HOW TO STOP BINGE EATING AND STICK TO YOUR DIETBy Glenn Livingston Ph.D.
I’ll begin at the end – working with over 1,000 binge eating clients over the years has taught me it’s quite possible to stop binge eatingWe"ve surveyed 312 clients who actively participated in our binge eating coaching program over the last 12 months. On average, these clients experienced a 90.5% reduction in binge eating frequency (after 30 days). Many of them experienced a 100% reduction. even if you’ve been bingeing forever. For some clients, undoing the binging habit that has been haunting them for decades only took four days (100 hours.)
However, successfully eliminating a binging habit is a counterintuitive process. While it does require some will power, that willpower must be applied in the right way, or else even more binging is almost inevitable.
But before we dive into the details, permit me to introduce myself…
My name is Glenn Livingston. I hold a Ph.D. in Psychology and write a column for Psychology Today on the topics of binge eating and eating disorders. I’ve also written half a dozen books on the subject.
But enough about me, let’s talk about how you can stop overeating once and for all. And what better place to start than with what makes people binge in the first place?
Why it's so easy to form bad eating habits
Up until not so long ago (a few thousand years), almost every human being on earth had to work their butt off to get a meal. For literally hundreds of thousands of years we had to chase animals for hours, dig in the ground, and/or climb trees to obtain no more than a measly amount of sustenance. Because of this, our brains evolved to identify even the faintest food cues, as well as to overcome obstacles standing in the way of obtaining it. We became habit-forming, automaticity seeking machines to make obtaining the food easier, less dangerous, and more efficient.
For example, the first humans who tried to harvest honey probably mimicked a bear they’d witnessed raiding a hive. At first they likely tried using their bare hands, but quickly learned that bees were a major obstacle. After all, they were human, not bears!
But perhaps because our species is incredibly resourceful, we probably then figured out that throwing rocks at the hive until the majority of the bees fled was a much better idea than getting stung repeatedly.
Eventually, it likely occurred to one of us to follow a bee spotted in the wild back to its hive.
And a habit formed…
The cue/trigger -> A bee
The action –> Following the bee, hiding, throwing stones
The reward -> Honey
However, a lot has changed since then, and we no longer have to spend days chasing bees to get a sweet treat. In modern times, calorically dense, “rewarding” foods are readily available on every street corner. However, the problem-solving, habit-forming parts of our brains have yet to catch up with this abundance of supply. That’s why we so easily form “bad” habits...
How Bad Eating Habits are Formed in the Modern World
To understand how bad eating habits are born, consider Jonathan, an imaginary 3-year old who’s story is shared by millions of real children around the world.
Jonathan tried to kick his favorite ball, missed, and stubbed his toe on the chair. He’s now crying out in pain, running to his father all teary-eyed and sad. Unfortunately, daddy is too busy to soothe him, so he offers Jonathan a piece of chocolate instead…
Little Jonathan’s reward-centers (located in a part of his brain called the Reptilian or “Lizard Brain”) light up. This is a super-sized, amazing treat as far as Jonathan’s Lizard Brain is concerned, so it starts to devise ways to get that chocolaty-reward again.
Jonathan asks his dad for more chocolate, but this time dad is more attentive and refuses since he knows too much chocolate isn’t good for Jonathan. However, Jonathan’s Lizard Brain doesn’t give up. The reward is just too big. Dad has now become an obstacle he needs to overcome to get the chocolate, so over the next few days Jonathan tries a few things:
He throws tantrums
And then one morning he comes up with a brilliant idea: Jonathan goes to mom instead, thereby circumventing the dad-obstacle. He says he’s incredibly sad (making his best sad-boy face) and asks for chocolate!
When that works, a bad habit is born.
Now, every time Jonathan gets chocolate as a reward for “being sad”, the habit becomes stronger and more entrenched.
Because of the rapid industrialization of food production in the past few decades, it’s now almost effortless to get “food rewards” which were previously difficult and/or dangerous to obtain (like honey).
Today, there’s a fast-food joint and/or convenience store on virtually every street corner, so our minds have shifted from coming up with the set of actions that will help us overcome real-world obstacles for treats, to generating a set of thoughts which overcome our internal resistance to indulging in them.
See, we all have an eternally present, ‘internal mommy/daddy’ monitoring us which knows we should not binge. That knowledge, as well as our health and fitness goals, mostly resides in a part of the brain called the Neocortex. From an evolutionary perspective, that part of our brain developed last, and is responsible for everything we consider human. For example, long-term planning, love, music, philosophy, goals, verbal communication and more reside mostly in the Neocortex. For the sake of discussion let’s call this part of our brain the “higher self” from now on.
So the only real obstacle preventing our Lizard Brain from getting powerful, calorically dense treats is our Higher Self…
But the amazing thing about human-beings is our Lizard Brains have access to the same ingenuity as our Higher Self. Because of this, our ancestors figured how to harvest honey from a beehive without getting stung to death. The same Lizard Brain survival drive has also motivated humanity to learn how to herd animals, grow and harvest crops, cook, and manufacture industrial food.
Unfortunately, the Lizard Brain can also use that ingenuity to overcome the Higher Self. Through thousands of coaching interchanges, we’ve discovered how adept the Lizard Brain has become at ingenious rationalizations which convince our Higher Selves to succumb to the binging urge.
Rationalizations are the Trojan horse which allows the lizard-brain to overcome the “higher-self obstacle”. They usually contain a half-truth coupled with a bigger lie. Here are a few examples…
From seemingly harmless rationalizations like:
- I’ll just take one bite, one bite won’t hurt
- I’ll get back to my diet tomorrow
- Or… Just this once
To more complex and harmful rationalizations like:
- I have to eat something to relax
- I’m a failure, I can’t resist, I’m broken when it comes to food
And once the Lizard Brain finds a rationalization that works. It will turn it into a habit, for example…
Cue -> Work related stress
Action -> Thinking I’ll go back on my diet tomorrow and that I must eat in order to relax
Reward -> Pizza in the car on the way back from work
The good news is: It’s entirely possible to eliminate a bad eating habit once you know how (keep reading…)
Eliminate Your Binging Habit Without Relying on Will Power
Why using will power to resist binging actually reinforces the binging habit…
When we diet, we use will power in one of two ways…
- Most of the time we resist the urge to binge until it feels too strong and too uncomfortable to bear. or…
- We persevere through the uncomfortable feeling until the urge decreases (this usually takes at least a few days), then reward ourselves for the perseverance. This reward makes the urge stronger again and we eventually give up because it seems like we can’t get rid of the urges no matter what we do.
This inconsistent schedule of rewards is called “intermittent reinforcement” and has been proven to make habits stronger and less vulnerable to extinction. (B.F Skinner 1956)
This is why slot machines can be so extremely addicting: The fact you don’t win every time you pull the lever adds an element of excitement and anticipation which amplifies the exhilaration when you do.
So, how can we eliminate the binging habit if resisting the urge most of the time doesn’t work?
How to extinguish your binging habit
Let’s stay with the slot machine illustration for a moment. As long as the gambling addict keeps winning every once in a while, he’ll remain hooked because anticipation and excitement keep overriding his better judgment. He’ll just keep pulling that lever almost indefinitely, even though his Higher Self knows the game is rigged, and he can’t ever really win.
But what happens if you dramatically reduce the chances of winning?
Now, he pulls the lever repeatedly and does not win.
Even the most addicted gamblers will get frustrated and give up in the absence of reinforcement. The anticipation dissipates until they eventually realize the effort isn’t worth the reward.
The same principle works with binge eating.
When you stop rewarding the urge to binge your lizard-brain realizes, eventually, that the effort isn’t worth the reward… so it gives up!
This is why if you manage to avoid binging for a few days, the urge to binge decreases so dramatically. Therefore, the formula is rather simple: To stop bingeing, you simply need to stop rewarding the urge. For example…
Let’s say you binge because of work-stress. And your bingeing habit looks like this…
Cue -> Work related stress
Thought/Action -> “I’ll go back on my diet tomorrow. I simply must eat today to relieve this incredible stress and relax!”
Reward -> Stop at a 7-11 on the way home and binge on chocolate
If you resist stopping at the 7-11 for a few days despite feeling stressed, your lizard-brain will eventually get that its constant craving messages don’t work anymore, and these previously torturous urges will dramatically decrease in a much shorter time-frame than you think! (It usually takes between 3-14 days to see a significant reduction in binge urges in response to a particular cue.)
But does that mean you can’t have your favorite foods ever again?
Stop Cravings and Food Obsession by "Eating by Design" Instead of "Eating on Whim"
Here’s an idea that will blow your mind…
Binge on your favorite food 2x/wk. on impulse, wherever and whenever you crave it most and you’ll experience severe, hard-to-resist cravings and urges all week long, even if you resist most of the time…
But eat it twice a week by design, on specific days and times you’ve thought through in advance, and your cravings should be far less severe. In fact, they may disappear altogether!
See, by not rewarding the urge at the moment of impulse, you train the Lizard Brain that no matter how much effort it puts into producing a spontaneous craving, it will NOT be rewarded, and so it learns there’s no point wasting energy and gives up!
When you eat your treats on very specific days and times BY DESIGN, you cease rewarding impulsive urges and begin to extinguish the binge eating habit.
So, If you follow the steps I outline in the rest of this guide, you can stop bingeing and still enjoy the foods you love on your terms… you only need deny the lizard-brain its whims.
Is that something you’d like to do?
Well then, read on!…
Using The "Never Binge Again" System To Eliminate Your Binging Habits
Step one: Commit to the strategy (To successfully stop binging, keep your eyes on the ball!)
By now, you already know the strategy, but it’s important to remember it at all times so you won’t be lured back into diet mentality (i.e. relying upon will-power to avoid bingeing.) In case it’s not abundantly clear, willpower is the ability to make good decisions, and research suggests there are only so many good decisions we can make each day. See, willpower isn’t like a genetic gift, but more so like “gas in the tank”. Every decision we make burns some of this vital resource.
The Never Binge Again strategy involves making decisions about all your most difficult food triggers beforehand, so you won’t need willpower in the face of temptation when it’s hardest to muster. You stop rewarding the cues/urges which lead to binges, so your Lizard Brain will learn producing the urge isn’t worth the effort.
At the same time, you’ll design a way of eating which doesn’t require you to abstain from eating foods you love altogether, which would leave you feeling too deprived, and, in the long run, would be more likely to result in the breakdown of your plan.
Who’ll be the slave, you or your Lizard Brain? Eating by Design puts YOU in control!
Step two: Create rules to handle your most problematic eating behaviors
Begin by zeroing in on your most troublesome food behavior and creating a rule to govern that behavior from now on. We suggest beginning with just one simple rule and only adding more as you gain confidence.
What rule should you create first? That depends on what behavior you most want to change…
- Are you “addicted” to chocolate? Then perhaps create a rule that says you’ll only ever eat chocolate on Friday mornings, and never more than 3 oz.
- Do you binge at night? Then you might consider a rule dictating you stop eating at 8 pm (or immediately after dinner.)
- Do you binge while driving? You could define an “I’ll never eat in the car” rule.
- Overeat while cooking? Try “I will never eat standing up again.”
- It’s entirely up to you to decide exactly which rule you want to begin with. As long you have at least one that fits your goals and preferences, you’re ready to go.
The idea here is to follow a rule so you can begin to eat by design! But it’s very important that YOU define your own rule and take ownership of it.
Now, rules might sound boring, but they are actually amazing tools:
- They dramatically reduce the amount of required daily decisions. This, in turn, conserves an enormous amount of will power. For example, if your rule dictates you only eat chocolate on Friday morning, then you don’t have to make chocolate decisions the entire rest of the week. This can eliminate dozens of decisions each and every day. Many clients tell us their first rule not only eliminated their food obsession but gave them peace of mind with food they’d never imagined they could have!
- Rules draw a clear line in the sand. Once you have that clear rule, you can then define any thought, image, feeling, or impulse which suggests you break your rule as a clear indication your Lizard Brain is active and trying to persuade you to Eat-on-Whim. And the moment that happens, do this…
Step 3: Create a Clear Distinction Between Your Higher-Self and Your Lizard-Brain So You’ll Know When It Becomes Active…and Can Control It
You lizard-brain will try to “take over” when it spots the trigger which normally initiates your binging habit. This automatic behavior chain is actually a helpful evolutionary mechanism…the same one which spares your brainpower from having to think about brushing your teeth and/or tying your shoes. But when it’s applied to destructive habits such as binge eating, it works decidedly against us!
Fortunately, the Lizard Brain is almost never fully in control, and we can use our Neo-Cortex (the home of our Higher Self) to override its decisions.
In fact, except for truly life-or-death decisions, the lizard-brain actually needs the ok from our higher-self to get us to act. This is why we feel the need to rationalize our binge behavior. Trojan-Horse thoughts like “just one bite”, “I’ve already blown my diet today so I may as well eat whatever I want to”, or “I’ll just start again tomorrow” originate from this arrangement. It’s the Lizard Brain’s way of trying to obtain permission from our Higher Self.
But you can TAKE BACK CONTROL from the lizard brain in these situations using the following very-weird-but-hyper-effective trick: First, assign a name to your lizard-brain. Some people call it their “Food demon”, some call it their “Inner Binge Monster”. Whatever you choose to call that voice inside of you which urges you to binge is perfectly fine, so as long as you don’t use a cute name, or think of it as a loving pet and/or inner wounded child you need to nurture back to health.
See, we want to treat this inner voice as something we must discipline, not something with which to cuddle and reason. After all, you wouldn’t pet and/or negotiate with a badly trained, aggressive dog! Because that’d just make it more aggressive and unwieldy. When the dog is trained, you can show it affection, but first, it must learn who’s boss!
Step 4: Actively Separate from Your Lizard Brain at the Moment of Temptation to Regain Control
Once you name your inner binging voice, you’ll want to begin the process of SEPARATION. The moment you hear it attempting to rationalize a binge you say something like “This is not going to work, Food Demon, because I AM THE BOSS here, so just go back to your cage!”
And you actually want to say these words in your head. Not just think that you need to cage the Food Demon, but actually ASSERT YOUR SUPERIORITY with this verbalization!
Playing this game moves the battleground from your lizard brain to your neo-cortex, and can give you those few crucial extra seconds of control to wake up and make the right decision.
Now, after you DO assert yourself, your Food Demon will try its best to overcome your resistance. However, no matter what it says, if you remember the strategy (we NEVER reward binging-triggers because we want to extinguish the habit) then you can send it back to its cage.
But sometimes it can very much help to logically disempower the binge eating thoughts, and that’s where we’ll turn next.
Step 5: Disempower the Lizard-Brain’s ‘Rationalizations’ (Torturous Food Thoughts) to Dramatically Reduce the Amount of Willpower it Takes to Avoid Binging
This is a slightly more advanced tool from the Never Binge Again toolset which allows you to deal with the more persistent, nagging food thoughts… those which remain even when you separate from, and cage your Inner Food Demon.
See, while working with clients, we’ve discovered that if they can find the “lie” within any particular rationalization, it loses its power. At such time both stress and food obsession levels decrease significantly and immediately!
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you had a slice of chocolate cake at the office, thereby breaking your “I’ll only eat chocolate on Friday mornings” rule by mistake. Now your Food Demon™ is screaming “We’ve already broken our rule today, so we might as well fill up on chocolate and get back on track tomorrow – yippee let’s go do it!”
Well… a lot of people find this line of thought very convincing. But upon further reflection, we can see three very BIG lies within it.
- The first is that one slice of chocolate cake might contain 300-400 calories, but if you let your Food Demon loose, you know it will devour 2,000-3,000 MORE calories, and inflict serious damage on your diet!
- The second and even more significant lie is that if we reward the thought “Screw it, I already blew it, might as well party”, that thought in and of itself will become more frequent, and further entrench the bad behavior. What we want to do is extinguish the “Screw it, I blew it” thought itself and eliminate the binging behavior entirely.
- A third reason not to succumb to the “I broke the rules I might as well binge” thought is that eating a single slice of cake may only cause you a little bit of discomfort, but an all-out binge would result in severe indigestion, sweating, bloating, stomach-ache, and (possibly) increased heart rate, acid-reflux, trouble sleeping at night and more! On top of that, while you might only feel a little guilty about a single slice, you’ll feel EXTREMELY guilty and ashamed if you go on a bender.
The bottom line is “you might as well party” is a lie! Having a binge party is always a BAD idea!
And if you can recall these ideas when your Food Demon tells you “oh… we blew it, we might as well start again tomorrow”, it’ll be easier to shut down its senseless argument!
Note: You do not have to find the “lie” within the rationalization to avoid rewarding it, you only need to ignore the thought itself. However, finding the lie and logically disempowering the rationalization very much helps in quieting obsessive thoughts and conserving willpower.
What to Do When not Binging Feels VERY Uncomfortable
Strong urges to overeat can often become very uncomfortable when you attempt to restrain yourself. Many of our clients THINK the only way to make the uncomfortable feeling “go away” is to overeat. In fact, virtually every binge eater I’ve worked with feels this way at some point. It’s extremely common because of the powerful nature of the bingeing habit. Once the mind experiences the trigger stimulus, people feel compelled to execute the habit and receive the reward. When they don’t follow through a very uncomfortable feeling ensues. That discomfort is just millions of years of evolution trying to get you to execute established behavioral chains. Habits have tremendous survival value, the only problem in overeaters is that the survival drive has been misdirected by our modern world. (We didn’t have donuts in the tropics while we were evolving)
The trick is to look at this discomfort as a good thing! It’s a signal the Lizard-Brain has activated an old pattern we wish to extinguish, and the only way to extinguish it is to experience it in the active state without rewarding it. If you persevere and avoid the indulgence, two very good things will happen:
- You will weaken the habit by depriving the lizard brain of its reward
- The uncomfortable feeling will pass – it might take a few hours, or you might even need to go to sleep feeling uncomfortable, but, eventually, it WILL fade.
This is critically important because so many of us are deathly afraid of being uncomfortable. But when you avoid rewarding your lizard-brain despite the discomfort, you’ll prove to yourself you CAN feel uncomfortable without dying, even though your lizard-brain feels otherwise. (This is why we have sayings like “just hand over the chocolate and nobody gets hurt!”)
And when you know you will actually survive the discomfort, you’ll be able to repeat the experience as many times as it takes to not only extinguish the habit but to permanently rid yourself of the uncomfortable feeling you dread.
What do you think? Might you be willing to be as uncomfortable as it takes for 3-14 days so you don’t have to deal with these feelings again forever? So you can Never Binge Again?
If the answer is yes… then go for it! You now have the tools to conquer your binging habit!
The key to success – Quickly recovering from mistakes, binges and benders
If you learn just one thing from this entire guide, this should be it…
To successfully stop binging, stick to your diet and lose all the weight you want, there’s one skill you need to master – recovering from eating mistakes!
Why recovery is so important
Working with well over a thousand clients showed me that, by far, the most dangerous and critical point in the recovery and weight loss process is the time immediately after you’ve made and eating mistake…
See, if you believe a binge is the end of the world, that you’re somehow “broken” and/or incapable of following your food rules, that you’re “out of control”, or that some “mysterious power” inside you has taken control of your hands, arms, legs, mouth, and tongue, forcing you to overeat… well, this becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
I know, when I describe it this way, the whole thing seems a little silly. Of course we can control what we choose to put in our own mouths! Of course we can control what we choose to chew and swallow. Yet, after a serious overeating mistake most people hear an extremely negative voice inside them—the voice of the reptilian brain we’ve been talking about throughout—which says they are a “loser”, a “failure”, and are doomed to a life of overeating. “You might as well just give up and become a happy fat person” it will say.
The pivotal insight about binge recovery is, however, that almost ALL these negative thoughts stem from the reptilian brain’s efforts to get you to binge more! It’s almost as if the voice is trying to make you feel too weak to resist the next binge. Once you understand this, you’ll understand why we advocate fighting these negative thoughts with all your might.
For example, we tell people to collect evidence of success from the binge instead of failure. Did you eat only five cupcakes instead of fifteen? Brilliant… that’s progress. Did you binge on only 4,000 calories instead of 8,000 calories? That’s progress too. What can you learn?
See, if you collect evidence of success, you’ll eventually build a success identity, and you can become someone who doesn’t binge. It should also stop you from allowing the overeating episode to spiral out of control for days, months, or even years. And if you can limit the damage to one day, you might not be super happy with what the scale says (or how your body feels) tomorrow morning, but you won’t have to wake up next year 10, 20, 50, or even 100 pounds heavier.
On the other hand, if you allow your reptilian brain to relentlessly focus you on “why can’t I stop eating?”… you’ll inevitably find evidence that you can’t stop eating, and you’ll build a failure identity.
The binge recovery process you adopt—what you do right after you’ve made an eating mistake and broken your rules—defines your success in the long run. Relentlessly fight the negative voice of the reptilian brain AND collect evidence of success to learn all you can from the binge and you should grow progressively in your ability to control your eating.
More detail on what causes the downward spiral after a mistake
Remember, when binge eaters make a mistake (especially after a long period of success), their lizard brain tries its best to use that mistake to derail the entire process. Is it as if the Lizard Brain has identified this is its last chance to win, so it puts all its remaining effort into trying to convince the higher self that the system is broken and should be abandoned altogether.
Hundreds of clients have used the following sentences to describe their thoughts after an eating mistake like this:
- “I feel like I’m back at square one”
- “This is just like any other diet I’ve tried!”
- “It’s not working”
- “I feel very discouraged and very pessimistic about this”
- “I don’t have the power to start over again”
Why eating mistakes are so discouraging
The Disappointment – Almost all binge eaters are ecstatic when they discover they can stop binge eating. This terrible habit wreaks havoc on a person’s body, health and self-esteem. And when you discover you can stop, it’s a wonderfully happy revelation. This is exactly why, when you make a mistake, especially if it leads to a few episodes or days of binging, it feels like you’ve been sucked back into a black hole of binging… and the elation you felt before turns into desperation.
The Food Cravings and Obsession Returns – Because we can’t get rid of our Lizard Brain, we can only ‘retrain it’. Once it gets a sense that it can get rewarded for inducing physical cravings and obsessive thoughts, it will do so with renewed vigor. But the return of those obsessive unwanted thoughts and physical sensations are very troubling, especially if you haven’t sensed them in a while.
How to recover from a binge, bender or a mistake
- To begin, change your mood with a little bit of exercise. (Assuming your doctor allows it.)
- Recognize that you are not really “back to square one” and that not all is lost –
- Remember your successes so far - Let’s say you’ve been binge free for a week and then made a mistake and binged once. It means that out of 21 meals (3 meals/day for 7 days) you binged once. Which means that your week was 95% binge free.
- You know how it feels to be binge-free and that you CAN do it – You know how great it feels and you know you’ve stopped once. It might take an effort to stop again, but you know you can do it.
- You now have the tools to stop binging again – You can use the strategy, separation and refutation tools you’ve learned to stop binging again. You are NOT powerless against the lizard brain.
- Recognize that all the hopelessness thoughts are just “Trojan horses” which are only true if you believe them.
- Reframe this event – while it is regrettable and difficult to recover, it is also a great learning opportunity and not a “complete disaster” as your lizard brain would like you to think
- Commit to recovering no matter what it takes.
- Treat this as an opportunity to become a “recovery master”