Nothing kills dreams of being lean more effectively than bingeing. If you want to learn why and how to stop binge eating once and for all, read on.
Pop quiz: which days of the week are most fattening?
Yes, you read the question correctly. Which days of the week are most associated with weight gain?
Don’t overthink it. Listen to your gut here (it should know!).
If you go with your intuition, your answer is probably “the weekends.” And you’d be right. Research shows that most people maintain a steady weight throughout the week and gain weight on the weekends.
How does that work, you ask?
Well, what happens to the diets of most people that have trouble with their weight come Friday night? I’ll tell you what happens: mayhem.
A heavy restaurant dinner with friends is washed down with cocktails and wine and followed by movie theater musts: a vat of popcorn swimming in butter and a silo of soda. Saturday morning is rung in with a skyscraper of syrup-laden pancakes, the day is supplemented with a continuous supply of snack foods, and there’s a good chance that the evening will involve a couple thousand more calories of gluttony. Sunday has its traditions as well: a pile of eggs, bacon, and sausage served with a pitcher of OJ, a stacked sandwich for lunch, and a barbecue or family buffet to wind down and prepare for the return to Monday normalcy.
The problem with this all-too-common ritual of weekly binge eating is the sheer amount of body fat you can gain in just a few days of overeating. Depending on your genetics and activity level, a couple moderate bouts of bingeing can easily “undo” the fat loss of a whole week of proper dieting.
I’ve worked with thousands of people and, hands down, the biggest mistake made by those baffled by their inability to lose weight is binge eating.
The bottom line is nothing will stop your fat loss dead in its tracks faster than binge eating, and especially bingeing on fatty foods and alcohol (a perfect storm for gaining body fat).
If you want to not only get lean but stay lean, you simply can’t afford to struggle with binge eating. Sure, you can eat foods you love and generally enjoy your diet, but you can’t regularly live out your bacchanalian fantasies and have a physique of the gods.
In this article we’re going to talk a bit about why some people struggle with binge eating and a handful of simple, practical strategies you can employ to prevent and beat the urges.
We humans are hardwired to love the taste of fat, salt, and sugar.
Calorie-dense, fatty foods gave our ancient ancestors the energy reserves needed to survive food shortages and famines. Salt increases water retention, which helped us avoid dehydration. Our sweet tooth lead us to sugary berries that were likely edible and away from sour, bitter ones were likely poisonous.
We’re also hardwired to desire a variety of foods because the more types we ate, the more likely we were to get all the essential vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy.
Our natural preferences for these flavors and variety in our diets were once valuable tools for staying alive. They steered us toward the foods that would best meet our energy and nutritional needs.
Alas, the rapid changes in lifestyle and food availability have turned these instincts against us. We’re more sedentary than ever before. Everywhere we go we see food or advertisements for food. We no longer stalk the plains for dinner—we roam the aisles of the local supermarket, faced with an almost endless variety of high-calorie indulgences.
Unfortunately, our internal “appetite regulation machinery” just hasn’t learned how to deal with the excesses of modern living. And this is why we can’t count on our instincts alone to main a healthy body weight—it requires conscious effort.
The good news, however, is that food intake isn’t that hard to control. It doesn’t require a nutrition degree or extraordinary genetics or willpower or anything other than a basic understanding of the physiology and psychology of eating and weight gain and loss and a structured approach to working with our inborn programming, not against it.
How do you think the average person goes about gaining 30 pounds of fat?
Do you think they slightly overeat every day and accumulate extra fat a slow, linear fashion, week in and week out? Or do you think they expand by alternating between imbalanced periods of gluttonous overfeeding and repentant underfeeding?
If you guessed the latter, research agrees: people tend to gain the most weight through weekend and holiday bingeing. Those with weight issues fail to compensate for their caloric excesses by subsequently reducing intake until the “damage” has been undone.
The average overweight person tries to “eat clean” throughout the week, maintaining a state of relatively neutral energy balance, which means no change in weight or body composition. The weekend comes and, as a reward for “being good” throughout the week, all dietary whims are indulged. Two days of excessive calorie intake adds, let’s say, 0.5 pounds of fat, and this new, fatter weight is maintained throughout the week, and another 0.5 pounds is added the next weekend, and so forth.
This fattening routine is maintained throughout the year and accelerates during the holidays. And voila, you’ve now gained 20 to 30 pounds of fat in a year despite “eating right” for 70% of it.
This is why many people fail to lose weight with forms of calorie counting: they maintain a proper calorie deficit throughout the week and lose fat, but then gain it all back on their weekend “cheat days.”
I see it all the time. In fact, when people first come to me wondering why their weight is stuck despite “sticking to their meal plans,” the first thing I ask is what their weekends look like, and more often than not, that’s as far as we need to dig.
The bottom line is this: if you have a problem with binge eating, you’ll probably never get as lean you’d like to be, and you definitely won’t be able to maintain it for any period of time.
That said, I do have good news for the fellow gourmands out there…there is a way to “binge” regularly without getting fat…
Most of the mainstream chatter about weight gain and loss revolves around the types of foods eaten and their purported effects on body weight and composition.
Demagogue…er…”expert” A tries to convince you that foods W and X are fattening while Y and Z are slimming while “expert” B tries to convince you that A has it all wrong and that his diet is the One True Way to rippling abs, radiant health, and everlasting longevity.
The whole lot of this type of nutritional advice is missing the forest for the trees.
When it comes to weight gain and loss, what you eat isn’t nearly as important as how much.
You see, foods don’t have any special properties that make them better or worse for weight loss. What they do have, however, are varying amounts of potential energy as measured in calories, and varying types of macronutrient profiles.
These two factors–the calories contained in foods and how those calories break down into protein, carbohydrate, and fat–are what make certain foods more suitable for losing weight than others.
Notice I said more suitable, and not “best.” And that’s because if you know how to regulate and balance your food intake properly, you can eat just about anything and lose weight.
Don’t believe me?
Well, Professor Mark Haub lost 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks, and you could do exactly the same if you wanted to (not that you should though–more on this in a second).
In case you’re not familiar with energy balance, think of it like your body’s energy checking account. A negative balance is a situation where your body is burning more energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the red as far as energy goes). A positive balance, on the other hand, is a situation where your body is burning less energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the black).
A negative energy balance results in a reduction of total fat mass because your body has to get the additional energy it needs from somewhere, and body fat is one of the primary sources of this energy. A positive energy balance results in an increase in total fat mass as your body is programmed to store a portion of the excess energy you feed it as body fat.
Talk of calories and energy balance is unpopular these days as people don’t want to bother with counting calories to lose weight, but a century of metabolic research shows us that these are the facts, whether we like them or not.
If you consistently feed your body less energy than it burns, you’ll lose weight. If you do the opposite–consistently feed it more–you’ll gain weight.
Weight loss does NOT require you to only eat certain types of food, avoid other types, combine types in various ways, or any other quackery. It only requires that you regularly feed your body less energy than it burns.
Now, what does all that have to do with binge eating?
Well, most people think of bingeing as excessive indulgence in junk foods like candy, french fries, and desserts, but fail to realize that excessive calories of any kind are the real problem, not the foods eaten.
You would probably agree that a couple thousand calories of Twizzlers, popcorn, and soda qualifies as a binge, but what about a couple thousand calories of butter, sweet potato, and whole grains?
And you would probably expect to gain weight from the former type of binge but not the latter, right?
I run into this all the time with people I work with. They don’t realize that their weekly “clean calorie” binges can be just as counter-productive for weight loss as a couple pints of ice cream.
Another important aspect of food intake that people don’t realize is bingeing isn’t an absolute—it’s relative to your total daily calorie intake.
Consider this: my dinner often contains somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories and includes some sort of homemade dessert (I’m really into baked oatmeal dishes these days). Yeah, that’s about as many calories as most people eat in an entire day in one meal, and as you can imagine, it’s a lot of food. If you saw it you’d probably call it a binge.
And it would be if it weren’t for one simple fact: that’s about 80% of my calories for the entire day. I will eat light all day (just protein and veggies, mainly), “saving” all those calories I burn every day (3,000, give or take) for a disproportionately large dinner.
Thus, despite the huge 7 PM feast that often includes “fattening” foods like pasta, bread, dairy and…gasp…sugar…I end the day in a state of neutral energy balance and nothing changes in my weight or body composition. Quite literally, what might be a fattening binge for you is just another dinner for me.
If that sounds impossible or ridiculous to you, here’s 5 months of visual evidence:
As you can see, not much has changed in the last 5 months of my regular, controlled “bingeing,” and nothing will change in the next 5 if I feel like continuing my routine.
(And in case you’re wondering, I don’t do this for any special reason other than I like to cook and going into dinner with 2,000+ calories to “spare” allows for a wide variety of meals.)
Now, this would all fall apart if I didn’t maintain a neutral energy balance.
That is, if I came into dinner having already eaten 2,000 calories throughout the day and then ate another 2,500 calories…no matter how “clean” those calories were…I would get fatter. Every day. Without fail.
The key takeaways of this section of the article are…
Bingeing on “clean” calories prevents weight loss just as effectively as bingeing on “dirty” calories.
Eating an excessive amount of food doesn’t necessarily make you fat—placing your body in an excessively large calorie surplus does.
It’s no surprise that a common and powerful trigger of binge eating is restrictive dieting wherein you severely limit your food choices.
This type of diet is, in the short term, a viable method of weight loss and/or weight maintenance because you just get sick of eating the same foods every day, making it hard to overeat. This is hardly a sustainable lifestyle, though. If you’re like, well, just about everyone, the more you abstain from eating foods you like, the more you desire them. You can only say “no” for so long and if you’re the prone to bingeing, things can get pretty ugly when you finally give in.
Fortunately, there’s a better way of going about it. Instead of confining yourself to a short list of “diet-friendly” foods, you can regularly eat a long list of all the foods you like and regulate the amounts you eat instead. This is a powerful way to control bingeing.
If you never feel deprived of foods you like, even sugary treats, you’re less likely to develop and uncontrollable desire to binge on them. It takes a lot less willpower to put the pint of ice cream away when you know you can eat a couple hundred calories’ worth of it every day and still achieve your health and fitness goals.
“Flexible dieting,” as it’s known, is an easy, effective way to control your cravings and reduce bingeing. While a diet that allows you eat a wide variety of foods may sound great, it actually presents many people with a new problem: it can increase the likelihood of overeating.
You see, many people have a lot of trouble sticking to eating just small or moderate amounts of certain foods. They can’t just have a few squares of chocolate for dessert—once they’ve had their first bite, only the whole bar will suffice. And sometimes a whole bar can trigger a binge.
Other people are more passive in their overeating. They eat a couple more tablespoons of peanut better than what’s in their meal plans. They use a bit more oil on their salads and take a couple extra bites of mashed potato at dinner. These calories add up and, again, it doesn’t take much to tip the scales too far in the wrong direction.
Others still fall victim to their love of restaurants and eat out several times per week, which is a dietary nightmare because you simply never know many many calories you’re actually eating. There are just too many “hidden” calories in restaurant foods in the form of added butter, oil, cream, sugar, and other ingredients that make food delicious but calorie dense.
So, in this section of the article I want to share with you several simple strategies you can use to not only keep yourself from bingeing but from passively overeating as well.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The more you have food around you, the more you’re likely to eat. The reason is simple:
The more people see foods, the more they think about them, and the more they think about them, the more likely they are to eat them more frequently than they normally would.
If every time you feel the slightest hunger something quick and tasty is just a hop and skip away, it’s going to take serious willpower to avoid overeating. And when you have to say no 10 times an hour to all your favorite goodies, eventually you say yes. And yes. And yes…
The solution is simple: stop boobytrapping your environment with foods you have trouble resisting.
Don’t surround yourself with food and you’ll avoid this pitfall.
Don’t fill your pantry, cupboards, and drawers to the brim with your favorite snacks and treats. Don’t fill your fridge with caloric beverages. Don’t have candy lying around the office.
How Many Calories Is That Hamburger in the Window?
Us humans are full of psychological quirks, and one that works against our waistlines is our tendency to underestimate sizes and amounts as things get bigger.
Research shows that both normal and overweight people predictably underestimate the calorie content of meals with mathematical predictability.
Studies also show that the more we eat, the less accurate we get in our estimations. Eat a 300-calorie hamburger meal and you’re likely to underestimate its calories by 10%, and eat a 900-calorie hamburger feast and, if you’re like most people, you’ll underestimate it by a whopping 40%.
The implications of this are obvious, and explain why so many overweight people believe they can’t lose weight despite “not eating a lot.”
I run into this all the time with people that write to me for help. They come to me believing their “metabolisms are broken” or that calorie counting doesn’t work or that they’re just genetically fated to be fat. And they’re relieved and thrilled to learn that they were just eating too much and moving too little, and that they can lose fat with ease once they properly calculate their total daily energy expenditure and plan and track their food intake accordingly.
If you want to be able to “eat by instinct” and still maintain a lean physique, you must familiarize yourself with the calorie content and macro nutritional breakdown of the foods you like to eat. This will prevent you from dramatically underestimating intake.
How to Feel Full on Fewer Calories
Scientists don’t really know what makes us feel full. How much we chew, taste, swallow, think about the food, and eat for all play a role.
Here’s what we do know, though:
We tend to eat the same amount, or volume, of food every day and the absolute amount of food eaten is what makes us feel full, not the calories contained in it.
You see, if someone is used to eating a large, half-pound hamburger and eats a smaller quarter-pounder, he’ll probably still feel hungry. If he makes the smaller burger larger by adding some lettuce, tomato, and onion and not squishing it down, however, he’ll find the meal just as filling as the huge burger despite having hundreds of fewer calories.
It’s the volume our stomachs want, not the calories.
Research shows that you could take your normal volume of food intake and double its calorie content and you’d have no trouble finishing it all. And on the flip side, so long as you preserve the volume, you could halve the calories and still feel full after each meal.
If you’re looking to lose weight, stay away from low-volume, high-calorie foods like many processed, pre-packaged foods and snack as well as many high-fat foods, including nutritious ones like oils, cheese, fatty meats, etc.
Instead, fill your meal plans with high-volume, low-calorie foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and meats, etc.
If you’re trying to gain weight and are struggling to hit your daily numbers, flip that advice and eat more low-volume, high-calorie foods and less of the others.
Don’t Snack While Watching TV
When you’re watching TV, you’re not paying attention to how much you’re eating and before you know it, the whole bag of chips or pint of ice cream is gone…despite not even being hungry. In fact, anything that takes your attention off the food makes you more likely to overeat.
If you’re going to eat while watching TV, you’re going to want to regulate your intake by bringing a pre-ordained amount to the couch and eating just it and nothing more.
Prepare and Serve Meals Intelligently
If you have trouble with overeating, I bet you do one or more of the following things:
- You buy bigger packages of food to save money or time.
- You tend to eat most of what you serve yourself for meals.
- You eat from large containers, plates, and bowls and drink from large glasses.
- You stop eating and drinking when your plate and glass are empty, not when you’re full.
These four habits typify the average American dining experience (the “fat family” style of eating) and are scientifically proven to subtly increase food intake.
Research shows that people eat 20 to 25% more food from larger packages than small, that they eat about 92% of what they serve themselves, and that serving food on larger plates, bowls, and glasses influences people to eat more.
When we bring large packages of food into the kitchen, it feels normal to make and serve more than if the packages were small. If we serve it onto and into large tableware, we’re more likely to serve more to fill the pieces up and then eat everything we dished out.
Setting the table incorrectly sets the stage for overeating. Use small plates, bowls, and glasses, and eat only until you’re no longer hungry, you’ll be less likely to overeat.
Don’t Go Back For Seconds
If you have a habit of eating several helpings of food in a meal or eating directly out of boxes or containers, you’re going to have trouble regulating your food intake.
Research shows these habits simply lead to eating more.
An easy way to prevent overeating is to “preplate” your food with the amount you plan on eating and skipping seconds and thirds.
Similarly, put your foods on a plate or in a bowl before you start eating and you won’t have to remember or guesstimate how much you’ve taken.
Make Tempting Foods Inconvenient
The simplest and probably most effective way to prevent overeating and bingeing is to use the following truism to your advantage:
The harder it is to eat something, the less we eat of it.
People that use chopsticks at a buffet are less likely to be overweight than those using silverware. If people have to go to a separate line to pay for junk food, they buy less of it. If the lid of a checkout ice cream cooler is left open, people are twice as likely to take some than when it’s closed.
We can use our inherent dislike of effort to our dietary advantage by making our temptations less convenient. Stick the cookies in the back of the top cupboard, hide the foiled leftovers in the back of the fridge, keep the ice cream in the garage freezer, eat snacks at a table and on a plate, etc.
Watch Out When You Eat Out
Social events involving food are the bane of many dieters.
Research shows that, on average, people that eat with one other person eat 35% more calories than they otherwise would. Increase the party to 4 and calorie intake increasingly accordingly, to about 75% on average. Make it a grand social affair with a group of 7 or more people and they’ll eat nearly twice as many calories as they would alone.
Scientists have identified several reasons for this, including our tendency to match our eating speed and total food intake to the group average and spending more time at the table with food available for nibbling.
There’s a reason why experienced dieters tend to prefer solitary eating–they know it makes it easier to control food intake.
You don’t have to be a hermit to be lean, though. You just have to be aware of your tendencies when going out to eat and consciously override them.
When I eat out, I decide on exactly what I’m going to eat and I don’t let the amount and speed of other people’s eating influence mine.
You now know more about binge eating than 99% of the population and you now have the power to keep it from ruining your efforts to get fit.
If you apply the strategies given in this article, you can beat the binge problem once and for all without having to adopt a life of dietary asceticism.
So long as you understand and use the laws of energy balance to your advantage and take simple precautions to prevent passive overeating, you can regularly enjoy all the foods you like without paying the price of regular weight gain.