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What if I binge because I feel a lack of love and belonging?

By Michelle May, M.D.

We received this anonymous binge eating question on our #AskAmIHungry YouTube channel: “What if you binge because you live alone and lack a feeling of love and belonging?” In this video, the questions, “What is Binge Eating Disorder?” and “What can you do about BED?” are addressed by Dr. Michelle May, co-creator of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Binge Eating Program and Training and co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating: A Mindful Eating Program to Heal Your Relationship with Food and Your Body.

#AskAmIHungry Video Transcript:

Thank you for your question, and let me first let me say that I’m sorry you are struggling. It is totally understandable that you would reach for food to soothe these feelings.

Emotional eating is using food to regulate emotions, in other words, attempting to manage your mood with food. It is important to acknowledge that emotional connections to food are normal and healthy! We eat to comfort ourselves, soothe a hurt, experience pleasure, celebrate, and reward ourselves for a job well done – among many other reasons. And there’s nothing wrong with it!

Emotional eating only becomes a problem when it’s the primary way you cope with or avoid your feelings.

Maybe you’ve noticed that you reach for food when you’re feeling stressed, bored, lonely, mad, or sad. When your habit is to use food instead of paying attention to what these emotions are trying to tell you about your underlying needs, those needs go unmet. And of course, those unmet needs will continue to drive emotional eating.

I’ll come back to meeting those needs, but you used the word “binge,” so I want to take a few moments to talk more about that. People sometimes use that word when they feel they have eaten (or watched Netflix!) excessively.

However, binge eating may become an eating disorder.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

The criteria for the diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder (or BED) include: Recurrent episodes (meaning at least once a week for three months on average) of eating a larger amount of food than normal during a short time frame and feeling you cannot stop eating or control what or how much you are eating.

The binge eating is associated with at least three of the following:
• Eating faster than normal
• Eating until you feel uncomfortably full
• Eating large amounts of food even though you are not physically hungry
• Eating alone because you feel embarrassed by how much you are eating
• Feeling disgusted, depressed, or very guilty after eating

People with BED experience marked distress about the binge eating.

People with BED don’t typically compensate for bingeing (by vomiting, for example).

What can you do about BED?

Many people with BED try different diets to stop the bingeing, but that only compounds the problem by creating feelings of deprivation, cravings, and guilt. We call it the binge-repent-repeat cycle.

While it might seem hopeless, BED can be successfully treated, so it is important get it diagnosed! If you think you might binge eat, you can take the screening test, the Binge Eating Scale, on our website. You can also find more information about BED on the Binge Eating Disorder Association website.

At Am I Hungry? we also provide a number of options for treating BED:

For self-help, our Mindful Eating for Binge Eating set includes a copy of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating and the Companion Workbook and Awareness Journal.

You may also have a live 10-week Mindful Eating for Binge Eating Program or therapist in your area, or you can participate in our Mindful Eating for Binge Eating Retreat.

As you describe in your question, for many people, binge eating is a way to escape or disconnect from thoughts or feelings that seem intolerable. I really hope you will seek help to address these challenges, and in the meantime, here are some suggestions to help when you notice you feel like bingeing.

Self-Compassion: As difficult as it may be to fathom, the first step to breaking this cycle is self-compassion. After all, you don’t binge because you are “weak-willed,” “stupid,” or “out of control.” You do it because you are trying to take care of yourself! And binge eating works to help you feel better – at least temporarily.

Validate Yourself: Validate your thoughts, feelings, and actions as being normal and understandable given the circumstances. As Dr. Kari Anderson, my co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating and the Companion Workbooks, says, “Of course!” It’s like saying, “I totally get why you thought, felt, or did that!”

Now, I understand that you might be afraid that if you’re “nice” to yourself, you won’t change, but the opposite is true! You care for yourself because you accept yourself, not so you’ll accept yourself.

This validation and unconditional acceptance creates a safe environment for experimenting with new thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Nonjudgmental Awareness: Mindful eating is all about bringing nonjudgmental awareness to your choices and experiences with eating and acknowledging that you were doing the best you could in that moment. Nonjudgment is essential because it provides a more objective understanding of what happened and why.

Self-Care Voice: The next step is to cultivate your Self-Care Voice. We all know that harsh critical voice that shames us when we feel we’ve done something wrong. That voice can keep us stuck in a shame cycle.

On the other hand, your Self-Care Voice wants the best for you. It is unconditionally compassionate, affirming, and accepting. Your Self-Care voice is the voice of kindness and wisdom. It guides you to learn from your mistakes, face your challenges, and loves you unconditionally, faults and all.

Your self-care voice might say something like, “I know you feel like you don’t belong, and you binged to try to feel better and less alone. I’m sorry you feel physically and emotionally worse right now. I don’t think food really gives you the connection you are seeking. What can you experiment with that might work better?”

Anonymous, I hope this helps you begin to see another way of thinking about this and that you will take the next steps to deal with the binge eating and the underlying causes.


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.
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