Expectations, Restrictions, and Binges


Regularly, when working with clients, they will tell me that they had a “binge”.

Whenever I hear this phrase uttered, I always ask them to describe the events in detail: what happened beforehand, what did they consume, where were they, what happened afterwards, what emotions did they feel, how were they talking to themselves and what were they focusing on?

The definition of a binge is “an episode of uncontrollable eating in which a person rapidly consumes an excessive quantity of food”. Undoubtedly there are other definitions that differ slightly, but let’s stick with this one for now.

There’s one part of this definition that I want to focus on today.

It’s the word “excessive”.

What constitutes “excessive” is actually highly subjective.

If you’re trying to keep your calories below a certain amount but then eat a biscuit or a piece of chocolate, it’s easy for this to be thought of as “excessive” and therefore a binge.

If you believe that sugar is evil and is destroying your health, eating any amount of ice cream whatsoever could easily feel like a binge.

Maybe you’re trying to eat to 80% full or have some rule about what level of fullness you deem appropriate. You then find yourself in a situation where you go above this and feel overly full (or just more full than you ideally want to). You therefore rationalise that you’ve eaten an “excessive” amount and it seems logical to characterise this as a binge.  

I notice this regularly with clients. What they are describing as a “binge” actually just looks and sounds like very normal eating behaviour. That if they didn’t have strict rules or hang ups around food (and their body), they wouldn’t think twice about it.

Our expectations about what we should eat (both type of foods as well as quantity) impact our feelings about our eating behaviour.

I’m often aghast at the social media accounts that people are following and the content they contain. They see a picture of a salad from some wellness pro and believe this is what they should be consuming for lunch. I look at the same picture and know that this wouldn’t even fill me up as a snack, and believe the same is true for them.  

So this supposedly filling meal is anything but filling. But rather than recognising this, when they still feel hungry afterwards, they wonder why something is wrong with them.

The word “excessive” also has to be thought about in the appropriate context. There will be times when what someone eats in one sitting is a large volume of food. They’re not just confused about why they are hungry after a salad; they’ve actually sat down (or often stood up) and polished off a significant number of calories in one go.

But what about when we look at what else had been consumed that day? Or that week? Or that month?

Thinking back though all my years as a practitioner, I struggle to think of a client who experienced “binges,” where restriction (whether consciously or unconsciously) hadn’t preceded it.

So the person who ends up having a “binge” in the evening often ate less than what their body needed during the day.

Or the person who ends up having a “binge” for days or a week, has almost always been on some cleanse, or diet, or restrictive way of eating, where they were giving themselves less than what they needed.

(There is also the added wrinkle of both physical deprivation and mental deprivation, which I talk about in this previous article)

So when we look at the “binge” not just in terms of that one meal but take in a longer time frame, the “excessiveness” usually disappears. And in actuality, the body is just trying to make up for past restriction rather than being about over-consumption.

Undoubtedly there are cases where previous deprivation isn’t the driver. For example, where someone binges purely to deal with emotional issues and there is no prior physical or mental deprivation. But at least with the clients I see, this is rare. And given society’s seemingly endless capacity for dieting and body shame, I’d argue the same is true for the world at large.

This is especially the case when we think about what falls under the umbrella of normal eating behaviour.

Humans don’t solely eat for sustenance or because of hunger and fullness.

We eat for enjoyment. We eat for social reasons. We eat for emotional reasons. All of this is completely normal eating behaviour.

But if we deny this and believe that food is only for sustenance and “health,” then it’s very easy to stray off course.

Any morsel of food that isn’t seen as absolutely necessary is seen as an indiscretion and this experience can be labelled a “binge” (and often is).

At the end of the day, people have the right to label their experiences however they want. If it feels right to them to call something a binge, then I respect that. But people are setting such a low bar for what triggers this feeling, that it becomes inevitable.

And this becomes a trap.

Because when you have a “binge” and label it as so, this creates a whole host of negative emotions. And unfortunately people start to believe that these negative emotions, as painful as they are in the moment, are what will eventually spur them on to not participate in that behaviour in the future.

That if they were to think of what just happened as “normal” or “no big deal” that they would spiral and every meal would be a binge. Because why wouldn’t it?

But this is not what we actually see.

The more people are able to be compassionate and non-judgmental about their choices, paradoxically the better they eat and take care of themselves.

Undeniably this takes some learning and it can definitely feel messy to begin with. But this is the path to truly being able to listen to what you’re body wants and needs, and being able to get on with your life.

Conversely, the more someone labels their eating episodes as a “binge,” the more they’ll participate in deprivation and then experience the inevitable repercussions. And this is especially the case if there’s an impossible standard that makes invoking the label of “binge” a certainty.

Our obsessiveness with “health” and the ratcheting up of our ideals about what we “should” be eating is just leading to more misery and suffering.

Letting go of this ideology isn’t giving up, as people might think, but is rather the true act of taking care of oneself.

These new behaviours on the surface might not appear so “Instagrammable”. But in the real world, they are what will lead to the kind of freedom people have been searching for all along.  

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Chris Sandel is the founder of www.seven-health.com. He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

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