Author: Linn Thorstensson, DipNT mNTOI
There is one graphic that I tend to show the vast majority of my clients when we begin our work together. This is a graphic which depicts the Diet-Deprivation-Binge Cycle. The reason I do this is that visual representation tends to validate their lived experience and also show that what is happening is not their fault.
There can be many reasons for reaching for food when we are not physically hungry, like looking to self-soothe. However, there is another part to the puzzle which Diet Culture conveniently tends to leave out: the part about how dieting also sets us up for bingeing.
Dieting sets us up for binge eating through the Diet-Deprivation-Binge Cycle. It goes: Dieting / Food restriction -> Obsession with food because the body is underfed -> Feeling out of control hungry and/or emotional stressors -> Giving in to food / bingeing -> Feelings of shame and guilt -> repenting by going back to food restriction/dieting, and so the cycle continues…
There is a physiological component to dietary restriction and restrained eating. If our bodies perceive themselves to be in a state of famine, they will respond by increasing hunger sensations and increased thoughts about food. In the infamous Minnesota Starvation Study, the men who participated did not only show physiological changes but also psychological ones like increased food obsession, increased irritability, low moods, and a non-existent sex drive. Two of the original 36 participants were excluded because they both suffered psychosis during the semistarvation period of the experiment. When the rehabilitation period started after five months of semi-starvation, some of the participants gorged themselves uncontrollably, and even after months of unrestrained eating, for some, it took almost two years to fully renourish (Keys 1945).
But it’s not only physically restrained eating that can trigger this cycle: research shows that cognitive restraint, i.e., having forbidden foods or being told that certain foods are off limit/s can also trigger the desire to eat beyond comfortable levels of fullness. A study from 2007 shows that trying to restrict children from certain types of foods only led to them consuming more and higher kilocalories when they subsequently had access (Jansen 2007). This is also something I have observed both in my clinical experience as well as personally.
We might think that it is binge eating that is the problem to be “fixed” when in fact it is the restriction that needs to be addressed. I thought for years that I was addicted to sugar until I learned that it was because I was trying to ban it from my life, which only made me want it more. I felt bad when I broke my diet, usually because I was simply hungry, and what was “allowed” on the plan was not enough to sustain my body. Then, as a result of breaking my diet, I usually continued to binge, both to soothe my sense of shame and failure, as well as in trying to cram as many of these “forbidden foods” into my body before I began the next diet. And so the vicious cycle continued.
It is because of my own lived experience with binge eating and disordered eating that I’ve decided to dedicate my professional life to helping as many people break free from these unhelpful patterns as possible. Okay, so now that we know that restriction is part of what drives binge eating, let us look at how we can get off this merry-go-round of diet-deprivation-binge-diet. Letting go of dieting invites us to explore the magic of giving ourselves permission to eat, and permission to eat ALL types of foods, including those previously forbidden ones.
The idea that we can give ourselves permission to eat what we want, when we want, without feeling guilty about it, can feel both exhilarating and frightening. I also want to pause here to recognize that not everyone has the privilege to do this, due to accessibility or for financial or medical reasons, which makes things more complex than what is within the scope of this blog post. Working with a trained Mindful Eating practitioner can help you navigate these challenges.
Sometimes it doesn’t even have to mean that we literally eat what we want when we want, because this often isn’t even practical. The main thing that needs to occur is a mental shift. Can we expand our thinking so that, in fact, we are allowed to honor our cravings and desires? That no foods are “good” or “bad”? And most of all, that what we eat does not make us a “good” or “bad” person? When all foods are allowed, it creates space for choice. With mindful awareness, we can make a personal choice based on our own personal needs and preferences. We can make a food choice based on what sounds good in the moment from what food is available to us.
The magic of giving ourselves full permission to eat all foods means that there is no reason to engage in rebound eating. We don’t have to keep eating beyond comfortable fullness just because the food is available and we have broken our diet rules. We don’t have to keep going because we don’t know when we will be having this food again, because we are allowed to have it whenever we want! The process of eating with full permission takes time and trust. Fear of weight gain can get in the way, and if so, this might need further exploring. If you have been engaging in dieting for a long time, it is going to take time, lots of awareness and a bucket load of self-compassion as you set out on this path to freedom. Because until now your lived experience has probably felt a lot like your body couldn’t be trusted, yet all it was doing all this time was working really hard to keep you alive. What felt like failure and falling off “the diet wagon” was not your fault. Bodies are not wired for long-term famines. If they were, then you probably wouldn’t be here reading these words right now.
Finally, let us look at how mindfulness and mindful eating can help us navigate the process of eating with full permission. First of all, by cultivating a mindfulness practice, you are cultivating your awareness. This means that you may find it easier to get in touch with your physical sensations of hunger and fullness, and honor them! Being more attuned might also help you notice thoughts and beliefs that no longer serve you as you let go of restriction and dieting. It might help you notice old patterns of thinking like “I shouldn’t really be eating this” or “I have already eaten x cookies so I might as well keep going.” When you notice these thoughts, see if you can pause and remind yourself that it is okay. You didn’t break any rules. You don’t even need to eat all the cookies now if you feel like you have had enough, because you can have some more later if you feel like it.
Undoing years of dieting takes time and patience. Bring plenty of curiosity and self-kindness to soften the process. I continue to witness the magic and freedom that comes with giving yourself permission to eat ALL foods and to honor hunger and fullness cues, as well as cravings (when possible) with my clients. I invite you to explore this empowering practice for yourself, trusting in the wisdom your body holds deep within.
More to Explore:Exploring the Many Facets of Hunger
Presented by Linn Thorstensson, DipNT mNTOI
Wednesday, August 25, 2021, at 2:00 pm ET
Mindfulness Resource Library- Free Public Resources
ReferencesEster Jansen, S. M. A. J., 2007. Do not eat the red food!: prohibition of snacks leads to their relatively higher consumption in children. Appetite, pp. Nov;49(3):572-7. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2007.03.229. Epub 2007 Apr 7..
Keys A, Brozek J, et al. The Biology of Human Starvation I–II. University of
Minnesota Press Minneapolis, MN. 1950.
About the Author
Linn Thorstensson is a registered Nutritional Therapist, based in Co Mayo in the West of Ireland, with a special focus on helping people heal their relationship with food and eating, through a mindful eating and self-compassionate approach.
Linn holds a three year PGDip in Nutritional Therapy, certifications in mind-body medicine, and Mindful Eating (MB-EAT).
She is a past director for the board of Nutritional Therapists of Ireland and the current secretary of the board for The Centre for Mindful Eating.
When she is not found reading, writing or in clinic, she tries spending most of her time in nature, with her dogs, with friends and in deep conversations.
You can connect with Linn online at www.straightforwardnutrition.com