Recovery from binge eating disorder (BED) doesn’t happen all at once. You’ll feel like you have to binge while you recover. You may even relapse. As time goes by, urges will come less often and they may be less demanding.
Through treatment, you can learn to manage those strong feelings. When they do happen, you’ll learn how to handle them.
Along with your treatment, there are lifestyle changes that can help you head off a binge, and tips that can help you when the moment hits.
What Can You Do Day-to-Day?
Eat breakfast. People who binge eat have predictable patterns. Many will eat no breakfast, have a light lunch, then be famished in the afternoon and eat too much. Eat at regular times throughout the day. Timely, predictable meals go a long way toward giving you power over the binge.
Avoid temptation. You’re more likely to go overboard if junk food and desserts are at arm’s reach. Plan your treats. Go to a shop and enjoy one cup of ice cream. But don’t stock the freezer with gallons of it.
Build a support system. Pick out a few family members or friends who you can talk with about your struggles. As you’re choosing, remember that they need to be able to encourage you when you’re feeling down, too.
You may find a support group helpful. You would spend time with folks who are on the same journey you are. Plus, those relationships don’t have the emotional ties that can come with family.
Get moving. Exercise is a great stress reliever that can do wonders for your mood. The natural spirit-elevating chemicals that physical activity brings can help curb emotional eating.
Make sure to ask your doctor what kind of exercise is best for you, especially if you have health issues.
Identify emotional triggers. Try to figure out what tends to push you into a binge. Is it anger? Frustration? Boredom? Is it when you’re celebrating? Pay attention to which feelings flip the switch, and use them as warning signs.
Relieve stress. Find ways to handle tough times without food. Some options include:
- Guided relaxation
- Deep breathing exercises
Follow a regular meal plan. “The most important thing to do is to get on a regular pattern of eating,” says Doug Bunnell, PhD, former president of the National Eating Disorders Association.
Dietary restriction and under-eating – often in an attempt to lose weight or “make up for” a binge – can make you feel hungry, then overeat or binge, he says.
Focus on health, not weight. The desire to lose weight can actually keep someone stuck in a bingeing cycle, Bunnell says. Focus on overall fitness and health rather than pounds.
Stopping a Binge When It Hits
Despite your best efforts, the urge can still come upon you. Try these tactics to stop yourself. And have multiple approaches in your toolbox in case plan A fails.
Sit with the emotion. What are you feeling that makes you want to binge? Identify it, and accept it without judging the emotion or yourself. This will be hard at first. But emotions pass, and as you accept your feelings, you’ll realize you don’t have to binge to get rid of them.
Surf the urge. You may think your desire to binge will just continue to grow. But if you distract yourself with other things and get away from your food triggers, you’ll see that feeling start to go away. Think of the urge as an ocean wave that will grow, but then wash away.
Distract yourself. Find something to take your mind and body away from food. You can, among other things:
- Play a game you really enjoy
- Go for a walk
- Go to the park
- Mow the lawn
- Go for a drive
- Read a book
Pick up the phone. Here’s where that support system you built comes in. Call your trusted friend or support group member and tell them what you’re going through. Talking it out can help make the urge pass.
Also, some therapists specialize in working with binge eating disorder, and some medications are FDA-approved to treat it. Talk with your doctor to explore these options.
Find your happy place. Do whatever makes you feel good about yourself. You can listen to music that boosts your mood, hit the gym, or watch a funny movie.
Think it through. If you do start to eat, try to slow down, pay attention to each bite, and don’t allow yourself to fall into a daze. Stay in the moment.
Be positive. Learning how to change negative thoughts about overeating and your body into positive action is an important step toward avoiding the binge and getting better. Sometimes you can help yourself. Other times, professional help can redirect your thoughts. You can try:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a common treatment for binge eating disorder. Your doctor or therapist will likely suggest this therapy first. Most people with the disorder who try CBT get better. It can also help you if you have depression, which often happens along with bingeing.
A version called "enhanced CBT" is designed for people with eating disorders. It teaches you to recognize feelings of low self-esteem and other negative thoughts that can trigger binges.
Instead of saying:
- "I'm a failure because I eat too much."
- "I'll never get to my ideal weight."
- "It's too hard to eat right."
You’ll learn to say things like:
- "I'm a good person, and I can get my eating under control."
- "With a little effort, I will reach a healthy weight."
- "My therapist and my dietitian will help me create a diet I can stick with."
CBT is usually done once a week for about 20 weeks. During each session, you'll meet with a therapist alone or as part of a group.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT). Therapists have used IPT to help people with depression for a long time. Today, it's also used to treat eating disorders. IPT can help you stop binge eating and avoid setbacks. Studies find it works about as well as CBT.
IPT helps you figure out whether problems at home or in your other relationships are triggering your binges. There are three phases:
- Phase 1: You identify the problems in your personal life that make you want to overeat. For example, maybe you snack whenever you feel lonely, or after you get into a fight with your parents.
- Phase 2: Your therapist shows you how to build better relationships.
- Phase 3: You work to stick with the changes you've made and prevent binge relapses.
IPT is usually done once a week in a group or one-on-one with your therapist.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, but instead of trying to change your negative thoughts, you accept and learn to live with them. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing and yoga help you become more aware of your thoughts.
Therapists have used DBT to help people with personality disorders who have self-destructive habits. Research is still being done to see how well it works for binge eating. So far, it seems to help, and those who start the program are able to stick with it.
- Guided self-help. If you don't have time for regular therapy sessions or you can't afford them, guided self-help might be an option.
Some self-help programs are ones you complete all on your own. They involve using books, DVDs, videos, etc.
In other guided self-help programs, you meet with a therapist or health care professional for guidance. This professional will recommend books, computer programs, or self-help videos for you to use at home. It's up to you to put in the time and effort.
One study of people with binge eating disorder found that those who did a 12-week self-guided, manual-based form of cognitive behavioral therapy had greater remission from binge eating than those who got more traditional care. And more than one-third stayed well a year later.
- More tips to lift your mood. Even with these treatments, you can slip back into your old ways of thinking from time to time. To stay positive, you can:
- Give yourself encouragement. Leave sticky notes around your house with inspiring messages like "You can do it!" Stick them on mirrors and other places where you'll see them every day.
- Keep a list of 10 things you like about yourself. Whenever you get down, read the list.
- If you have a setback, don't give yourself a hard time. Just make sure to get back on track the next day.
- Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself.
- Reward yourself for the gains you make. Get a massage or take a warm bubble bath, for example.