How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps

A weird but systematic way to stop overeating and binge eating.

Posted Jan 14, 2019

If I said I could show you how to permanently stop binge eating and overeating today if you wanted to, would you think I was crazy?   Many people would, especially if they've been struggling for a lifetime. Some even report feeling compelled to binge, as if someone were pointing a gun at their head saying "keep eating or I'll shoot!" Others feel they 'need' their junk, not so much for pleasure, but just to feel normal. 

I know this pain all too well...

Not only from my 27 years of experience as a psychologist, author of a popular weight loss book, and a consultant to the food industry—but from personal history as well.  I'll spare you the full story, but let's just say there’s probably nothing you've done with food I haven't done myself...

  • Eating out of the garbage...
  • Stealing my roommate's food without telling him...
  • Driving to multiple fast food restaurants just so no one person would know how much I was eating...
  • Eating off the floor...
  • And repeatedly stuffing myself way past the point of physical pain.

This went on for almost thirty years while I tried to fix my problem from the vantage point of a psychologist.  "Must not be what I'm eating but what's eating me", I thought.  But this was NOT the case, and this paradigm really slowed down my efforts to fix the problem.

But approximately 10 years ago I stumbled on a solution and kept a journal to work it all out for myself which I later turned into a book. I couldn't imagine I'd ever have 600,000 readers and tens of thousands of followers.  In the end though, I’m in a rather unique position: I haven't met another psychologist who’s worked extensively with the food industry and also struggled with their own personal eating hell.  Certainly not to a successful conclusion.  So I hope you'll at least consider this three step solution, no matter how odd it may seem.  After all, what if it works?


STEP ONE:  Understand and Confront the Forces and Myths in Our Culture That Keep People Fat.   

There's an abundance of misinformation and misunderstanding which prevents the majority of our population from losing weight for good.  You need to confront this head on if you don't want to be one of them.  Let's go through the myths one by one:

MYTH: "It's not what you’re eating, it's the emotions eating you!" 
TRUTH:  It’s actually a part of your brain that isn’t primarily responsible for emotions that’s doing the damage!


It's common to assume people overeat primarily for emotional reasons.  The idea is that we're looking for "comfort food" to escape painful emotional states and fill the empty hole in our hearts.   From this idea stems the notion we must first nurture our "inner wounded child" back to health if we ever hope to lose weight for good...

But there’s a big problem with this idea:  The reptilian brain is very involved in food addiction, and the reptilian brain does not know love.  Instead, when it evaluates something new in the environment it thinks "Do I eat it?  Do I mate with it?  Or do I kill it?"  Love seems to exist much more in the higher, more recently evolved parts of the brain—the parts you think of as "You."  So do spirituality, music, art, friendship, work, and all your long term goals like diet and exercise.

We think a large part of what happens when you "lose control" or change your mind about your diet in the face of a tempting treat is that survival mechanisms in the reptilian brain have been mistakenly activated and misdirected towards the treat.  This is why people feel like all their best laid plans go out the window at the moment of temptation.  Those plans are in their higher brain, but the reptilian brain is taking over.

MYTH: If we can’t control ourselves around food, we don’t have willpower!
TRUTH: There are EXTREMELY powerful economic-persuasion systems that are set up to get us to binge and overeat.  These systems are so successful that almost 70% of the population in the United States are overweight and almost 40% are OBESE!


The food industry spends billions of dollars engineering food-like substances to target our lizard-brain with hyper-palatable concentrations of sugar, starch, fat, oil, salt, and excitotoxins which hit our bliss point without giving us the nutrition to feel satisfied.  Then the advertising industry spends billions convincing us we need these things to survive (both physically and mentally).  Of the 5,000+/yr food advertising messages beamed at us through the internet and airwaves only a handful are about eating more fruits and vegetables.  And many of these are targeted at us from the time we are small children!  ("Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated" - The Borg)

There's some very interesting research which may shed light on the impact.  Mammalian studies which bypass the normal pleasure apparatus show an abandonment of survival needs to self-stimulate via artificial means...

For example, psychologists Millner and Olds wired an electrode directly into rats' brains and allowed them to activate it by pressing a lever.  In experiment after experiment rats pressed the lever thousands of times per day.  Starving rats ignored their food.  Nursing mother rats abandoned their pups.  Rats would crawl over painful electrical grids to press the lever.   One could argue their survival drive was hijacked by the chance to obtain this artificial pleasure.

Now, I'm not saying anyone is putting electrodes in our brains.  At least not physical ones - chemical electrodes are another story.  That's not stretching the truth too far, I think, when in most cities today you can walk out of one fast food joint and see another one directly across the street!  It's no wonder so many people insist they no longer like fruits and vegetables. Their survival drives have been hijacked by the artificial pleasure buttons the food industry has to offer.

The point of all this is, our reptilian brains are under attack by enormous forces, and while this part of us doesn’t know love, it does have access to our fight or flight mechanism, which can convince us we need these things as a matter of survival. 

In my own experience, as well as thousands of readers and clients I've helped, the best way to deal with this is more a game of unflinching domination than one of loving yourself.  When an alpha wolf is challenged for leadership by another member of the pack it doesn't look at that member and say "Gee, I think someone needs a hug!"  Instead, it bares its teeth and snarls aggressively as if to say "Look, I'm the boss here.  Get back in line or I'll hurt you!"

It's like that. 

Now, don't get me wrong.  There is definitely an association between food and emotion, but emotions do not "make" you overeat.  Mammals in the studies above over-stimulated themselves with artificial pleasure regardless of whether they were stressed, and people overeat when they're happy as well as when they’re angry, sad, lonely, tired, anxious, or depressed.  It seems the engineered intensity of pleasure available for minimum effort can bypass all these feelings.

MYTH: Guidelines are Better Than Rules.  Eat Well 90% of the Time, Indulge Yourself 10%
TRUTH:  Guidelines wear down your willpower by requiring constant decision making.  Consider well-thought-through rules for your most troublesome trigger foods and/or eating behaviors.

As discussed in my previous post, guidelines wear down your willpower by forcing constant decision making.  Every time you’re in front of a chocolate bar at Starbucks you have to ask yourself "Is this part of the 90% or part of the 10%."  Rules, on the other hand, preserve willpower by eliminating decisions.  Decision making has been consistently shown to deplete willpower in studies.  Better to use a rule like "I'll only ever eat chocolate on the last weekend of each calendar month" because it eliminates your chocolate decisions most of the time!

MYTH:  Avoid tempting food and environments.  
TRUTH:  Cultivate confidence, not fear.

Sometimes overeaters are told to avoid fast food restaurants, birthday parties, etc.  Many believe they need a separate pantry and/or shelf of the refrigerator where other people’s tempting treats are kept.  Sometimes they even ask their spouses and children to keep tempting treats in a locked drawer.  The underlying belief behind this idea is that external temptation is the problem. 

While there's no reason to hang out in a bakery all day if you’re trying to lose weight, and while some people might find it helpful to avoid temptation as a kind of "training wheels" exercise to get started, I find it's much better to cultivate confidence vs. fear.  I have good reasons to hang out in Starbucks.  Yes, there are many tempting treats on the counter...but my friends go there.  Sometimes I like to just sit there and read or do a little work.   So I define clear rules for myself regarding those treats and confidently follow them while I enjoy the rest of what the environment has to offer.  You can't avoid temptation without seriously shrinking your life. 

STEP TWO:  Make At Least One Clear Food Rule.   

What's your single most troublesome trigger food or eating behavior?  For example, if you tend to overeat in front of the television you might make the rule "Except for Saturdays I'll never eat while watching television again."   Or perhaps you reliably have healthy days when you drink pure water in the morning so you say "I will always drink 16 oz of pure spring water before I eat anything in the A.M."   Or maybe you just eat too quickly without really experiencing your food.  In this case you can say "I'll always put my fork down between bites."
  
Any rule you create is fine—as long as it doesn’t restrict your overall calories and nutrition too much—and provided the rule is crystal clear, such that if ten people followed you around all week they'd all 100% agree whether you followed it.

Also, you can change your rule(s) whenever you want, provided you take at least a half hour for written reflection and are clear why you want to make the change, and allow at least 24 hours before the change takes effect. 

Last, it's very important to note that despite the fact we can change the rules, we write them as if they were set in stone.  It's kind of like telling a two year old they can never ever cross the street without holding your hand, even though you know you're going to teach them to look both ways when they're older.  You say "never" because you know they're not anywhere near mature enough to even entertain this dangerous idea.  Similarly, you can say "never" to your reptilian brain, even though you know you might change the rules later on.  Turns out our reptilian brains act like two year olds around tempting foods!

STEP THREE: Separate Your Constructive vs. Destructive Thoughts About Food

OK, now here’s the weird part.  The last and most powerful part of this strange method involves deciding that all your destructive, impulsive food thoughts no longer belong to you.  Instead, they belong to a kind of inner enemy associated with your reptilian brain.  (You can call it your "Food Monster" or "Binge Lizard" or anything else that’s not a cuddly pet.)

Then, come up with a name for your Food Demon's voice.  For example, my Food Demon doesn't talk, it Squeals. Any thought, feeling, or impulse which suggests you will ever break your rule again is that voice, which you will learn to recognize and ignore. 

Finally, come up with a crude name for everything your inner enemy craves.  For example, my Demon Squeals for Demon Slop.

The idea is to help you more easily recognize and ignore the inner voice which has to this point been responsible for all your bad choices around food.

Let's illustrate in a little more detail so you can see how this works.  Suppose I have a rule which says I never eat chocolate on anything other than the last Saturday and Sunday of the month.  Then, when I'm standing on line at Starbucks and there’s a chocolate bar calling to me at the counter, I become aware of a thought like "Gee Glenn, you worked out really hard this morning so you can definitely afford a few bites." Or "Hey Glenn, chocolate is made from cocoa beans, and those grow on a plant, therefore chocolate is a vegetable."
At that point I'd say to myself "I don’t want that, my Food Demon does.  It's Squealing for Demon Slop.  I never eat Demon Slop!"

And that’s it.

As crazy as it sounds, this very crude, very primitive technique can give you the extra microseconds you need at the moment of impulse to wake and remember who you are and why you made the rules in the first place.  It’s not a miracle, and most people have to experiment with a variety of rules and behaviors before everything really comes together for them...but it really can quickly restore your sense of power and agency with food, especially if you’ve been struggling for a long time.
"I don’t eat Demon Slop and I don’t let my lizard brain tell me what to do!"

Try it.  What have you got to lose?  After all, what if I’m right?
 

References

Olds, J.; Millner, P.; (1954).  "Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain."  Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology.  Dec;47(6):419-27

Baumeister, R. F.; Bratslavsky, E.; Muraven, M.; Tice, D. M. (1998). "Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74 (5): 1252–1265.

Gailliot, M. T.; Baumeister, R. F.; Dewall, C. N.; Maner, J. K.; Plant, E. A.; Tice, D. M.; Brewer, B. J.; Schmeichel, Brandon J. (2007). "Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92 (2): 325–336

Casey, B. J., et al. (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 1498-5003.

Story, M; French, S.; (2004).   Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US.  Int Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; 1 (3).  Published online 2004 Feb 10. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-1-3