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Breaking The Binge Restrict Cycle-Binge Eating Recovery

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 What Is A Binge Restrict Cycle?

Do you feel out of control with food? Like your blacking out or hitting a “coma like” state when your favorite foods are present? Do You Feel an overwhelming wave of guilt following “overconsumption” leading to a strong urge to simply stop putting any food into the body? This is called the binge-restrict cycle.

You’re not alone if you’re riding the wave of a binge and restrict cycle. For someone struggling with binge-like behaviors- favorite foods can feel like your kryptonite.

The binge restrict cycle occurs when a person consumes a quantity of food much larger than the average person-and then attempt to restrict as a compensation tool. This cycle can occur across several days, weeks or within a 24 hour time span.

The binge restrict cycles signature is that it will always perpetuate on itself- unless you break the cycle. 

A binge is most often provoked by mental or physical restriction of energy. Energy restriction can look like 

  • Food restriction
  • Excessive exercise
  • Purging through vomiting or diuretic use

When energy is intentionally restricted, a binge restrict cycle is likely to occur. 

People generally continue to binge if we restrict and vise versa -creating a seemingly endless binge and restrict cycle!

Let’s explore how restriction as a way to try to control our binge behavior generally just makes the cycle stronger- and what to do about a binge instead.  

How To Recover From Binge Eating Disorder

Like most eating disorders, binge eating disorder actually stems from a place of food restriction. 

Binge Eating Disorder is Complex in that we are often dealing with episodes of binging and restriction.  In addition, co-occuring mental health conditions such as anxiety, OCD, or depression may also be present.  

It’s important to distinguish that many people can have “binge episodes” without having binge eating disorder. However, all binge episodes will likely leave a person feeling helpless, out of control, and completely immersed in the experience of consuming food.

When we’re discussing binge eating disorder, recovery from binge eating disorder will include:

  • Identifying unique needs of each individual
  • Assessing the underlying causes leading to restricting
  • Focusing in on triggers and tools for symptom interruption of a binge
  • Initiating regular meals and snacks through the day as well as a structured meal plan developed by a HAES dietitian

Effective binge eating disorder recovery involves a physician, a dietitian, and a mental health practitioner. 

Am I Binge Eating Quiz

Are you unsure about wether or not you are experiencing a binge or binge eating disorder?  

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I eat until I’m uncomfortably full? 
  • Am I eating very rapidly? 
  • Do I eat large quantities of food without actually feeling hungry? 
  • Am I eating alone frequently because I’m embarrassed by my choices or quantity of food? 
  • Do I eat large quantities of food when I’m not physically hungry? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be having  overeating or binging behavior. 

How Do I know if I have Binge Eating Disorder? 

If three or more of  symptoms listed above, you may be experiencing binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder will also be marked by these two things: 

  • Eating in a specific amount of time (say a 2 hour time frame) a significantly greater quantity of food than others might in that time frame. 
  • Feeling a lack of control over food (e.g. I can’t stop eating even if I’m full).

In binge eating disorder, a binge will generally occur once a week for a period of 3 months or more. 

What Is It Called When You Starve Yourself and Then Binge Eat?

Many people experience what is known as food cycling. It’s important to note that some food cycling is a normal part of our biological processes. We naturally can have a few days we eat less or more than others based on numerous factors. Normal food cycling which involves attention to hunger/fullness cues happens for most people without distress.

Food cycling that is brought on by the binge and restrict cycle however-is a bitch!

Imagine if you will- a stressful week at work where the boss is breathing down your neck about his next deadline that really shouldn’t be any of your business.  

You may choose food to soothe the week from hell. You may then cycle with restriction into the next week, feeling immense shame and guilt for not simply being more disciplined and taking the boss’s shit like a champ. 

If we can simply let the week from hell go and move back into our natural intuitive eating rhythm once its all over, we may experience a little cycle eating which doesn’t transition into a full blown binge and restrict cycle.

This is food cycling at its finest- but there can be many other reasons for food cycling that are much sneakier and disguise themselves as “healthism.”

Here are some examples of food cycling: 

If you’re thinking food cycling looks a lot like a binge and restrict cycle, you’re 100% correct!  The two terms are almost interchangeable.  

Girl eating a pizza from the box

How Do You Break The Bingeing Cycle

When you restrict food, several things happen to your body: 

  • You have a decrease in leptin
  • Fatigue seems to be your new best friend
  • OMG STRESS! it’s through the roof!  Diet culture screams at you to reducing food intake. You’re terrified of weight gain. You feel inadequate, lazy and undisciplined. 
  • Stress begins to jack up the cortisol in your body, leading to crave high fat high calorie foods (which will likely send feelings of guilt skyrocketing in mere hours… AGAIN. UGH!)

All of these variables associated with restriction set us up to feel completely out of control with food and consume excessive amounts. Consuming foods in excessive amounts will often result in guilt and shame perpetuating further restriction. 

To break the restrict-binge cycle, we MUST discontinue restriction. 

Is It Normal To Binge After Restricting?

Over thousands of years, we have experienced bouts of feast and famine as a human species. 

Our bodies have adapted very efficiently to alter production of leptin (our satiety signals), grehlin (our hunger signals) and even the rate of enzymatic reactions to we are eating when times are plentiful so we don’t perish in times of famine.  

So is binging after restricting normal-absolutely! It’s how we have survived as a species for millions of years!  

Our bodies just doing the one thing that it does best-protecting us!

Person in bathtub eating pasta









How Undereating Causes Overeating

We have discussed increasing grehlin (hunger hormone) and decreasing leptin (satiety hormone) with restriction.

We have also discussed that the stress and fatigue associated with restriction will fuel an increase in cortisol causing us to crave calorie dense easy to access foods. 

Our biology is so smart we also experience an increase in salivation when we starve ourselves! 

Salivation increases even if food isn’t present!  Many folks don’t know that salivation is actually the first process in digestion, and actually begins to produce salivary amylase– A digestive enzyme!  

Our body is making sure that is is fully ready when food becomes available! We see increased digestion hormones both before AND after eating when we’ve restricted our food intake.  

When we restrict, we also produce a surge of what is called neuropeptide Y . Neuropeptide Y increases our craving for carbohydrate rich foods, as they are the easiest to break down and essential for the brain to function.

When we binge, we also get a rush of dopamine. As we can see, restriction will never lead to solving our urge to binge. 

Let me make one thing very clear to you- You will NOT outsmart thousands of years of biochemical processes and evolution with the newest restrictive diet fad.

Signs You’re At Risk of A Binge

A binge can have many triggers.  A few of the most common binge triggers can include: 

  • Avoiding eating certain foods or food groups
  • Feeling bad , out of control or guilty about certain food groups
  • Waiting to eat despite feeling hungry
  • Avoiding food
  • Eating pattern isn’t sustainable (e.g. dieting) and engaging in “cheat days”
  • Excessive thoughts about food
  • Restricting food as a result of feeling like you’ve over eaten
  • Feeling out of control with food in social situations or other settings where you may not have complete control.

Binge Restrict Cycle In Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is a life threatening condition which often involves severe restriction, a reduction in body weight, and increased stress and anxiety. Following bouts of severe restriction, as is the case with anorexia, it isn’t uncommon to see someone struggle with binge eating. 

This results from the body trying to regain the weight to match that of its genetic blueprint. All biological processes geared to avoid the effects of a famine (what the body believes is happening in anorexia) will be in full swing! 

It’s very important if you are struggling with anorexia or any other type of restrictive behavior that you work with a healthcare team to develop an eating disorder recovery meal plan to fit meet your needs. Without a plan specific to your needs, it is likely under-nourishment will continue and escalate.

cycle chart outlining hormones in the binge restrict cycle

Binge Purge Restrict Cycle

It is not uncommon for someone experiencing a binge to try to expel the food from the body. 

A binge can leave you feeling 

  • Excessively sweaty
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Worthless
  • Extreme digestive distress
  • Bloating
  • Nausea

These feelings that come with a binge can lead someone to want to use purging (getting rid of food through laxatives or vomiting) to get rid of these uncomfortable feelings. Those who purge may feel cleanliness and relaxation. 

Those who vomit following a binge will experience altered brain chemistry and a rush of endorphins. A surge of serotonin is released with vomiting, and this can become addictive. 

Purging can add an additional level of complexity to the binge and restrict cycle. Ultimately, the treatment for a binge purge and  restrict cycle will again be to target eliminating restriction.

What To Do Instead Of Eating If I have an Urge To Binge

While the best method of action when it comes to a binge is to prevent restricting and normalize daily intake, there are a few things you can do when the urge to binge hits suddenly. 

These can include

  • Stretching
  • Imagining a stop sign
  • Calling a friend
  • Walking a dog
  • Play a video game
  • Hula hoop
  • Go for a drive
  • Say “stop” out loud
  • Make a gift for someone
  • Meditate
  •  Declutter
  • Write a letter/journal
  • Do a crossword puzzle
  • Learn a new language (duolingo)
  • Play with a pet
Things To Do Instead Of Binge Eat to break the binge and restrict cycle

How Can A Meal Plan Help Me Normalize My Meal Patterns

The binge and restrict brain is under the influence of fluctuating hormone levels and in some cases even changes in anatomical structure.  This makes it difficult to make healthy and safe food decisions in some cases without disordered thoughts. 

Working with a healthcare team that includes a dietitian specializing in eating disorders can help us structure a food plan to meet your nutrient needs. 

A meal plan can sometimes make our disordered eating thoughts feel like they have a “prescription” too eat and thus may reduce restrictive practices breaking the binge and restrict cycle. 

Meal plans should also include guidance about meal timing, as this can also be a problem in escalating a restrict binge cycle. 

What Are Some Tools You Have Used To Stop Bingeing And Restricting?

  • Incorporate restricted food groups (if you’re avoiding carbohydrates, add these into your day)
  • Build fear foods into your routine
  • Identify triggers (are you eating food when you feel lonely, bored, stressed, or have a large school project due)? 
  • Spread your food intake through the day. Eat breakfast within 2 hours of waking up and then every 3-4 hours. 
  • Build a support team.  This can include having meals and snacks with family or friends or a trained professional like a dietitian or therapist. 
  • Eating normally even after a binge
  • Delaying my binge
  • Altering my binge rituals (not eating with activities that may trigger a binge, having an interactive activity ready for the time of day I usually binge)

Are there any strategies you have been successful with in breaking the binge and restrict cycle?  drop them in the comments below! 

Binge Eating Recovery Facts

How Long Does It Take To Recover From A Food Binge

The length of time to recover from a binge will vary greatly on whether someone initiates regular meals and snacks (every 2-3 hours) or proceeds to restrict following a binge. If a person restricts following a binge- a binge will continue on and get bigger until regular meal structure is initiated. For those that are able to successfully implement tools of regular meal timing-it may take up to 21 reduce binge behavior and as much as 2 years to keep up the habit.

What Are Some Tips To Recover From A Food Binge?

Eat regular meals and snacks (no more than 2-3 hours apart), Practice food neutrality (no food is morally or nutritionally superior to other foods, dismiss food rules (such as no sugar, no fat, low calorie foods, get adequate sleep, reduce stress, maintain adequate hydration.

Should I Fast After A Binge?

No! This is the quickest way to escalate future binge behavior. Eating meals/snacks every 3-4 hours is the best way to move away from binge behavior.

How Many Calories Are In A Binge?

Binge episodes are not calorie specific. While the official definition of binge constitutes “more calories than most would consume in a setting” this notion is subjective. Binge behavior should be classified as 1) feeling out of control with the food. 2) feeling like you cannot stop until a certain point/put down the food before a consumption expectation is met 3) feeling extreme shame/guilt following consumption of the food. There is no specific calorie range associated with a binge.

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!

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