Breaking The Binge Restrict Cycle

Breaking The Binge Restrict Cycle

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Why Do We Binge When We Restrict?

What Is A Binge Restrict Cycle?

When we binge we consume a quantity of food much larger than the average person while feeling the lack of control to stop.  It isn’t uncommon for people to attempt to compensate for this behavior by following with restriction.  This is known as the binge restrict cycle. 

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

A binge is most often provoked by mental or physical restriction of energy (this can come in the from food restriction, excessive exercise, or purging). 

There are many physical and behavioral reasons for why we will continue to binge if we restrict and vise versa.

Thus using restriction as a means to try to control our binge behavior generally just makes the cycle stronger. 

The Binge Restrict Cycle Is Difficult to Break

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

Many individuals experience what is known as food cycling. This is where they may go for several days with very limited eating followed by durations of large quantities of food. 

Food cycling, otherwise known as binging and restricting, can stem from may things including 

While engaging in a binge and restrict cycle does not always mean an individual has an eating disorder, it is a common characteristic of many disruptions with food intake. 

Girl eating a pizza from the box
Biological Reasons We Binge When We Restrict

How Do You Break The Bingeing Cycle

When we restrict food, several things occur within the body. 

  • We have a decrease in leptin
  • We experience an increase in fatigue
  • Increased stress related to reducing food intake, fear of weight gain, feelings of inadequacy 
  • We have an increase in cortisol which leads the body to crave high fat high calorie foods

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. 

Person looking gloomy eating cereal
Binging Can Lead Us To Overwhelm and A Desire To Further Restrict

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
Our Bodies Fight Against Restriction

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. 


Person reaching towards yellow horizon
Binging Can Increase Stress, Anxiety, and Cortisol

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 deter the effects of a famine (what the body believes is happening in anorexia) will be in full swing! 

Feet in front of a television and bag of chips
Look For Activities That May Trigger A Binge

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 an individual feeling 

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

This can lead someone to want to use purging (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.


Person on laptop eating
Time Of Day Can Be Associated With A Binge

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 concrete 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 an inclusive dietary plan to meet our 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 Strategies Have You Used to Stop a Binge Restrict Cycle

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

The biggest tools I have used to stop my own binge and restrict tendencies include: 

  • Eating normally even after a binge
  • Eating meals and snacks no more than 3 hours apart
  • 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! 

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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