How many times have you called yourself a failure after eating something you felt you shouldn’t have? After all, dieting is just a matter of willpower, right? So after every “failure” when we’ve eaten the wrong food or eaten too much food, we beat ourselves up for blowing it (again!) and are left feeling convinced we are weak… maybe even addicted to food. That would at least explain why we feel so powerless to stop the bingeing and overeating, even when we so desperately want to stop. “I am not going to do that again,” you probably promise yourself, and double-down on your commitment to follow the rules this time.
The truth is, your binge eating is not because you don’t have enough willpower. And it’s not because you’re addicted to food. It’s often caused by dieting (which I define as any kind of food restriction that’s not medically necessary). Dieting is a flawed methodology, with inherent side effects that cause its own failure. Notice I said that dieting is the failure—not you. Research shows that 80 to 95% of people who diet don’t lose weight long-term. That means it’s rare for people to sustain weight loss on diets, and those who do are statistical outliers.
Still, dieting for intentional weight loss is prescribed all the time for all kinds of reasons! If dieting was a medication, it would never get FDA approval with such terrible success rates. Especially when you consider the mental and physical consequences of dieting, which I won’t go into detail today (check out this post for that). For now, I just want to look at the diet-binge cycle on a pretty basic level so you can see the domino effect that is set into motion the minute you start a diet.
- Dieting: Restricting certain food or limiting amounts of food.
- Dieting “High”: Initial feelings of control, accomplishment, and relief of anxiety related to weight and eating.
- Deprivation / Obsession: Preoccupation with food, hunger, feelings of deprivation, and cravings.
- Anxiety: Fear of losing control, anxiety around food.
- Bingeing / Overeating: Binge eating on restricted or “bad” foods, “breaking the rules”.
- Shame and Guilt: Feeling like a failure, beating yourself up.
- Anxiety: Worry about gaining weight due to bingeing.
- Dieting again to relieve anxiety… and starting the cycle all over again!
As you can see from this cycle, binge eating is an expected response to deprivation for most people (even some people with anorexia nervosa experience “binges”). There are biological reasons for this, in addition to the emotional ones, which we will discuss in the next post. So if you want to stop bingeing, you have to stop dieting and restricting. I know this isn’t the answer most people want, because it’s hard to accept that dieting doesn’t work. For one, we’ve been brainwashed to think it does and to blame ourselves for not being able to lose weight long-term. And also, because giving up dieting feels like giving up on the dream of losing weight and finally keeping it off.
Giving up on intentional weight loss is incredibly difficult given the weight stigma and biases that surround us, but it is possible. You can start rejecting diet culture by learning about Health At Every Size (HAES®), which provides a rarely-heard scientific perspective on issues related to weight. It would also be helpful to work with a good eating disorder therapist or dietitian who can guide you through the process of learning intuitive eating and healing your relationship with food and your body. If you’d like to talk with me or someone on my team about that, please contact us!
Check out the follow up post to this one, The Effects of Dieting on Your Body and Mind.
I’m Cherie Miller, MS, LPC-S, founder of Nourished Soul Center for Healing and @foodfreedomtherapist on Instagram. We offer therapy and nutrition counseling for chronic dieting as well eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, ARFID, and other food issues. As anti-diet professionals, we are passionate about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size philosophies. Contact us here to schedule a therapy or nutrition appointment.