Understanding the Binge Cycle: The Role of Dieting

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In order to modify a problem with binge eating, it is important to first understand the cycle and biological mechanisms that maintain binge eating behavior.

Fairburn, the author of the most successful treatment to date for Binge Eating and Bulimia (CBT-E; Fairburn, 2008) posits that basing one’s self-worth on shape and weight, or the ability to control these, leads to dieting behavior.

Dieting can exist in many forms… but it always involves the overriding of one’s own internal hunger cues and the imposing of external rules.-Lauren MuhlheimDieting can exist in many forms (e.g. skipping meals, restricting the type of food consumed, or restricting the amount of food consumed), but it always involves the overriding of one’s own internal hunger cues and the imposing of external rules. The body senses this restriction and enters a state primed for bingeing.

While many diet companies would have us believe otherwise, dieting is not something our bodies are designed to do. Like the other four basic needs – water, sleep, air, and warmth – food is a primary need without which humans cannot survive.

The History of Binge Eating

Our bodies evolved in an environment in which food was relatively scarce. To survive in such an environment, our bodies had to prioritize the consumption of food above other activities. If our food supply was less secure, we learned to stock up on food when we could. It is a behavior that ensured our species’ survival. Bingeing was not a matter of poor willpower, but a perfectly normal and healthy body response to starvation. Most people who didn’t “binge” when a rare animal wondered into their territory didn’t survive.

When any of our five basic needs is unmet, several things happen. First, we usually become irritable and solely focused on trying to get that need met, even to the exclusion of other activities. We may also have poor concentration for other activities.

Bingeing was not a matter of poor willpower, but a perfectly normal and healthy body response to starvation.-Lauren Muhlheim

Studying Dieting Behavior

A recent study reported in the Mail Online analyzed the behavior of female dieters. Here are a few interesting facts from the study:

  • The study revealed that out of the 2,000 women surveyed, eight out of ten spend more time discussing food when on a diet, with over half (56 percent) saying that it had made them ‘food bores.’
  • Six in 10 confessed that a diet not only takes over their conversations but their entire lives, with three quarters agreeing that they have to focus all of their thoughts on food in order to stick to their diet.

Another study reported in the New York Times Magazine showed that when blood glucose is low (such as when a person has gone several hours without eating) the brain responds more strongly to immediate rewards and “willpower” weakens. As the body uses up glucose it looks for a quick way to replenish the supply, which is exhibited as a craving for sugar.

A now famous Minnesota Starvation Experiment put several young men on restriction diets for six months. During the restriction phase, the men exhibited behaviors that indicated a preoccupation with food, including collecting cookbooks, recipes, and cooking utensils. During both the dieting and re-feeding phases there were reports of binge eating among participants.

Together these studies show that binge eating is a powerfully driven biological response to restriction.

Binge eating – a rapid ingestion of a large amount of food, usually with a loss of control during the eating – in turn leads to feelings of shame, disgust, guilt, self-criticism, and distress. Individuals then resolve to diet again and do an even better job at controlling their shape and weight and eating. Some people may use purging behaviors to try to undo the effects of the binge. Either way, more dieting ensues and the cycle repeats.


What’s Next: This article is the first in a new Pro Talk series by Lauren Muhlheim dedicated to Understanding the Binge Eating Cycle. Upcoming articles will explore broken food and dietary rules, as well as the role of mood intolerance. Check back on Pro Talk.

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