Legalized Food, But Still Binge Eating?

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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One of the most common questions I get as a Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor is some version of the following: I’ve legalized food, but I’m still binge eating. Now what?

Can you relate?

Since most binge eating or feeling “crazy” around food stems from food deprivation of some kind, eating more food and allowing yourself to eat off-limits foods is important for recovery.

Learning about the different forms of food restriction, identifying where restrictions show up for you, and slowly habituating “forbidden” foods is an effective strategy for ending binge eating.

But here’s the deal: trying to stop restricting on our own is like attempting to be our own therapist.

There’s a lot we might be able to do on our own…until we get stuck.

Moving through the “crepe cake layers” of restriction can become one of those stuck places.

Maybe you’ve legalized food…and you’re still binge eating? Or you’ve “stopped restricting” but your relationship with food has become more volatile than a Chrishell-Christine showdown?

In other words: what if you aren’t restricting food and still find yourself feeling stressed around forbidden foods?

Here are 10 reasons you still feel out of control around food (even if you’re giving yourself unconditional permission to eat.)

1. You’re not actually meeting your physical needs


Hot take: It’s absolutely possible to “stop restricting” and still be under-eating.

Most diet plans recommend wildly inadequate calorie amounts. If you’ve been dieting, you’re probably used to getting by with far less than you need. I know I definitely was!

An adequate amount of food can feel like a lot of food when you’re used to paltry diet portions. It can also be more food than you are psychologically comfortable eating.

Because of this, we may unintentionally under-eat even if we’re honouring our hunger cues or allowing ourselves to eat the foods we want.

The same holds true even if you don’t identify as a calorie counter.

If you’re someone who has a tendency to fill up on vegetables or low-calorie foods, it’s possible you’re under-eating— even if you’re enjoying cookies every day. Because diet culture teaches us to think about food in black and white ways, incorporating more “forbidden” foods can give us the illusion that we must be eating enough…even if it’s not true.

Personally, I know that it took me a while to re-incorporate grains and starches because I had been so conditioned to go without them. I wasn’t intentionally restricting these foods. I didn’t believe they were “bad” to eat and I wasn’t scared of them. I just rarely thought about eating them unless I was craving a bowl of pasta or green curry over rice. While carbohydrate needs certainly vary from person to person, we all need carbohydrates for energy and optimal brain function.

Re-nourishment, or the process of becoming nutritionally rehabilitated, is often discussed in eating disorder recovery. But people recovering from dieting or disordered eating also go through a nutritional rehabilitation stage. This isn’t discussed nearly enough. It’s common to need a lot more food during early diet recovery as your body repairs the damage done by chronic under-eating. This might mean feeling the urge to eat more than you are physically comfortable eating, even if you feel physically and emotionally satisfied.

2. You’re still actively restricting

Here’s the deal: restriction, despite what you may have heard, isn’t just physical.

When people tell me they’ve stopped restricting, I often probe further to understand their definition of the word. Many health providers have been taught that restriction is just physical — that binge eating will stop by eating a sufficient amount of calories alone.

Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. For one thing, we need to consider hunger, appetite, fullness, and satisfaction — not just energy needs alone. Secondly, food often gets over-coupled, or associated, with other experiences in our lives. This often needs to be unpacked and decoded for us to have a peaceful relationship with the food or foods in question — which is where nutrition therapy comes in.

Sometimes, people wonder why anti-diet nutrition professionals and Intuitive Eating Counsellors recommend making peace with all foods. The truth is, a pre-occupation with nutritious eating can certainly play a  role in binge eating — and mask deeper issues.

3. You’re missing your hunger cues.

Hunger can present differently in people. While many people don’t know this, stomach growling is actually an advanced hunger cue. Before you experience stomach growling (many people rarely feel it), you might notice lightheadedness, poor concentration, low energy, or thoughts of food.

If you’re accustomed to eating very little during the day and often feel out of control around food all night, this is something to consider. Despite what diet culture might say, it is normal and necessary to eat throughout the day in order to meet our energy needs and maintain stable blood sugar. While some people tend to be naturally hungrier during the day while others are more interested in food in the evening — different people have different eating patterns! — this isn’t a license to skip meals or suppress hunger pangs.

Lastly, if you’re used to under-eating and “low energy” is nothing new to you, you may mistakenly try to get more energy by loading up on caffeine. While “energy” is a topic multi-faceted and low energy isn’t necessarily a sign of under-eating alone, it’s something to consider if you’re “doing everything right” but still feel “crazy” around food.

4. You haven’t fully habituated the food you’re bingeing.

If you’ve mostly legalized food and still find yourself bingeing one specific food, it’s possible that you simply haven’t habituated yourself to that specific food yet. While I was going through my own recovery process, eating rice and bread was straightforward enough. But it took a lot longer for me to habituate myself to candy and potato chips, two of my most restricted (and loved) foods.

It’s also possible that you carry re4. strictive thoughts about the particular food in question (see my second point.) Some people feel out of control around food at even the mere whisper of restriction.

That said if you find yourself routinely binge eating some kind of nut butter or some other hyper-palatable and energy-dense food, it’s possible you’re not eating enough generally (see my first point.)

5. The food you’re bingeing or eating past fullness is over-coupled


As I mentioned, it’s common for foods to become over-coupled with other things in our lives. If you’re allowing yourself full unconditional permission to eat but still struggle around one or several specific foods, it’s possible the food is over-coupled with something else. In this case, eating more of the food in question may actually perpetuate the cycle rather than rectify it.

6. Your eating pattern hasn’t changed

I speak more about this in my book, Enjoy It All: Improve Your Health and Happiness with Intuitive Eating, but what I will say is this: categorizing foods as “regular” foods and “binge” foods is a form of restriction. If you only let yourself eat chocolate once per month, it’s likely you’ll feel out of control around it. If you allow yourself pasta but impose some sort of limit on it (e.g. time of day), you’re more likely to binge on it when presented with the opportunity.

7. Slowing down brings up feelings of discomfort, sadness, anger, and fear


So many people struggle with the concept of “relaxing” and really slowing down. Sometimes, slowing down can lead many of us to feel even more anxious. We start thinking about our to-do lists and everything we need to get done. We worry about our children or significant others or parents or friends. For some people, the thought of really sitting down, consciously enjoying a meal, and eating until satisfaction can trigger dissociation. Others have difficulty being present with food and the emotions or sensations eating can provoke. This can lead to emotional eating or binge eating (or restriction — but that’s for another post.)

8. Lacking clarity around food needs


Adjacent to my seventh point and somewhat of a follow-up to my first and second points: we need to get clear on what we want in order to get satisfied with food. When you’re reaching for all the things and nothing seems to satisfy (which in turn can evolve into emotional eating and/or binge eating), it’s likely you aren’t clear on what it is that you really wanted or needed at the moment.

Sometimes the clarity is food-specific (e.g. wanting a bowl of ice cream) and sometimes we want something else but gravitate toward food instead. To clarify, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with using food to cope or heading toward food for comfort. It’s not the behaviours that concern me so much as it is the unmet needs and lack of satisfaction that remain when the food is gone. Getting clear about our needs with food (and otherwise) can help with feeling fulfilled instead of as though something is missing.

9. Going toward food for something food can’t satisfy


Similar to my eighth point, binge eating or feeling generally out of control can also occur — even though you’ve legalized food — if you’re looking for food to satisfy something that it can’t. Food can become a stand-in for so many things (e.g. love, connection, a break, relief, friendship). Now, food can feel a lot like love when we’re deprived of connection and intimacy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and I think it’s important to legalize eating as a strategy. But if what you need is rest or a break from work or human connection, it may not be available to deliver — which can leave us unsatisfied and eating past fullness in an attempt to get what’s missing.

10. Part of us feels triggered by attempts to eat to satisfaction

Eating to satisfaction and getting our needs met with food can bring up all kinds of feelings and sensations. On one hand, stopping at comfortable fullness can trigger us due to previous life experiences, leading us to finish the meal regardless of how full we are. Sometimes the thought of feeling satisfied with food can feel overwhelming. There are a number of reasons why eating “normally” — that is, according to hunger, appetite, fullness, and satisfaction — actually trigger binge eating or unsupportive eating behaviours even when we are not physically, emotionally/mentally, or unconsciously restricting. 

Which of these points resonates most with you?

To dive deeper into these topics, click here to learn how you can work with me.

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