps meals interesting and tasty, but also including them makes it less likely you will binge on them. All foods can fit in a healthy eating pattern.
Tip #2: Be mindful while you eat
Mindfulness is an inside job. Paying attention to your internal hunger cues (link to hunger article) and responding with a meal or snack is the first step to becoming more attuned to your hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues.
As you eat, slow down. Take notice of the flavors and textures of your food. Savor each bite.
Half way through your meal, pause and ask yourself:
- Am I enjoying this food?
- Am I still hungry for this?
- How much more do I need to feel comfortably full?
Try to stop eating when you’re satisfied and full but not stuffed. If you’ve been either under-eating or eating past fullness, this process may take practice. But stick with it! Practicing attunement can really improve your relationship with food.
Tip #3: Make peace with all foods, especially your binge foods
Incorporating binge foods into your meals and snacks can feel really scary at first. But giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods helps stop binge eating.
Keep your binge foods in the house. (I know what you’re thinking and, no, I’m not crazy!) Stop restricting the foods you crave and give yourself permission to eat them as often as you like. This often takes the support of a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor or eating disorders Registered Dietitian.
Eating “forbidden” foods on a regular basis as a part of your meals or snacks (rather than as the main event) helps you habituate to them. Ice cream and chips lose their allure and power when you can have them any time you want.
Tip #4: Be gentle with yourself
Show yourself some kindness if you eat past fullness. Remember that you are human, and humans are not perfect. And, it’s nearly impossible to fight your biology if you have been dieting or restricting. Remember, we’re wired for survival.
If you do have a binge, don’t beat yourself up about it. Practice talking to yourself with a compassionate voice. Eating past fullness is not a moral failure. Tune into your body and let the next meal or snack be another opportunity to practice tips 1, 2 and 3.
Tip #5: Seek professional help
If you find that you can’t seem to break free from the binge and restrict cycle on your own, professionals like me are here to help.
A Registered Dietitian, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor or therapist who specializes in disordered eating behaviors can help you get to the root of your problem and work with you to develop a plan for moving forward.
If your binge eating has progressed into an eating disorder, you may need an eating disorder treatment team to help you break the cycle. Binge eating disorder deserves attention and eating disorder recovery is possible with help.
If you’re stuck in the binge and restrict cycle, know that you are not alone. Be gentle with yourself, aim for balance in your eating habits, and seek professional help if you’re struggling. With patience and perseverance, you can develop a healthy relationship with food that will last a lifetime!
Hello there! I’m Britt, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. I can help you find freedom from life-long dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders. When I’m not writing about ditching diet culture, joyful movement or improving body image, you can find me hiking in Vermont’s Green Mountains, eating pizza, making modern quilts or sipping a hot cup of tea. Let’s connect!