Those of us of a certain age remember well that old commercial in which a doleful middle-aged man, pajama-clad and hunched over, moans, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
We remember because many of us have been there, repeatedly, and not just with one thing but several – a bag of peanuts, a dozen cookies, half a pizza, ice cream, and more – all consumed, egad, in one sitting.
Binge eating is now estimated by behavioral scientists to be the most common eating disorder, affecting 2 to 5% of American adults 1. Among those seeking weight control treatment, the prevalence is 30% 2.
A binge eating disorder is generally characterized by:
- Consuming an unusually large amount of food within a short period of time, about one to two hours.
- Doing it often, at least once a week.
- Feeling a loss of control, meaning, you cannot seem to stop what you’re eating, or how much.
“Putting the breaks on binge eating can be challenging because most people feel ashamed of their behavior and try to hide it,” observes psychologist Dr. Coral Arvon, Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness at the Pritikin Longevity Center. “But treatment can be very helpful.”
Research 3 has found, for example, that cognitive behavior therapy, which Dr. Arvon specializes in, eliminated binge eating in the majority of overweight and obese patients studied.
“Cognitive behavior therapy,” explains Dr. Arvon, “is all about changing the way you think, which can profoundly change the way you act.”
In a seminar on binge eating and in one-on-one counseling at Pritikin, Dr. Arvon guides guests in understanding why they binge, and how they can stop. “The urges to eat are often as intense as they are spontaneous. Guests say that when it happens, they feel powerless to resist the urges and often zone out while eating. Here at Pritikin, we focus on putting people back in control of their lives. Food is no longer running the show.”
Below are three key strategies Dr. Arvon and other faculty at Pritikin teach to help people get control of binge eating.1
Eat only when you’re hungry, but don’t starve yourself, ever.
It’s so common among dieters – the notion that “I just won’t eat.” But skipping meals and getting overly hungry can drive us to binge. “It’s like grocery shopping on an empty stomach,” points out Dr. Arvon. Temptation kicks into overdrive, and all kinds of junk food ends up in the cart.
“Here at Pritikin, we don’t skip meals. We teach our guests to eat well, and intelligently, and often. It turns on URGE CONTROL. Guests say they feel they have a new built-in defense, a suit of armor, that protects them from the cravings that used to come crashing in.”
Eating well and regularly also activates our inner PAUSE BUTTONS. Explains Dr. Arvon: “Imagine a friend who comes up to you and asks, ‘May I borrow $10,000?’ Well, just naturally, you say, ‘Let me think about it.’
“Keeping yourself from getting crazy-hungry will help you react similarly to food. When driving by a fast-food joint, for example, those urges to pull in aren’t nearly as strong. With a peaceful stomach comes a peaceful mind, and thoughts like: ‘I’m feeling full. Do I really need that cheeseburger?’ When you give yourself that moment to pause, it really can be a life-changing moment.”2
Identify high-risk situations and feelings.
Few people overeat in every situation, but many of us are pretty aware of certain events or emotions where we’re most vulnerable. Identify those that trigger overeating for you, and develop a game plan for each one.
Party Hearty Binger
Are you, for example, a Party Hearty Binger? Evenings with friends are five-hour food feasts?
If so, get in the habit of bonding with friends over food-free activities, like long walks together, bike rides, evenings out on the dance floor, a book club, or enjoying a new class together at the gym.
Certainly, we can’t – or don’t want to – avoid all food-and-drink parties. But to curb hunger and temptation, be sure to eat a nutritious, filling snack before leaving for the party. Or if a certain friend always serves insanely rich desserts, plan to bring a delicious, healthy alternative like a platter of fresh fruit. (You can bet other guests will be glad you did.)
Are you a Movie Snacker? Can’t imagine going to the movies without lining up at the snack bar for a massive tub of popcorn? Sneak in your own bag of air-popped popcorn along with a big bunch of grapes. Chances are, it will save you from taking in more than 1,000 calories. We kid you not. That’s how many calories are often packed into those movie-house tubs of greasy, fatty popcorn.
Are you a Nighttime Binger? Just had dinner an hour ago but can’t keep your hands out of the pantry and refrigerator? Clear your house of all the calorie-dense temptations. Drop them off at a homeless shelter. That way, even if you do start eating in the evening, it’s food, like apples, that are a lot less likely to pile on the pounds.
Are you a sucker for the vending machine at work? “Use the 10-minute rule before indulging,” suggests Dr. Arvon. “Get involved in another activity for 10 minutes. Then see if you still want whatever you were craving.”
Chances are, you won’t. Often, we get hunger pangs, but they’re not really stomach hunger; they’re mouth hunger – a desire to taste or chew. We often use food as a “fix” for things like frustrating co-workers, anxiety-producing deadlines, loneliness, or just plain boredom.
“In our classes at Pritikin, many people discover that they have been using food as an attempt to feel happy, a way of avoiding unpleasant realities in their lives,” says Dr. Arvon. “But when they stop, they start discovering what will really satisfy them, and they begin to learn more appropriate strategies for meeting life head on.”
Getting right back “on the horse”
If you slipped and gorged one night, well, you’re only human. In evolutionary terms we’re hard-wired to feast at the sight of food because our primal ancestors knew they had to fatten up before the next famine. “So cut yourself some slack. What’s most important is getting right back to clean living,” encourages Dr. Arvon. “Don’t wait till Monday. And do take time to recognize your progress.”3
Become a more mindful eater.
In her book Mindful Eating: A Guide To Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship With Food,” Jan Chozen Bays, MD, argues that a fundamental problem with our overweight society is that “we go unconscious when we eat.”
In our multi-tasking culture, we eat while doing other things, like working at our desk, driving, talking, watching television, tapping away in social media, or fiddling with our phones. “That’s a real problem,” says Dr. Arvon, “because eating as a mindless ritual often leads to overeating or cravings for more. The food disappears off our plates before we’ve registered it. Eating becomes mechanical, industrial, and nonstop. And, really, where’s the joy in it?”
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Mindful eating is the exact opposite. While the old adage “You are what you eat” holds true, let’s consider a new one as well: “You are how you eat.” Mindful eating is all about slowing down, actually seeing our food, taking in its aromas, and appreciating its colors and beauty. It’s about giving food and the act of eating our full attention.
The results can be priceless. Mindful eating not only brings back pleasure, it brings back control. Because we’re aware of every single bite, and celebrating each one, we’re more aware of how much we’re eating, and we know when to stop. We feel good at stopping. Both physically and emotionally, we’re satisfied.
Here is a checklist that can help us become more mindful eaters.
Am I Eating Mindfully?
- Before I start eating, have I determined that I’m truly hungry, and not just eating food because it’s my hobby, or because I’m “FLAB” (frustrated, lonely, anxious, or bored)?
- If I’m actually hungry, do I start my meal by sitting down, and taking three deep breaths to relax myself and quiet my mind?
- Am I eating slowly? It takes about 20 minutes for food to reach the small intestine. When that happens, chemical signals are sent back to the brain to say, “You can stop eating now. You’ve had enough.” If we eat too fast, we can easily put too much food into our bodies before the satiety signals are received. Mindful eating gives our satiety signals a chance to kick in before we’ve overeaten.
- Am I noticing each bite?
- Am I stopping three or four times during my meal to put down my fork, and appreciate my food – its colors, textures, and aroma?
- Am I multi-tasking or truly focused on my meal?
- Am I listening to my satiety cues? Am I putting down my fork and getting up from the table when I’m feeling satisfied and light, rather than eating till I’m stuffed and heavy?
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“Always remember,” sums up Dr. Arvon, “that the benefits of mindfulness and mindful eating go far beyond food.
“Instead of engaging in criticism and negativity towards yourself, which invariably happens after a binge, mindful eating is a conscious act of kindness that leads to greater health, both mentally and physically.”
And certainly, one thing that will feel really good is not waking up in the morning full of self-loathing because you “ate the whole thing” the night before.
The alternative – freedom from binge eating – is much nicer. It can lead to a thinner you, a happier you.