Emotional Eating and the Binge-Restrict Cycle

After a long and stressful day of school and/or work I’m finally home alone. Still, an endless list of work and obligations continues to run through my mind. I feel overwhelmed trying to juggle all of life’s burdens and responsibilities and for just a moment I want to relieve this stress. “Holding it together” becomes exhausting and I just feel the need for a break, a moment to relax, and de-stress. Some people find an outlet in drugs, alcohol, exercise, or… food.

For me, that dopamine hit always came from something sweet. I’d either find myself alone in the kitchen with just a spoon to the jar of peanut butter and jelly, or cookie butter, or a tub of ice cream, or some sugary cereal, or the box of Oreos I promised myself I wouldn’t house in one sitting (spoiler alert: they were indeed housed).

I take the first taste and feelings of stress and anxiety just seem to melt away. The dopamine that just flooded the reward center in my brain, calms, soothes, and sedates me from the panic attack I was just about to have. My brain and body go “wow, we feel great right now, let’s stay like this” and this feeling becomes almost addictive.

The survival mechanism evolution worked so hard to keep our ancestors alive and not starve to death instills this instinct in our primal being that says “your body is under stress, maybe this stress is from a lack of food; eat to make this feeling go away.” I listen to evolution though going against my physique goals because my 1stworld problem is that even though I’m not dieting to compete, I’m not as lean as all the girls on Instagram who can happily maintain a physique that allows them to post bikini and crop top photos 25/8, 365 days out of the year, and so the added stress of always trying to be perfect gets drowned out by the taste of sweet, sweet chocolate as well.

Or maybe somedays I feel lonely. Truly, alone. Therefore, the only thing to keep me company is the distraction of food.

If you look up “emotional eating” in Wikipedia, you’ll find that it defines it as eating in response to both good and bad emotions. Not only eating to feel better but eating because we are already feeling good or celebrating an occasion with friends and family. Well, for me the food was something I used as an outlet from stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Emotional eating is something that turned into consistently binging, and overall had a significantly negative effect on my quality of life and self-confidence.

Whether or not you relate to 1 or all of these feelings it is safe to say that some people have been here at least once, and others more often than they would like. Emotional eating is something that went hand in hand with binge eating for me, which as you would assume created its own vicious cycle of feeling like crap because I binged, and using food to try to drown that feeling of hating myself only to hate myself, even more, when I was done doing the damage.

I definitely had a phase in my life where this was at its worst. I went through about a 2 year period after my first show where I 1) struggled with body image issues for the first time just because I got stage lean and watched myself undo all of that hard work within 1 month from poor post-contest guidance, 2) was starting my freshman year of college and the pressure to have perfect grades were constantly pushing me to find that comfort in food, and 3) I was at a point in my life where I felt extremely isolated, because the way my first prep went essentially forced me to isolate myself from all social events, as none of my friends were into bodybuilding at the time (the horror story of my first prep and how traumatizing it was is story for another newsletter titled “How NOT to go about a contest prep diet” lol).

By responding to all of these emotions with foods, I started noticing myself becoming even more food-focused because even though I wasn’t “dieting.” I would follow up a binge with another week of restriction, which only pushed me to binge again and we find ourselves in the vicious binge/restrict cycle.

After spending a few years working hard on my relationship with food, my body image, and learning to better deal with stress, food no longer became an outlet for me. I stopped using food as a response to emotion, and simply to fuel my body. I am not saying that it is this bad for everyone but for me, this took years. For some, it may be just a few months or one TedTalk.

How I finally came out of it:

The transition to finally feeling normal about food began with incorporating 4 different strategies:

  1. Address the feelings that you are responding to with food.
    1. Figure out when it is you eat and why. For me, it was a combination of a long period of restriction, pressures of stresses, anxiety from falling short, and big life change.
  2. Shifting my focus away from body image and appearance, and more towards performance.
    1.  My goal had to change because the goal of looking leaner wasn’t serving me anymore. I physically would have been doing myself no favors by continuing to try to diet if my emotional and mental relationship with food was not in the right place. Therefore, I signed up for a powerlifting meet and then powerlifting, strength gains, and muscle development became the focus of my fitness goal, not the number on the scale or the percentage of body fat I had.
  3. I stopped reacting to feelings with food.
    1. I started opening up to people I trusted, and people who would listen and I knew would care enough to try to help. Feeling so ashamed about this habit, it took me a long time to tell my dad, my coach, and my best friends. Having a coach, a friend, a parent, anyone who would let you vent and cared about you is a great way to help keep you accountable.
    2. I stopped responding to stress with food and started responding with activity. Running, yoga, acro classes, etc. all were new “outlets” I had found that were healthier than stuffing my face with Chips Ahoy Cookies.
  4. I educated myself on the benefits of good quality food and saw food in the light on nourishment, not just satisfaction

I simply wanted to share my personal account with emotional eating and binging because social media is just a highlight reel, and not often do we share our personal struggles that make us uncomfortably vulnerable. I feel like sometimes it is important to speak up about these topics to let people know they are not alone. I have struggled with emotional eating and binging, and eventually got a handle of it. As cheesy as it sounds: if I can do it, so can you.

I encourage anyone who feels that this may be an issue that negatively impacts their quality of life and self-esteem to seek guidance. Whether it be a therapist who specializes in disordered eating, a coach to keep you accountable, or at the very least confide in a friend who cares enough to help you find a solution.

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