Mindful Eating and the Binge Eating Cycle

Mindful Eating and the Binge Eating Cycle


Michelle and Owen May Guest blogger Michelle May, M.D. is the founder of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs which offers Mindful Eating for Binge Eating Retreats and Therapist Training. Her newest book is Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating: A Mindful Eating Program for Healing Your Relationship with Food and Your Body, coauthored with Kari Anderson, DBH, LPC.



Mindful Eating and the Binge Eating Cycle

It seems that everyone is talking about mindfulness and mindful eating these days. Mindfulness is an ancient practice with profound applications in modern life. It has even been featured on the cover of TIME Magazine and in 60 Minutes. Google “mindful eating” and you’ll get over 2 million results! But can it help with binge eating? (This article, Treating Binge Eating Disorder Utilizing Mindful Techniques, gives a brief overview.)

For over a decade, we’ve used the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Cycle to provide the necessary structure to explore and address problematic eating and create more effective responses. In my latest book, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating: A Mindful Eating Program for Healing Your Relationship with Food and Your Body, co-authored with Kari Anderson DBH, LPC, we describe the Binge Eating Cycle.(1)

Often people who struggle with binge eating feel alone, “crazy,” and ashamed. I am sharing the following excerpt which describes the Binge Eating Cycle in the hope that people who binge eat recognize that there is a pattern that can be treated effectively with mindful eating!

The Binge Eating Cycle

Binge Eating CycleBinge eating is an attempt to use food to regulate, moderate, or balance your physical, emotional, or mental state. While there is overlap with overeating, the Binge Eating Cycle is more extreme and more destructive physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. For people caught in this cycle, bingeing has become a way to manage physical discomfort, numb certain feelings, and escape uncomfortable thoughts such as judgment and worry. Once started, the Binge Eating Cycle spins out of control even when there are painful physical and emotional consequences.

Why? The Binge Eating Cycle is driven by unmet needs; a binge may provide temporary distraction, relief, or escape from unpleasant thoughts or physical and emotional states.

When? A binge is initiated by certain physical, environmental, and/or emotional triggers and the thoughts that precede them. Quite often, a binge follows a Restrictive Eating Cycle. Many binge episodes are planned or pre-meditated and begin with walking up and down the grocery aisles selecting favorite binge foods, stopping at several drive-through windows, or ordering multiple take-out meals from one restaurant.

What? Binge foods are often high in sugar, fat, or salt, and/or are highly processed foods. They are often “forbidden” foods—foods that aren’t allowed on most diets. Some binge foods may have an immediate physiological effect on mood, especially foods high in sugar. Certain foods may symbolize needs such as comfort or pleasure. Other foods may convey a certain feeling, like crunching when angry. Sometimes, the food chosen isn’t typical at all, like table sugar, cake mix or other pantry ingredients; frozen or uncooked foods; or condiments such as syrup, salsa, ketchup, or whipped cream. Some people binge on diet or healthy foods like rice cakes or canned vegetables. Obviously a binge is not really about the food itself.

How? The food is consumed in a frenzied, panicky, or a trance-like state. The fast-paced eating pattern is mindless and disconnects you from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Further, binges often take place alone and in secret, which adds to the guilt and fuels the cycle. People often describe feeling out of control and unable to stop.

How Much? The amount of food consumed is one factor that determines the difference between overeating and a binge. A binge is formally defined as eating an “amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time, under similar circumstances.” Stuffing food, even if it causes physical pain, can create a sense of emotional fullness in sharp contrast to the “emptiness” experienced at other times. You might eat until someone or something interrupts you or until you feel miserably full, stuffed, physically sick, or numb—or at least calm. You might even eat until you fall asleep, or pass out.

Where? Following a binge you typically feel sluggish, tired, and uninterested in moving around or being active. Since your body is working to process the food you ate, you’re limited in what you can do or where you can go after a binge.

You may also spend a lot of energy hiding the evidence—disposing of boxes, cartons, and bags, driving your garbage to a dumpster, buying more food to make it look like nothing has been eaten—and if necessary, eating more to re-create the appearance of a partially used product.

When reality sets in after the binge, you may feel overcome with emotion and full of rage—wanting to throw, hit, or scream—or feel despondent, hopeless, or wishing you could die. The feelings of guilt and self-hatred lead to more negative self-talk and further isolation. This increases secrecy, shame, loneliness, and other emotions that perpetuate the cycle.

In the aftermath of a binge, there is usually a sense of desperation and a renewed dedication to the next diet. You make plans to be “good” again—the next day, “on Monday,” or “after the holidays.” Of course dieting doesn’t stop binge eating. For many people restrictive eating simply becomes part of the binge cycle.

Hungry for Answers

Am I Hungry? Marketplace ItemsPerhaps you hadn’t realized that this vicious cycle actually had a name. Maybe you knew there was something wrong but you didn’t know what to do about it. You may have said, “If I knew, I’d just stop.” This is where mindfulness comes in. But what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is simply deliberate awareness of the present moment. When you pause to observe what is happening right now—as if in slow motion—you not only have an opportunity to better understand why you do what you do, but you can choose your actions rather than continue to react (re-act) out of habit. Instead of trying to stay in control, then subsequently losing control, mindfulness helps you pause so you are in charge.

Mindfulness helps you recognize, then change, problematic extreme thinking. As you discover a balance in the middle between the extremes of dieting and bingeing, you’ll gain the freedom to eat what you love, the awareness to eat what your body needs, the mindfulness to love what you eat, and the desire to meet your other needs in ways more satisfying than eating.

(This excerpt is from Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating: A Mindful Eating Program for Healing Your Relationship with Food and Your Body by Michelle May, M.D. with Kari Anderson DBH, LPC. Copyright MMXIV. All Rights Reserved.)

1 Anderson, K., & May, M. (2012). The Mindful Eating Cycle: Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder. Arizona State University, Doctor of Behavioral Health, Culminating Project.

1 Comment

  1. Jen

    Thank you Michelle for sharing the step by step process of understanding the binge eating cycle. This explanation is profound in helping clients heal by addressing their Unmet needs with choices other than food. By sitting with our Uncomfortable feelings and thoughts we can incorporate Mindfulness, bringing love, compassion and pause to our choices and selves.

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