The majority of problem eaters have chaotic eating schedules. Some of them might skip breakfast and grab a quick cup of coffee for lunch. They may go six, seven, sometimes even eight hours without eating. Then, unsurprisingly, they find themselves bingeing at night.
The next day, they might try to avoid eating anything at all in an effort to compensate for the previous night’s binge.
Other problem eaters don’t restrict.
Instead, they graze on food all day long. There are no gaps in-between their meals. There’s no opportunity to experience hunger. It’s as though their days consist of eating one long, slow, protracted meal.
Both of these eating styles are problematic because there’s no clear, balanced structure or routine to them.
As a result, chaotic eating patterns give rise to a number of problems:
1. Skipping meals encourages overeating.
The main problem with chaotic eating is that your body and mind have no idea when to expect food again.
The end of every meal is the start of an undefined period of further deprivation.
When are you going to have your next meal? In 3 hours? In 6 hours? The next day?
Both psychologically and physically, the absence of a clear eating pattern creates a very powerful desire to binge. Your body tries to eat as much as it can now for fear that you won’t nourish it later.
You may think to yourself, “I’d better have that extra portion of cake, because I don’t know when I’ll let myself eat anything next.”
2. Ignoring hunger diminishes the body’s ability to feel subtle hunger signals.
A lot of problem eaters view their hunger as an enemy. However, the truth is that hunger is extremely useful and disregarding its signals can cause a lot of harm. As you continue to ignore them and distract yourself from these sensations, they begin to wither and fade away. You lose your natural ability to feel subtle sensations of hunger – instead, you only feel powerful, intense, ravishing binge urges.
Being out of touch with your natural hunger and satiety cues forces you to rely on ineffective external cues, i.e. diet plans, calorie counting, bingeing and purging. After a while, it can become difficult to know how much you should eat.
Not being able to feel satisfied after eating can be scary. You don’t know when to stop. You constantly worry about eating too much. This fear leads to anxiety and some of us turn to purging in an attempt to to deal with it.
3. Chaotic eating encourages your body to store food as fat.
Continuous food restriction lowers your body’s metabolism. Once that happens, your body becomes more likely to store anything you do eat as fat.
If your chaotic eating stems from restriction and various attempts to lose weight, it might do you good to remember that irregular eating is completely counterproductive to weight loss and, most importantly, your overall health .
New Habit: Eat Regularly
The solution is to bring some structure into your eating routine – that is, to provide your body with food every day and at regular intervals.
By doing this, you’ll create a consistent pattern of meals and snacks that remains more or less the same day in and day out.
There will be no scarcity if you eat regularly.
There will be no need to eat more now for fear of deprivation later on.
You’ll be telling your body:
“You don’t have to force me to binge on large amounts of food anymore. You can rest assured knowing that I’ll provide you with more food later.”
In time, your body will be biologically reconditioned to know that it will always have access to food. As a result, your binge urges will decrease, your natural bodily rhythm will be reset and your hunger will be rebalanced.
Eating regularly is crucial for binge grazers too. If you tend to graze on food all day long, a consistent eating schedule will allow you to break the habit of constant eating and to start feeling those subtle hunger sensations again.
Science & Studies
Studies show that people who skip meals during the day and then compensate for it in the evening tend to be overweight more often than those who eat regularly. You can find one of these studies here.
Researchers found that after fasting for 18 hours, people were more inclined to load up on the most fattening foods available, i.e. starchy options, like french fries.
It has also been proven that a regular eating pattern stabilises our blood sugar levels and improves glycaemic control. This automatically suppresses our appetites and curbs intense hunger pangs.
So if you’re worried that eating regularly will cause you to gain weight, keep in mind that a schedule of balanced eating is actually one of the best things that you can do to maintain a healthy weight. It can do wonders when it comes to boosting your metabolism!
Focus on sticking to your set meal times.
Avoid continuous snacking in-between meals. It won’t help you stick to your eating schedule and it’ll most likely lead to you consuming more food than you need. So, in order to normalise your eating patterns, focus on eating regularly, not constantly.
Avoid trigger food for now
If you know that certain foods can trigger a binge for you, avoid them for now (we’ll get to that later!).
Make portions smaller if you need to
The goal at this stage is to get used to the feeling of fullness in your stomach, so you get to choose your own portion sizes for now. If you’re struggling with keeping food down, make your portions smaller. In time, as your body adjusts to regular nourishment, you can increase the amount of food.
Choose to be strict or not so strict with times
Some people like to eat exactly at their set meal times, while others enjoy flexibility. Feel free to experiment and discover what works best for you!
Eat something, even if you are not hungry
Even if you don’t feel hungry, you should try and eat something once your next meal time rolls around. You simply can’t trust your hunger and satiety signals at this point in time – eating problems have made your internal regulatory system unreliable. Eating in a mechanical way will help you restore your natural hunger and satiety cues.
Remember this is just a temporary step
If eating regularly feels very intense or almost diet-like, remind yourself that you won’t have to stick to this schedule forever. It’s only a temporary step that is meant to pave the way for intuitive eating a little further down the line.
“What if I binge?”
Firstly don’t panic; you haven’t blown it!
At this early stage in recovery you are not expected to just stop bingeing. If you do binge, continue your meal plan for the rest of the day.
Yes I know this is challenging but the BEST WAY to prevent further loss of control is to continue to eat at least every 3 hours.
Remember if you decide to restrict and skip a meal you will only encourage more binge eating.
It can help to break the day up into 6 portions to represent each meal. If you do binge on one of these portions don’t look at it as if the day has been ruined. It hasn’t, you still have 5 more opportunities to continue to eat every 3 hours.
“Why am I MORE hungry after eating?”
Unfortunately at this stage in recovery your hunger might not make logical sense. Sometimes eating a meal can make you MORE hungry than before.
Accept that this is another part of your recovery and in time your body will adjust and respond normally to food.
“Should I ever listen to my own hunger cues at this stage?”
It can be very hard to know when to start trusting your body to tell you when it is hungry again. Generally at the start of recovery you need to focus on eating at least every 3 hours regardless of how hungry you feel.
Don’t worry too much about relying on those natural hunger cues just yet; you can learn to be more intuitive as time goes on. Remember it can take 3-6 months and sometimes longer for your natural hunger cues to really start working again. Until then it is important to start giving your body the nutrition it needs.
“What if I miss a meal?”
Many people become extremely anxious if they miss a meal but missing one meal isn’t going to be an issue. There are plenty of reasons why you might miss a meal. A late bus, an office meeting, or you simply forgot.
If it’s now dinner time and you haven’t eaten since lunch, eat your dinner and be wary that you may need to increase your portion size to make up for the missed food.
This will be very challenging at first, but it WILL get easier.
Please try hard not to miss any meals (although, don’t beat yourself up if you do).
“I found that, after adopting structured eating, I tend to get very anxious when I have to miss a snack or meal. The solution for me was to make sure I always have a small snack at hand e.g. an apple. This definitely takes away some of the stress and not to mention it calms binge urges dramatically!”