Stop Me Before I Binge Again!

6 strategies for taking control

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on December 01, 2006
6 min read

It's time to stock up on holiday goodies again. No matter that you and many of your friends and relatives are counting calories this year. It would be a shame to be caught with an empty pantry if guests dropped by. What could it hurt to lay in a supply of fancy chocolates, just to be on the safe side?

It's when you look at your chocolate-smudged fingers and see four empty candy wrappers that it hits you. You're on a binge.

The next day, you join your co-workers in the break room and indulge in the frosted cookies and other holiday goodies you'd been avoiding all week. That night, you go to a party where you end up eating like there's no tomorrow.

What happened? Your diet had been going so well -- at least since the last binge.

What is it about special occasions -- holidays, weddings, birthdays, vacations -- that invites eating well past the point of being full? Three experts talked to WebMD about the problem and gave some advice on how to bounce back -- and how to prevent the next binge.

Special occasions trigger binges for three reasons, says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, author of The Way to Eat.

  • First, they provide a social license to binge because everyone's doing it. "Indulgence loves company," Katz says.
  • Second, they provide opportunity: "You're surrounded by foods like chocolate candy, and exposure begets indulgence."
  • And third, they provide a festive feeling: "You think because it's not something you usually do that it's OK. You can compensate tomorrow."

Special occasions are part of a complex web of hobgoblins that ensnare us in spite of our good intentions. Stress, loneliness, boredom, and feelings of deprivation all contribute.

Deprivation is one of the big ones for dieters, says Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, CD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Dieting for some people means skipping meals and getting overly hungry," she says. "That could cause a binge. You'll crave the foods you're leaving out."

One way to turn off a binge is to get away from the stimulus, says Christian Crandall, PhD, professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

"Drop the candy in a Dumpster," Crandall says. "If you're home alone, call someone to come over who will interfere with your ability to binge, or leave home and go out in public. The car doesn't count."

Sandquist, manager of the Nutrition and Diabetes Center at Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash., says while it's not easy to stop mid-binge, it is possible. First, ask yourself if the binge is really worth it.

Then notice what triggered the binge. "For example, if I get overtired I tend to eat too much," says Sandquist. "We need to learn how to express ourselves and find out what we need instead of food for comfort."

Finally, write down your strategies for weight control -- the ones that sustained you before the binge. And be gentle with yourself. "If you stop with five cookies instead of 10, you've made progress." Sandquist says. "It's a process."

She recommends not trying to ignore cravings, which can lead to feelings of deprivation. Instead, manage them by enjoying bite-sized indulgences.

For example, you can satisfy a chocolate craving with a small piece of dark chocolate: "Make it an event. Give it 10 or 15 minutes." Alternately, she suggests, "try low-fat chocolate milk, or mix unsweetened cocoa, nonfat milk, and artificial sweetener."

If you're tempted to think -- as dieters often do -- that once you've blown your diet you might as well keep on going, consider what Katz has to say:

"No matter how good a person you are or how good a driver you are, if you drive far enough, you'll eventually get a flat tire. Do you hop out of your car, pull out a pocketknife, and puncture the other three tires? That's the kind of response people have to dieting. You're cruising along, you run into trouble, but instead of fixing it and getting back on track, they do the dietary equivalent of puncturing the other three tires."

Our three experts say it's important to remember that to binge is to be human. In fact, we're hard-wired for it, says Katz, who directs the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

"Primitive people had to go long periods without eating, and the natural response to food was to eat everything in sight," Katz says. "When modern people go too long without eating, they reactivate that primal response. It becomes a behavioral pattern that propagates itself."

In other words, cut yourself some slack.

And whether your binge was one supersized meal, a week of holiday treats, or an indulgent monthlong vacation, don't try to make up for it with a punishing regimen of diet and exercise.

"It will work, but you'll gain the weight back at the first opportunity," says Katz. "It sets up a crazy pattern of going from extremes of indulgence to deprivation, and it makes you desperately anxious about your relationship with food.

"Remember the fable of the tortoise and hare? Everybody in dieting wants to be the hare. But who won that race?"

And what can you do to stop a binge before it starts? Our experts have some tips for handing occasions that are likely to lead you to overeat.

1. Already bought your holiday treats? There's still time to stop yourself. "Save a bite-sized piece, eat it, and enjoy it," says Sandquist. "Give the rest to a homeless shelter. Don't take it to work." Put your imagination to work on healthier goodies to serve to guests -- like luscious fresh fruit or a raw vegetable platter.

2. Have a plan. Eat a nutritious snack before going to a party. Tell yourself you'll eat just half of what's served, then stick to your vow.

3. Plan active days off and vacations. "I love days of intense physical activity -- hiking, horseback riding, skiing, and wonderful celebratory meals at the end of the day," says Katz. "Don't assume you have to gain weight if you're indulging. Compensate with physical activity."

4. Identify your triggers. For example, if you're going to a family gathering, are you likely to feel resentful or guilty about long-standing differences with certain family members? Deal with these issues. Food can mask them but won't make them disappear.

5. Distinguish between indulging and bingeing. Occasionally allow yourself to indulge without eating out of control. The tendency to engage in black-and-white thinking is the hallmark of a problem with food, says Crandall. "If you think one Snickers makes a disaster, then you might think, 'Why not go all the way and really binge?'"

6. Snack often on nutritious foods to keep from getting overly hungry. Katz carries an insulated snack pack everywhere. It's filled with foods such as dried and fresh fruits, baby carrots, nonfat yogurt, trail mix, whole-grain cereal, nuts, and baked chips. "You have to defend yourself," he says. "You can't go out into the modern 'obese-ogenic' environment and hope not to get fat, just as you wouldn't go out in the rain without an umbrella and expect to not get wet."