Content Warning: This article references disordered eating, eating binges, and similar topics. This may be triggering for some people. Reader discretion is advised. If you struggle with disordered eating, please seek professional help and support with the National Eating Disorders Association.
Have you ever eaten a whole box of Cheez-It Crackers? What about an entire bag of Justin’s Mini Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups? How about an entire bag of Doritos? (I’m talking about the regular-sized bag, not an individual bag). Oh, and what about an entire package of Chips Ahoy Chocolate Chip Cookies? How about eating all of that food in one night? I have—just the other week in fact.
I am not proud of this, but I have experienced episodes of binge eating since my early twenties. Disordered eating, calorie restriction and an unhealthy relationship with food and body image have all been factors that, most likely, have led to binge eating episodes at different periods in my life. Oh, did I mention I struggle with anxiety? One of the easiest ways for me to cope with stress and unwanted emotions is by binge eating to the point where I am so full, I am numb and I don’t have to feel those feelings.
In all actuality, I have done a lot of inner work to understand why I binge eat. The aforementioned binge was the first one I had in over seven months. I cannot even tell you the last time I experienced a binge prior to that, but these binge eating episodes still happen from time to time.
Flashback to the other week, as I reached the bottom of the bag of chips and was polishing off the very last chocolate chip cookie, I was already fervently Googling “What to do after an eating binge.” I found many of the search results to be less than helpful, which inspired this article. I want community members to know that if you struggle with binge eating, you aren’t alone. If you are anything like me and a binge happens from time to time, here’s what to do after a binge.
What is binge eating?
Binge eating disorder (BED), surprisingly, is the most common eating (and feeding) disorder in the United States. One of the newest eating disorders to formally be recognized, BED is a severe, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very quickly and to the point of discomfort.
During binging episodes, many people report feeling a loss of control and experience distress, guilt and shame afterwards. Some individuals try to compensate for the effects of binge eating with other unhealthy measures like calories restriction, excessive exercise, purging or skipping meals entirely.
Why do we binge eat?
Eating and feeding disorders, like BED, are not all about food alone, which is why they are also recognized as psychiatric disorders. People typically develop binge eating as a way to deal with deeper underlying issues or other psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression. Other factors like emotional trauma, family history, genetics, gender, and poor body image can also contribute.
Confusingly, binge eating also can have causes that are not due to any of these things. Let’s be real here, folks. How many times have you been sitting in your apartment, bored, and decided to mindlessly munch your way through half of your kitchen? (I swear, that jar of nut butter was just full).
We’ve all also had times where we have overindulged during the holidays or a night out. It happens! Rachelle Larkey, MS, RD, CDN, CLC says, “Binges are normal, ok, and will happen. I always like to reiterate that there is nothing broken about you if you have binged.”
Whether you use binge eating to cope with uncomfortable emotions (oh hey, right here) or you find yourself rethinking that late night take out order, here’s what to do after an eating binge. Don’t worry. These tips don’t give you the typical “Forgive yourself, give yourself some grace, let go and move on.” Yeah, that is way easier said than done and definitely doesn’t work for me, so here are some practical tips that I hope help readers.
What to do after a binge
- Avoid restriction
After an eating binge, your first natural thought might be to restrict our calories and meals. That is the last thing we want to do.
Rachelle Heinemann, LMHC reminds us, “The most important thing to remember is not to restrict after a binge. It can be the hardest thing in the world to do, but hear me out. When someone binges, almost always it’s because they haven’t eaten enough during the day or week prior. Bingeing and restricting are two sides of the same coin; a bingeing problem is a restriction problem.”
Aleta Marie Storch MS, RDN, LMHC seconds that sentiment. “Don’t make a plan to restrict, avoid, get rid of or limit foods. Don’t plan to have a fresh start tomorrow. Don’t plan to never binge again. These will also reinforce the cycle.” Instead, Storch recommends returning to a regular eating pattern by starting with the next meal or snack.
“If you binge late at night, you still need to eat breakfast. If you binge mid-day, your body will still require fuel in the evening. If you feel full or sick at that point, try to eat something small and easy to digest.”
2. Get comfortable
Right after a binge occurs, Larkey recommends her clients get comfortable both physically and mentally.
“I like to approach this from two angles. Physically, right after a binge, I like to focus on physical comfort. How can we make you more comfortable while you digest? Fullness is temporary and it will pass. Maybe antacids, blankets, comfy clothing, a heating pad or tea.”
When it comes to getting comfortable emotionally, Larkey tells clients to notice and work on reframing self talk after a binge. “Try mantras like: This is okay. My body is smart and will know how to recover from this. I am at the beginning stages of my recovery (if that’s true). Or I am uncomfortable and dislike this feeling, and that’s okay. I always aim for something neutral, and validating since positivity is often impossible in these moments or feels disingenuous.”
Okay, this tip may seem pretty basic, but there’s a reason it appears in almost every Google search for “What to do after a binge.” While you get comfy, grab some water and hydrate. Michelle Tierney, Registered Dietitian and Certified Personal Trainer who specializes in eating disorders, tells us why.
“Water is the most potent natural detoxifier, helps digested food move through the digestive tract quicker and promotes optimal cellular function,” she says. “Furthermore, it can help reset proper hunger and fullness cues, which can reduce binge episodes.” While you get comfy, grab that glass of water and drink up, buttercup!
4. Identify the reason for the binge
After an eating binge, Colleen Christensen, RD recommends taking some time to identify the reason for the binge. “It’s important not only to focus on how to get through the binge, but to also focus on how to prevent one in the future.”
Christensen continues, “I like to say that everything is a learning experience. So, what can this teach you? Were you under eating and to prevent a binge again, [maybe] increasing the amount of food [you eat each day] may help? Maybe it was a specific food that you binged on that you restricted. Work on breaking food rules around that food and neutralizing it. Maybe you were feeling emotional and in the future you can work to cope with the emotion itself versus using food as your sole coping mechanism.”
Heinemann agrees, saying, “Bingeing is sometimes part of a larger emotional issue. One of the first steps to understanding some of this is to identify some of the emotions you are feeling after the binge. Try to see if you can connect those feelings with anything else that is going on. Usually, that’s the stuff to process and the binge is just covering up, giving an excuse to stay focused on the food instead of difficult emotional and relational struggles.”
Grounding practices like journaling, meditation or taking a long walk may help in identifying the reason for the binge.
5. Find connection and seek support
Storch has another great tip after an eating binge. Find connection. “Reach out to a friend, family member, or provider that you trust, and share about your experience. Find Intuitive Eating and anti-diet accounts on social media and read through or respond to posts and comments. Binge eating can be very lonely because of the stigma attached to it. When you feel less alone in the discomfort, there is more space for healing.”
Tierney agrees that it’s important to find support. “Whether it’s through a therapist, close friend or someone in recovery from an eating disorder, it’s important to find support. Oftentimes, binging actually mimics the desire to fill up on something else (like companionship, excitement, fun, love, etc.). Thus, talking through the binge experience with someone else can help elucidate what you’re really seeking or trying to fill up on.”
Binge eating can happen to the best of us, but (hopefully) these five steps help you reset after an eating binge.
*If you think you struggle with BED, please seek professional help and support with the National Eating Disorders Association.