If you’re reading this then you have probably been through the binge restrict cycle more times than you can count.
You want to lose weight so you cut back your calories, but then you can’t stop thinking about your favourite cookies and next thing you know you finished a box.
There’s a reason this happens and trust me, it’s not your fault. A binge almost always follows a period of restriction. Keep reading to learn more about the binge restrict cycle, its side effects and how to put an end to it FOR GOOD.
What is the binge restrict cycle?
The binge restrict cycle is something most dieters experience. This cycle stems from the desire to lose weight which leads to engagement in restrictive eating behaviours (i.e. dieting) and eventually backfires with binge eating or overeating.
It tends to be a vicious cycle that repeats itself over and over again.
Phases of the binge restrict cycle
There are 5 main phases of the binge restrict cycle that we will dive into deeper here:
Phase 1: Desire to lose weight
It’s pretty clear that the binge restrict cycle is driven by a desire for weight loss. So where does this desire for weight loss come from?
Unfortunately, society and diet culture have convinced us that there is something wrong with our bodies if we don’t look like the model in the magazine or the fitness influencers we follow on social media.
We’re made to believe that it’s bad to have any ounce of visible fat on our bodies and if we do we’re considered unhealthy, lazy and unattractive. So of course we do everything in our power to change that. Which leads us to restriction.
Phase 2: Restriction
There are two types of restriction that I’d like to point out. There's actual caloric restriction, in which you eat less calories than your body needs.
The other form of restriction is restrained eating in which you restrict or limit specific foods, typically foods you believe are “unhealthy” or that will lead to weight gain. This may or may not be accompanied by an overall caloric deficit.
Unfortunately, we’re all tricked into believing that if we just eat less calories or avoid certain foods that we will lose weight and everything will be ok. WRONG. There are so many things that go south when we restrict specific foods or total calories.
Phase 3: Deprivation
Our bodies don’t like to be restricted, it feels threatening, and our bodies are designed to fight threats. This is why diets fail. There are a series of both biological and psychological mechanisms that are triggered to make sure we get the energy and nutrients we need.
I’m sure you’ve noticed this yourself…you started a new diet and the only thing you could think about was food (especially the food you weren’t allowed to eat), almost as if you had developed somewhat of an obsession with food.
Here’s the thing, you’re not the only one.
There was a hallmark study done back in 1944, called the Minnesota Starvation Study in which semi-starvation was imposed on male participants in order to gain insight on the physical and psychological effects it had, for purposes related to world war II.
Among many other undesirable outcomes it was noted that the participants developed an obsession with food. Some would add water to their food to increase the overall volume and others would hold the food in their mouths for lengthy periods to savor it for as long as possible.
An even more interesting finding (especially given this was back in 1944) was that some men started collecting cookbooks and recipes, one of the men had collected nearly 100 by the time the experiment was over.
Essentially they were deprived and could not stop thinking about food.
A key point to note here is that semi-starvation, for the purpose of this study, was actually ~1800 kcal per day which is very similar to modern day diets, so you can see why you may be feeling the way you do when you try to restrict.
And these are just SOME of the psychological effects of food restriction. If you want to read more about the psychological and physical effects diets have, check out my blog post on the disadvantages of dieting.
Phase 4: Binge eating/overeating
You know those increases in cravings, appetite and food thoughts we just talked about? Well guess where those lead us. Yup, you guessed it…over consumption of calories (a.k.a binge eating or overeating).
Think back to a time you restricted a particular food. What happens the next time you got your hands on that food? Chances are it tasted really good right? And chances are you ate more than your typical serving. Well, that’s not at all surprising.
Restriction actually increases reward response regions in the brain to food. Essentially what this means is that the food seems that much more appealing and tastes that much better making you feel like you can’t stop eating it, leading to that over indulgence.
Phase 5: Feelings of failure
Now you’ve not only given into your forbidden foods but you’ve also eaten way too much of it so you get down on yourself. You blame yourself for your inability to stick to a diet, you’re filled with food guilt and shame and ultimately you feel like a failure.
Eventually, after some negative self-talk, you decide to pick yourself back up again and vow to never eat the food you just indulged in ever again. That desire for weight loss remains consistent and back to the restriction phase you go.
From there, the cycle continues to repeat itself.
Side effects of the binge restrict cycle
Okay so now you understand how the restriction leads to the binge and therefore why restriction doesn't work.
But maybe that’s not enough to get you to stop, maybe you think if you just had enough willpower you could fight those biological and psychological mechanisms.
Well first of all you can’t, and secondly, if you keep trying it’s going to take a toll on your body.
The binge restrict cycle causes confusion and distrust with your body. It damages your metabolism and screws with your digestive system and hormones.
Once you have put your body through enough restriction it goes into scarcity mode. Meaning, your metabolism will slow down in efforts to hold on to as much energy as possible for as long as possible.
Dieting causes your body to fear restriction and accept abundance. So when you do finally stop restricting and start eating again (potentially overeating), your body will still hold tightly onto the extra energy in fear of being starved again.
Which is why we often see not only weight regain following a period of restriction but also even further weight gain. Meaning you end up at a higher weight than you were prior to the restriction phase.
Now that’s not to say you’re totally screwed and that your hormones and metabolism are shot for good. That’s not the case at all. But, if you want to normalize your metabolism and hormones again you will need to put an end to the binge restrict cycle and develop your body’s trust again.
3 tips to put an end to the binge restrict cycle
1. Work on your body image
Chances are that the reason you’re in this mess of a cycle is a result of dislike for your body, leading to this pursuit for weight loss. Well, here’s the thing, you can’t treat a mental issue (i.e. poor body image) with a physical treatment (i.e. restriction/dieting).
Body image work is an ongoing process. Most people will never love their bodies, but we can still all learn to respect our bodies which is a good starting point for body image work.
So how does one start respecting their body? Well, first of all meet its basic needs. This may include adequate nutrition, joyful movement, comfortable clothing and other means of self-care.
Simply respecting your body will bring so much more happiness and health benefits to you than any diet ever could.
I also welcome you to check out my post on how to work through bad body image days, because we all know these are inevitable.
2. Tune into your body cues
Here’s the thing, dieting, or the binge restrict cycle, teaches you to ignore your hunger and fullness cues.
Unfortunately, these won’t just automatically come back when you decide to quit the binge restrict cycle. It takes time, you essentially need to re-train your intuition.
However, in order to truly be rid of the binge restrict cycle you will need to re-learn how to recognize and respond to these cues.
For that to happen, you will need to start nourishing your body regularly and sufficiently. This also plays into the whole “respect your body” piece I just mentioned.
Eat regular meals every single day. This includes breakfast, lunch, supper AND snacks. Don’t skip meals.
This simple habit alone will get you that much closer to being back in touch with your body cues, which will in turn prevent any under and overeating (a.ka the binge restrict cycle).
That being said if the binge/overeating part is your biggest struggle right now, go check out my free guide: “4 steps to overcome overeating” for more tips!
3. Make room for ALL foods
So obviously in order to end the restrict binge cycle you have to give up the restriction. That means you need to stop restricting ALL foods (i.e. give up the food rules), not just your total calorie intake.
Now I know this one’s kind of scary. It can also be very chaotic if this is the only thing you do. So what I DON’T want you to take away from this is, “just eat whatever you want whenever you want.”
If that’s what you’re hearing, you're probably going to make a lot of undesirable food choices.
Now when you pair this “eat what you want whenever you want” with: make choices that feel good to your body and honor your overall health, well now that’s better. This will lead to much better food choices.
Although a very important piece, it’s usually not where we start. Which is why this is step 3 of how to end the binge restrict cycle.
So there you have it, the phases of the binge restrict cycle and why it continues to repeat itself, some of the many undesirable side effects of the cycle and 3 tips on how to put an end to the binge restrict cycle for good!
I hope you found what you were looking for in this post. However, chances are that reading this has generated a whole lot of questions. As a Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, I may just be the best person to answer these questions.
So if you do have questions, I invite you to leave a comment below or find me on Instagram @dietitian.krista and reach out. I love connecting with you all over there!