Stop Me Before I Binge Again!

6 strategies for taking control

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

Time to stock up for trick-or-treaters again. No matter that only six kids came to your door last year. Better buy plenty, because it would be a crying shame to turn away a cute little princess or Power Ranger. Four bags should do it: two full of chocolate bars for the big kids, and two with candy corn for the little kids.

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 don your witch costume for a grown-up 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.

Why Do Special Occasions Make Us Vulnerable?

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."

Can You Stop Mid-Binge?

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."

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