The binge-restrict cycle is a pattern that is characterised by periods of food restriction followed by binging, during which the person would feel unable to control what or how much they are eating. Bingeing is typically followed by intense guilt, shame, self-criticism, and a sense of loss of control, which the person then tries to compensate for by restricting food. And the cycle starts all over again. This can be caused by emotional stress, poor body image, and chronic dieting and, in more severe cases, it can progress to an eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. 

There is no easy way through it and recovery entails hard work and a significant time commitment. However, there are different ways in which one can begin to break this cycle:

1.  Eat when you are hungry 

Restricting food or trying to stave off hunger pangs with water or other liquids will only work against you. In other words, ignoring your hunger will do more harm than good. Healing from the effects of the binge-restrict cycle requires the body to know that it will be nourished when it feels hungry. When noticing that feeling of hunger, it is thus important to gradually learn to permit yourself to take time to eat something.

2. Recognise that foods are not “good” or “bad” 

While there are foods which are more nutritious and beneficial for our body and overall health, recognising that food is just food with no moral value is an important first step towards breaking this cycle. In other words, you are not a worse person if you eat something that is not so nutritious. So, the next time you find yourself craving a specific food, remind yourself that it is okay to eat your favourite foods within reasonable limits and non-judgmentally. If you do not yet trust yourself, a good place to start might be eating at least one treat every day. This can help loosen the grip that your binge foods have on you.

3.  Slow down and eat mindfully 

Eating quickly, which is typical of binge eating, prevents us from fully enjoying food and we may keep on eating to achieve satisfaction. Conversely, mindful eating involves fully focusing on the food we eat, paying close attention to the flavours, aromas, and textures of the food – in addition to the body’s hunger and satiety signals. There is mounting evidence indicating that mindful eating can significantly reduce binge eating behaviours, thus helping to break the binge-restrict cycle (Warren et al., 2017).

4.  Be gentle with yourself 

It is important to remain patient and gentle with yourself as you learn to break the binge-restrict cycle. Unlike the binge-restrict cycle, the healing journey is not an “all-or-nothing” process, and it may feel like you are making two steps forward and three steps backwards. However, this is a normal part of recovery, and it is important that you treat yourself kindly if you do have a binge. Instead of beating yourself up, you may want to offer yourself some words of compassion such as “I’m having a hard time, I am doing the best I can right now, and will try to do it better next time”. 

5.  Seek professional support

Speaking to a professional such as a therapist with expertise in eating-related issues can be a good idea if you are struggling to develop healthy habits. The therapist will help you work through any underlying emotional issues that may be playing a role in maintaining the binge-restrict cycle and support you in developing and practising helpful eating behaviours.

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.

ReferenceWarren, J., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating, and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: Effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews,30(2), 272-283. doi:10.1017/S0954422417000154