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Do You Ever Say to Yourself, "I Can't Control My Eating"?

If you want to stop binge eating, change how you think about your behaviors.

Key points

  • Many people who have binge eating disorder often describe feeling a loss of control so strong that it feels like an alien has taken over.
  • Although it sounds counterintuitive, disordered eating may be an attempt at self-protection.
  • Instead of trying to get rid of behaviors, listen to your symptoms with an open mind as a way to address binge eating.
Claudiad/istockphoto
Source: Claudiad/istockphoto

This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D.

“I can’t control my eating” is a common refrain among those with eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors. They describe their experience—a cycle of a restrictive eating mindset followed by loss of control with food—as if an alien, a demon, or a drill sergeant has taken over their bodies and is calling the shots.

"I believe that one of the fundamental reasons that we feel stressed in recovery is because we forget that we are meant to be going against the things our eating-disorder brain believes to be important and true." —Tabitha Farrar

Most people do not enjoy the feeling of being out of control, whether it’s with emotions, with major stressors, or with food. You may have tried to stop binge eating, with little success. It's possible that trying to get rid of your symptoms may be the wrong approach.

Why do we lose control with food?

The reason may be that binge eating is a symptom of a deeper issue. Put another way, binge eating disorder may actually protect you from another, more complex, pain.

What causes binge eating?

We are still learning about what leads a person to be vulnerable to binge eating, but research suggests a variety of potential contributors such as problems dealing with negative emotions, restrictive eating, overvaluation of weight and shape, sleep deprivation, stress, a history of dieting, genetics, low self-esteem, trauma, and interpersonal difficulties.

A recent study (Serra et al., 2020) revealed that the impact of traumatic experiences negatively predicts remission. One theory suggests that trauma may offer a pathway for initiating binge eating by suppressing negative emotions and offering an escape from self-awareness. Therefore, addressing trauma may be critical to recovery.

Pause for a moment to consider what binge eating may be doing for you rather than to you.

If you are wondering how to stop binge eating, consider where your thoughts are most concentrated. If you are fixating on control—of when, where, what, and how much you eat—you may need to change tactics. While it may seem a strange request, ask yourself if binge eating may be serving a function or trying to protect you.

"To experience the Self, there’s no shortcut around our inner barbarians – those unwelcome parts of ourselves, such as...an addictive need for food.... The lesson I’ve repeatedly learned over the years of practice is that we must learn to listen to and ultimately embrace these unwelcome parts. If we can do that...they transform." —Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.

Imagine that binge eating may be your protector. With this shift in thinking, how might your perspective change? What messages are your symptoms trying to convey?

Is binge eating a warning system?

If you are struggling with a pattern of loss-of-control eating, the time lost to behaviors and the shame that comes afterward may be impossible to ignore. What if this distraction and your shame have a purpose: to get your attention? Could it be that binge eating is an alarm signaling that something else is going on?

What message is it sending?

Do you have unmet needs? One individual revealed how an eating disorder can seem like a friend:

“You give me a good reason to hide from things/thoughts/events I know I can’t cope with.”

Maybe binge eating is trying to tell you that learning to tolerate negative emotions or build closer relationships should be more of a priority. Maybe binge eating is letting you know that it’s time to change your beliefs about body image, dieting, thinness, or muscularity. Maybe binge eating is showing you that denying your genetic makeup is setting you up to fail. Or, binge eating may be protecting you from a traumatic memory.

Are you welcoming all of your parts?

No matter how loud the eating disorder voice may be and how frequently you try to diet, experience shame, and lose control with food, there is another part of you. You have a healthy self that can listen, learn, and help you heal. Integrating your healthy, real self with the parts of you that are associated with the eating disorder—your negative self-talk, restrictive and out of control eating behaviors, overvaluation of weight and shape, strong urges, and even dissociative experiences—you can reach lasting recovery.

Accept all parts of yourself, even binge eating.

"...when your healthy self gets back in control...your eating disorder self no longer has a job to do and ceases to exist as a separate entity” —Carolyn Costin

Binge eating may be an ally.

Try to change your thinking. Underneath binge eating, there may be a part of you that is waiting for help. A variety of therapies can offer a path forward, depending on your needs:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an evidence-based therapy for binge eating disorder. CBT facilitates change by challenging distorted thoughts about food, weight, and shape, increasing effective coping strategies for facing and handling triggers, and creating a structured eating plan.
  • Interpersonal Therapy is an evidence-based therapy for binge eating disorder. IPT connects the onset and maintenance of problematic eating behaviors with interpersonal difficulties and focuses on learning to effectively navigate relational challenges and develop satisfying, supportive relationships.
  • Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training is a skills-based intervention for responding effectively to emotional states, actively choosing what to eat, noticing hunger, fullness, and satiety cues, and cultivating greater self-acceptance.
  • Internal Family Systems encourages curiosity about all parts of the self. This evidence-based therapy for trauma asserts that the unique needs of the distressing part (i.e. the binge eating behaviors) has to be understood and addressed until the symptom is no longer needed and balance is achieved.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy is evidenced-based for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other issues. DBT focuses on building mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills. When a person with binge eating disorder struggles with emotion regulation difficulties, it may be helpful.

Rather than only focusing on eating behaviors, stay curious about the possibility of having unmet needs and be open to facing those with professional help. Healing and recovery from binge eating is possible.

To find a therapist to treat eating disorders, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Costin, C. (2020). ED self vs healthy self. Accessed August 30, 2021, from https://www.carolyn-costin.com/ed-self-vs-healthy-self.

Eating Recovery Center. (2020). Causes of binge eating disorder. Accessed August 30, 2021, from https://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/conditions/binge-eating/causes.

Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M. & Mussap, A. J. (2008). The relationship between dissociation and binge eating. J Trauma Dissociation, 9(4), 445-62. doi: 10.1080/15299730802226084. PMID: 19042791.

IFS Institute. 2021. What is internal family systems? Accessed August 30, 2021, from https://ifs-institute.com/.

IFS Institute. 2021. Written by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. The Larger Self Accessed September 10, 2021, from https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/larger-self.

La Mela, C., Maglietta, M., Castellini, G., Amoroso, L. & Lucarelli, S. (2010). Dissociation in eating disorders: Relationship between dissociative experiences and binge-eating episodes. Compr Psychiatry, 51(4), 393–400. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2009.09.008. Epub 2009 Dec 21. PMID: 20579513.

Serra, R., Kiekens, G., Tarsitani, L., Vrieze, E., Bruffaerts, R., Loriedo, C., An, A. & Vanderlinden, J. (2020). The effect of trauma and dissociation on the outcome of cognitive behavioural therapy for binge eating disorder: A 6-month prospective study. Eur Eat Disord Rev, 28(3), 309–317. doi: 10.1002/erv.2722. Epub 2020 Feb 20. PMID: 32080958.

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