Binge Eating is Caused by Dieting, Part 1

Last week I wrote a post called Why I Binged on Food for 10 Years.  

In that post, I shared how my extreme food and calorie restriction caused my brain to generate urges to binge eat, and how returning to a diet that included enough food helped lesson the urges, but only accepting and resisting them helped me to actually stop binge eating.

If you haven’t read it, take a minute to review my own story with dieting, restricting and bingeing.

I wanted to explore this issue further.

There is alot of confusion about how binge eating begins.  Mentioned in my post, many people, including trained therapists, say that binge eating is a coping mechanism for a past trauma.  It is also said that binge eating is done to escape current discomfort, such as a loveless marriage, a dead-end job, or a generally boring life.  And it is also said that binge eating serves to help people grieve, perhaps the loss of a loved one or financial security or even a friendship that has ended.

I don’t think any of this is true, and I think that telling yourself that you binge eat to deal with anything in your life that you do not prefer is irrational and useless for actually stopping.

It is my opinion that binge eating begins when you adopt a starvation diet.  Diets (food that you eat) that are too low in calories and nutrients are impossible for the human body to ever feel natural and comfortable maintaining.

Anytime you do not eat enough, whether or not you are following a specific diet, your body fights back.  This looks like strong cravings for food, strong desires to eat, obsessive thoughts about eating, and obsessive thoughts about your body.

A fascinating and tragic study on this is the Minnesota Starvation Experiment of 1944-1945 by Dr. Ancel Keys.  You can find alot of information about this study involving 36 healthy men who were placed on an extremely low calorie diet if you do a little online searching.  The study basically reveals how malnutrition due to insufficient calories completely changes the health of the dieter’s minds.  The men in the study became obsessed with eating, obsessed with their bodies and most, nearly all, became habitual binge eaters.

I highly recommend reading all you can about this study.  It connects starving with binge eating very practically.

I used to diet extremely.  I limited my calories, and like the men in the starvation study, I developed obsessive fixations on eating and remaining thin.

Before I believed that my binge eating was directly correlated with extreme dieting, I was very confused about why I felt the need to do it.  I looked for things in my life that may have been contributing to these urges I felt, but I had a very good childhood with loving, supportive and available parents,  no abandonment, and no memorable trauma.  It was easy to make friends, I was happy in my marriage and felt OK about how I made money.  I felt lucky about this while perplexed that I would have frantic urges to eat huge amounts of food, at seemingly random times.

The only thing that made enough sense for my behavior was that I was just a bad and weak person who loved food too much (I read books advocating this).  So I tried to love it less, by eating less.  I tried to be stronger by being even more self-disciplined around food.

This only perpetuated my problem of being starved and served to increase my binge urges.

Have you ever wondered if you would binge simply to binge?

Let’s say that you are relatively healthy (or even very healthy) and you eat enough to maintain a natural weight for yourself.  You treat your body well, feeding it when you are hungry and not getting bent out of shape if you eat a little too much form time to time because that is an inevitable and natural thing to do.  Let’s say you were out to dinner one night and having an amazing time with loved ones, wining and dining and talking and laughing and really enjoying yourself.  And then you get home and find that your dog got out from the backyard and ran away.

What would you do?  Call the neighbors?  Run and up and down the street?  Phone the pet shelter?  Post photos of your dog on street posts in hopes your best little friend would be returned?    Cry?

I would likely do all these things.

But binge eat?  How would that help?  Where would that idea come from?

Now let’s imagine the same scenario above except you diet, extremely.  You don’t eat enough, you are constantly hungry.  You mostly feel deprived.  You go out to dinner with loved ones and certainly enjoy yourself, but you are sustaining starvation, albeit low-grade or very severe.  When you find out that your dog ran away, what do you do?

Likely all of things above, but maybe you find yourself doing some binge eating in the next week or so.  This is understandable, you tell yourself, and others might even think.  You are stressed.  You lost your dog!

But what if you never had the urge to binge, even after your pup ran away?

Would you still do it?

This is an example that highlights how we may correlate stress with binge eating.  It is inevitable that we will have stress in our life, but only people who have the urge to binge will choose to, and only people who are starving will have urges.  Of course, it makes no sense to binge after you lose your dog.  Eating more will not bring your pet back, but it will relieve your urges and will serve to undo self-inflicted starvation.

You have to ask, “If I did not have the urge to binge, would I still choose to do it?”.

Highly unlikely.

Dieting–not eating enough, creates urges to binge.  Maybe not immediately, but certainly over time.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to accept that my extreme dieting was the reason for my urges to binge but contemplating it doesn’t really interest me as the past is over.  What’s done is done.

But now that I know, I have awareness to inspire a response–to stop dieting, to eat enough and to eat foods that nourish my body and mind.

In the next post, I will elaborate on how bingeing, while caused by dieting, becomes habitual, even after you resume eating enough.

Until then, what do you think?  If you diet and have urges to binge, do you think they are related?  If you did not have urges to binge, would you still do it?

Your comments are valuable, please share your experiences!

Image from All Posters.


8 thoughts on “Binge Eating is Caused by Dieting, Part 1

    • Sarah Steffens Ikegami says:

      Great question! I think that intermittent fasting can be beneficial and not necessarily lead to bingeing assuming that enough food is eaten when you are not fasting. Generally, IF is best for people who have become fat adaptive (when the body prefers to burn fat over sugar/carbs). I’ve read great things about IF and have even enjoyed it myself (though I do not make an effort to do it). It might be challenging for some people to eat enough food and not experience indigestion in shorter amounts of time to implement IF but that does not mean that it’s not possible, or that it doesn’t have positive health effects. The concern with IF is for people with a history of under-eating. If you generally do not eat enough and experience urges to binge, it is worth considering ways to eat more, whether or not you are implementing intermittent fasting. Thank you for the comment, it’s a good question to explore!


      • Francis says:

        Thanks for Your kind response. Can I ask two more questions? I hear a lot about being “fat” adapted from both Mark Sisson and Chris Kreuger, do you know how long it takes to become fat adapted? And will going on the Whole30 diet help someone to achieve this goal?
        Thanks for Your very insightful Blog!




      • Sarah Steffens Ikegami says:

        Those are also great questions! There really isn’t a set time for someone to become fat adapted. It depends on how much your body relies on glucose prior to transitioning to a diet higher in protein and fat. You’ll know by how you feel in between meals, how long you can go between meals, how your sleep is and how your body feels, overall. Being fat adapted will help you “last” longer in between meals, but if you do not eat enough, binge urges will likely surface and fat adaption will be very difficult to maintain.

        Regarding Whole30’s, I think they are a great way to detox and reset your body to prefer real food. They do contribute to fat adaption. I recommend them to people whose thinking and beliefs supports the Whole30 approach. If the idea of doing a Whole30 sounds like it will ruin your life, it’s worth exploring why you think this, learn from it, replace your thinking with thoughts that are beneficial, and then rock a Whole30.

        Here is more information on fat adaption:

        I hope that helps! Thanks for commenting!


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