Binge Eating: How Much to Eat While You Recover

Medically Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on January 08, 2015
5 min read

When you’re getting better -- or recovering -- from binge eating disorder, you could have a lot of questions about food. Eating disorder experts Natalie Guarnaschelli, a registered dietitian at Eating Disorder Treatment of New York, and Justine Roth, a registered dietitian at The New York State Psychiatric Institute, share their advice.

Guarnaschelli: This is one of the first questions people with binge eating disorder ask, but at first, how much you eat isn’t as much of a concern as is starting to eat balanced meals throughout the day.

Roth: In general, strive to eat balanced meals and snacks that satisfy you. Signs that you might be eating "too much" are if you're starting to feel out of control while eating or like you’re eating to numb emotions.

Roth: You want a balance of all different food groups -- protein, starches, vegetables, and fats, as well as vitamins and minerals, like calcium. Also, you should always try to include foods that you enjoy in your meals. A balanced meal might look like a piece of baked chicken, a sweet potato, and sautéed spinach.

Guarnaschelli: Make peace with your plate. Think about a peace sign on your plate, dividing it into thirds: One-third should have protein, one-third starch, and one-third fruits or vegetables, and some kind of fat. Fat adds flavor to foods and helps you feel satisfied. An example is oatmeal made with milk and fruit and some nuts stirred in, plus an egg. You get protein and fat from the egg, nuts, and milk, and the oatmeal is a starch. If you’re not used to eating proper meals, this might seem like a lot of food, but this is what your body needs. This is what a meal is.

Guarnaschelli: That’s a hard question to answer because talking about calories isn’t helpful. It just feeds the eating disorder. Many binge eaters thinking they should be dieting. But with dieting usually comes calorie counting. You don’t want to do this. The important thing to do is structure meals and snacks and get in some protein and fiber and healthy fat.

Roth: You need enough calories to make you feel full, not deprived. First, I look at what someone eats and then make a meal plan based on that with a similar amount of calories. It may be something like 2,000 calories, but that would need to be decided with your dietitian. A professional dietitian can look at the guidelines and recommend a meal plan without having you focus on calorie counting.

Roth: I don’t believe in a set meal plan, but I do use meal ideas when counseling people who binge eat. Work with your dietitian to come up with three to five balanced breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack ideas. This will help you make better choices at mealtimes. For example, you will know what to add to your bagel or eggs so you end up with a balanced meal. It takes time for your mind to learn how to eat healthfully. Having meal ideals can be helpful.

Guarnaschelli: A meal plan gives you some structure around eating. This can help reduce some of the fear around food. Even if your meal plan is sitting down and having three balanced meals and three snacks, that’s OK, because it’s structured. It helps food become just one part of your life, not the driving part. Eat foods that you like, and have a life in between meals and snacks.

Roth: No is the short answer. But sometimes it’s a good idea to keep your trigger foods out of the house. Enjoy them when you’d be less likely to overdo it, such as with a supportive friend or family member. A forbidden food list is not helpful at all.

Guarnaschelli: It’s important to allow all foods. If you never allow yourself a certain food, you’ll want it more. This can lead to a binge. You don’t want the food to be in control. When you start toward recovery, you might feel more empowered and confident by keeping binge trigger foods out of sight. But know that’s your choice and that it’s important to know you can have them in moderation.

Guarnaschelli: Follow a meal plan and eat enough at each meal. This will help you deal with hunger. It’s normal to feel hungry, and you might even feel scared or anxious when you do. That’s OK. Write down what you are eating and how you are feeling. This can help you tell if you are eating when your body is truly hungry or when you are emotional. Your dietitian can help know if you’re eating enough. Going to therapy can also help you learn skills to replace bingeing.

Roth: When you’re hungry, you should eat. Try to make a non-emotional decision about what to eat. Choose something that will make you feel full. If you really want a cookie, have a cookie. If you worry it might not fill you, then have it with some yogurt or milk -- and don’t feel guilty about it. Keep a log of when you are hungry throughout the day to check if it’s emotional or physical hunger.

Guarnaschelli: Eating healthy meals and snacks every 3 to 4 hours can be very helpful. This boosts your body’s ability to break down and use food. It helps your body better say when it is really hungry or full. Three meals and three snacks are a helpful place to start. I see a lot of patients who eat too little at the beginning of the day to try and start off “right” or “good.” But it’s important to eat enough. Eating too little can make you feel hungry, and that makes you more likely to binge later on.

Roth: You should space meals no more than 3-4 hours apart. I encourage three big meals and a couple of snacks. Not six small meals. Doing that just makes you feel guilty when you have a regular-sized meal in a normal setting.