How deprivation can lead to binge eating

Dieting can lead to binge eating because we are depriving our body of food.
Image by Artem Labunsky via Unsplash

The human body is built for survival. When our species is at risk our body reacts to keep us safe. This adaptive ability is what has enabled humans to survive and thrive.

Food is an integral part of our survival and when access to food is limited due to food insecurity, famine, or dieting, our body responds to give us the best chance of surviving the period of limited nourishment. 

Our body sees dieting as deprivation

Yes, that’s right, our body responds to dieting as though we are in a famine. When food is not readily available and hunger signals are repeatedly ignored, our body assumes we are living through a time of food scarcity. This causes physical, mental, and emotional changes including:

  • A slower metabolism: our metabolism converts food into energy which is what our body needs to breathe, digest, keep our organs functioning, and our muscles moving. When food is scarce our metabolic rate slows down to preserve our energy stores (body fat).
  • An increase in hunger hormones: dieting increases our hunger hormones so that we eat more when food is available. Our fullness hormones are also reduced making it harder to feel satisfied with smaller portion sizes.
  • Preoccupation with food: when food is forbidden, we start to become obsessed with it. We look at pictures of different foods, daydream about food, think of all the recipes we want to cook, and can’t wait until our next meal.
  • Fatigue and low mood: having inadequate food to nourish our body and brain causes us to feel tired, lack concentration, and feel low in mood. This can make it harder to get through the day, engage in social interactions, or enjoy hobbies.

Our body responds in this way to protect us and to return to a nourished state. We can only fight the intense hunger, food cravings, and fatigue for so long. Eventually we will “break” the diet rules and enjoy everything that was off limits. This is often felt as an uncontrollable binge episode as we will our body with energy rich foods. Afterwards we feel guilt and shame and vow to start the diet again. 

This is known as the deprivation-binge pendulum.

The deprivation-binge pendulum

The deprivation-binge pendulum shows how when we diet we swing between depriving our body of food and bingeing

The pendulum effect is when you are stuck swinging between dieting and binge eating or feeling out of control around food.

When you are on the deprivation side of the pendulum you can only stay there so long before your body’s biological drive for food is so great that you swing over the opposite side. This is when we start overeating all those foods that were previously forbidden.

However, after eating all that food we recognise that we have broken our diet rules and are filled with remorse and shame. So, we swing back to the other side of the pendulum and begin restricting again with a new diet. We vow that our willpower will be stronger this time and we won’t make the same mistakes.

However, dieting does not come down to willpower and once again our body sends out those intense hunger signals that we cannot ignore and we are back on the overeating end of the pendulum. 

The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth until we decide to stop.

Stopping the pendulum

It is possible to escape the never end swing of the pendulum. To break this cycle of restriction and bingeing we need to address our restrictive behaviours.

Instead of following external rules around food, what if you gave yourself unconditional permission to eat? And not just eat the “good” or “healthy” foods but ALL foods at ANY time of the day. 

Giving yourself permission to eat brings a sense of safety and calm to our body. When our body and brain know that food is available and in plentiful amounts, we can escape the deprivation mindset. Our hunger and fullness hormones settle, our metabolism increases, we have energy, an improved mood, and bingeing becomes something we rarely do.

If you want support to escape the deprivation-binge pendulum Kim Lindsay is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian who uses a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to help you have a calm relationship with food. Find out more about online consultations with Kim.

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