How can I stop myself bingeing on sweet foods in the evenings?

How can I stop myself bingeing on sweet foods in the evenings?

Dear Helen,

I need help to stop bingeing on unhealthy foods.  I’m generally in good health and feel happy with my home and work life but bingeing is getting me down.

My diet generally is good and I am aware of what foods are good and bad for me.  But in the evening I can have uncontrollable urges to binge.  It starts with a physical urge where I’ve got to have something, and then I always go for sweets, cake or chocolate. I don’t seem to have any willpower. Once I start eating I can’t stop. I’ve tried to avoid food but once I’ve got the urge (which happens a couple of times a week) I always seem to give in eventually. 

 When I’m bingeing, I eat in secret and then feel ashamed of myself. 

I know that my bingeing is part of why I can’t lose weight.  I only eat healthy foods during the day, and skip breakfast to compensate for the binges.

I feel out of control around food, but no-one would guess because I put on a good front at work, and during the day people only see me eating sensible small meals for lunch.

Naomi

Dear Naomi,

The first thing to say Naomi is that you have a problem that is often hidden, but very common.  It is thought that about 12 million people in the UK suffer from compulsive overeating to some extent.  This includes people who feel they overeat occasionally through to people who suffer with an eating disorder such as Binge Eating Disorder.  You seem to feel in control around food during the day, but by the evening you can feel anything but.

In order to reduce the uncontrollable physical urge to binge,

  1. Establish a pattern of regular eating. There may be a link between restricting your food intake during the day and your urge to overeat in the evening.  A common trigger for bingeing is eating too little at other times, leading to feelings of deprivation. Your physiological and psychological pressure to eat builds, and when you start eating it can be difficult to stop.
  2. Learn techniques to deal with intense feelings or urges. An uncontrollable urge is physical, and will need physical calming measures, not just helpful thoughts. You can’t out-think an uncontrollable physical urge.

In terms of what this will mean for you Naomi, I suggest that you start with your eating routine. 

Skipping breakfast is not a good plan for you as I think you’re doing this to try to keep your calorie intake down.  This means that you are starting the day with depriving yourself, which may backfire later on.  You say that you only eat small sensible meals for lunch. Nothing wrong with small sensible meals, but you need to look at whether these small meals are satisfying your hunger and your appetite, or not.  If they leave you feeling unsatisfied, the sense of deprivation will be cranking up further.

Look at what you could have as a healthy and delicious breakfast and lunch, and consider whether you might need a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, such as a piece of fruit.  Do the same re-thinking of your evening meal.  Is it appetizing and satisfying? If not, look at what delicious and healthy alternatives you could have for dinner.

Finally, notice that your urge is for sweet foods.  Cutting out particular foods is OK if they are things you didn’t really like in the first place. But if what you’re denying yourself are particular favourites, it’s only a matter of time before you are doing battle with your own brain.  Making peace with your love of cake, so it’s simply part of your overall pattern of eating, could actually help you stop bingeing if:

  • When you eat it, you really allow yourself to have it rather than trying to eat it quickly to avoid being aware of eating it
  • Eat it mindfully so that you get all of the deliciousness from it
  • You eat just enough of it to satisfy your desire, which might be half of what shops and cafes often sell as a slice of cake. Put the other half in the freezer (or the bin)

To deal with intense urges or feelings, you need to find a way of calming your body down.  Find just one technique that works for you.  Here are some that distract and some that soothe:

  • Listen to loud music, and sing or dance
  • Have a cool shower or a hot bath
  • Hold an ice cube
  • Learn to use one of the 10 techniques in my free download “Anxiety and how to Manage It”. These techniques can help with intense feelings other than anxiety
  • Write stream-of-consciousness to get everything out of your head and onto paper
  • Do exercise
  • Surf the internet
  • Remind yourself that everything passes, and that this feeling will pass
  • Shout loudly where no-one will hear
  • Do a puzzle
  • Watch a film or TV programme
  • Speak to a friend

Finally, Professor Christopher Fairburn has written an excellent self-help programme “Overcoming Binge Eating” which guides you step by step.  I recommend this to all my patients who struggle with binge eating.

If you have a question for Dr Helen McCarthy about eating and weight loss, email info@theappetitedoctor.co.uk

If you’re interested in learning more about the psychology of eating and appetite, sign up for my regular newsletter here

We cannot answer queries personally.  Advice given here does not constitute specific psychological or medical advice.  If you are unsure about anything to do with your own weight loss plan, please consult your own doctor. 

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