The first urges to binge commonly appear after a period of restrictive dieting. The binge urges are a primal survival response—when you restrict food, the primitive part of your brain starts to encourage you to eat as much as possible. (You can learn more about this in Episode 2: The Cause of Binge Eating: Urges to Binge). To get rid of the binge urges, it’s necessary not only to stop acting on them, but also to get your body out of that “survival” state by eating enough food. You cannot continue to restrict food and expect to fully recover. That doesn’t mean you have to eat the exact, perfect amount at each and every meal; it just means that overall, you need to give your body what it needs.
You may have some hesitations about letting go of dieting, or you may think that you actually want to continue dieting, even though you certainly want to stop binge eating. It’s easier to see that binge eating is something you don’t (rationally) want in your life, but dieting can sometimes feel like a deliberate choice that is in line with your true desires. To stop dieting, it’s important to start to change your mindset and see that dieting is not actually what you want, and that it’s harming you and making recovery impossible. It’s important to explore your motivation for dieting and challenge the reasoning behind it, so that you can move toward freedom from binge eating.
Below, I’ve listed 4 common factors that may serve as your motivation for dieting. Know that more than one might apply to you, and that it’s possible to let go of all of these reasons.
Motivation for Dieting #1: None—It’s an Habit
It’s highly possible that your reason for dieting is devoid of any real, thoughtful motivation. It’s possibly you are just following the force of a habit you’ve created. You may have had some original motivation to diet at the outset, but then it simply stuck. Dieting became your norm, so you just keep doing it, without stopping to think if it is the right course of action.
Your thoughts about weight loss or perfect eating plans, or your desire to restrict calories may appear at predictable times and in predictable situations. For example, you may finish eating a nice meal at a restaurant and you may automatically have thoughts saying, “I need to work out extra and eat very little tomorrow to make up for this,” or “I need to start over with my diet tomorrow.”
Instead of considering if these thoughts are serving you, you automatically take them as truth, and don’t see that you actually do have other, healthier options. In this example, you don’t stop to rationalize that resuming normal eating at the next meal or the next time you are hungry will help you in your efforts to stop binge eating, and be much better for healthy weight maintenance in the long run. (For questions and issues surrounding weight, you can see my post: Addressing Weight Issues in Binge Eating Recovery.)
Treating the habitual dieting thoughts and urges to restrict food as neurological junk is a helpful way to overcome them and start eating adequately. At any point, you are capable of turning attention away from the faulty thoughts that say you should be dieting.
Motivation for Dieting #2: Positive Feelings
If you achieved a weight-loss goal in the past, it may have given you a temporary good feeling—a feeling of achievement, or pride, or confidence. This feeling is fleeting, but it can temporarily lift your mood and make you feel good about yourself. The problem is: if the weight-loss goal you achieved in the past or the weight-loss goal you are chasing now is outside of your natural weight range, it’s impossible to maintain that weight—or the good feelings that came along with it (or the good feelings you imagine will come along with a certain number on the scale). So, what this can lead to is a yo-yo effect where you are perpetually seeking that weight in an attempt to experience the fleeting moments of positive feelings.
But chasing those good feelings while you are making yourself miserable with strict diet rules, self-criticism, and binge eating, just isn’t worth it.
If you can see that the positive feeling (of happiness, pride, achievement, confidence) is what you actually want, you can see that you don’t need a certain number on a scale to get that feeling. You don’t need the self-sabotage of a diet to achieve a positive feeling, and you certainly don’t need to be a specific weight to experience happiness, pride, achievement, and confidence.
All of those same feelings can be achieved in a non-diet way—in a way that’s sustainable, doesn’t harm you, and doesn’t lead to binge eating. If you want a feeling of achievement, you can work toward that in other parts of your life. If you want happiness, you can find that feeling being with people you love—without your mind caught up in thinking about food. If you want confidence, you can learn a new skill that has nothing to do with weight loss. Good feelings don’t always have to be connected to accomplishments either, good feelings are available to you in simple ways.
An important thing to remember is that you won’t always feel great about yourself or reside in positive feelings all of the time; it’s normal to have ups and downs in your state of mind. The point is not to chase unrealistic goals or perform harmful behaviors in order to try to experience the ups, because the overall impact will be to bring you down.
Motivation for Dieting #3: Affection and Attention
The previous motivation was all about how dieting and weight loss makes you feel internally, but related to that is the external attention you may get for achieving a weight loss goal (which can also lead to the internal feelings). It’s possible that dieting and temporary weight loss has attracted positive attention toward you in the past, whether that was through admiration or romantic attraction, and you want that attention again. Maybe you’ve never had that type of attention, but you believe that if you can only look a certain way, you will receive it.
With this motivation for dieting, it’s important not only to see that you can get attention and affection in other ways, but that the attention and affection you receive as a result of dieting is mostly superficial. If you are only using your body to attract attention, is that truly the kind of attention you want? If you let your authentic self shine through, and let your personality and heart attract the attention, you’ll naturally get better quality attention.
Giving up dieting does not mean giving up on being a healthy, strong, well-presented person; it does not mean you’ll stop taking pride in yourself. It just means you will take pride in yourself at your natural size and not try to control your body in an effort to gain more attention. Think about how you could gain good-quality attention in your life—the kind that feels fulfilling—such as the attention you receive from helping others or giving of yourself, or from being a loyal friend/mother/father/sister/son…etc., or from being hard-working, intelligent, funny, and being appreciated for who you are.
Motivation for Dieting #4: Control
Your motivation for dieting could be that you like to feel in control. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to have a predictable schedule, or manage your life, or even have a plan for your eating, feeling like you need to perfectly control everything you put in your mouth can backfire (for more on this, you can read my post about not overdoing self-control). Eating is a natural, fundamental biological drive and it doesn’t lend itself well to being perfectly controlled, especially when that “control” means deprivation.
When you over-control your eating by not giving yourself enough food, your lower brain gets the message that you are starving and heightens your desire and drive to eat. So, the “control” actually leads to the opposite effect of you feeling more out of control.
If you feel like your life is unstable (everyone does to some extent just by the fragile nature of our existence), and over-controlling your eating seems appealing, try to focus on taking some control elsewhere. Try to see if there is an area of your life that you can put energy into managing better, which won’t backfire and lead you to feeling more out of control. Maybe that means seeking more career stability, or improving a relationship, or organizing your home, or developing a more consistent schedule. Doing those things doesn’t cure an eating disorder, but anything that will take your focus away from restrictive dieting helps break the habit.
Also, changing how you think about the concept of control can be helpful as well. We truly aren’t in control of everything, even most things, in our lives, and trying to pretend that we are often leads to frustration and exhaustion. There is freedom in getting comfortable with knowing you are not in control, and that may even lead you toward spirituality, or a deeper perspective of the universe.
Don’t Get Caught Up In Analysis
Keep in mind that your motivation for dieting may not be very “deep” at all. You may have simply wanted to lose some weight, and it seemed innocent enough at the time. This was similar to my experience, which I detailed in Brain over Binge. Maybe your friends or family members were dieting, and that gave you motivation to restrict your food too, and you didn’t think too much about it. You just tried it without knowledge of what would happen, and it turned out to be a bad experience that led to binge eating. You can now learn from that experience and not repeat it in the future—no further analysis necessary.
Even if you feel there are deeper and stronger motivations for why you started dieting and why you continued, that doesn’t mean you should spend too much time dwelling on those motivations, or trying to solve everything before moving forward with giving up the harmful dieting behavior. Just take an honest look at what your biggest motivation for dieting might be and then try to find a new, healthier perspective. (You can also listen to podcast Episode 48: How Do I Get Rid of the Dieting Mentality in Binge Eating Recovery?)
Dieting is ultimately a choice—one that brings consequences, and one that is detrimental for your recovery from binge eating. For whatever reason, it made sense for you at one point in time to begin dieting, and until now, it may have seemed to make sense to continue dieting. But, at any point, you can make a new choice that is more beneficial to your recovery and to your life as a whole.
I hope that this blog post helps support you in choosing to eat adequately and nourishing your body. When you eat enough food, it makes dismissing the binge urges possible and takes you a long way toward complete freedom from disordered eating.
If you need more guidance in eating adequately, the Brain over Binge Course is a powerful resource. 4 out of the 8 lessons of the course focus on adequate eating, and many of the course’s 84 Q&A audios address giving up dieting and learning to eat in a way that works for you.