Binge eating – we all do it (or really, really want to do it) at some time or another. There are a many reasons we do it, stress, tiredness, being overly hungry, etc. One of the most universal triggers is the holiday season. With all the social gatherings filled with traditional foods rife with calories and fat it is hard to keep a balanced diet.

Interestingly, I always see a slew of new people at the gym right after the winter holiday season. It’s uncanny—a day or two after New Year’s, there’s a whole pack of people in cuter (and newer) gym clothes than mine hogging all the cardio machines.

Not that I’m upset they’re working out. In fact, I think it’s great. I’m mostly sad about the fact that they are simply reacting to their holiday binge and will quit coming after just a few workouts. I can see that they’re in a dieting cycle that isn’t really working for them. They diet for a while and lose weight, but then they quit and gain it all back. Then they beat themselves up and come back to the gym for a little while. In the world of weight loss the key to success really is “slow and steady wins the race.”

One distinction I’d like to make really quickly is that binging is not quite the same as indulging. I look on the occasional indulgence as ok, perhaps even healthy. Especially if you consider that a little indulgence here and there can prevent binging. I’m sure some nutritionists would strongly disagree with my granting of indulgences, but I can only endorse what works for me.

It’s important to understand what causes us to binge in the first place before we can work on preventing it. Ancient humans often had to deal with food scarcity and developed the trait of eating as much as they could possibly consume in one sitting when the opportunity presented itself.

This ancient binging (which was not emotionally driven) was important to the survival of our ancestors but is killing us—or at least killing our diets. But, knowing that the binging our ancestors did was in response to food scarcity can give us the key to preventing the urge to binge.

1. Eat Several Meals and Snacks Each Day

It’s tried and true. One of the best ways to keep from binging or even just overindulging is not to allow yourself to get overly hungry. We tend to justify eating more the longer we wait between meals or the hungrier we feel. Feeling hungrier doesn’t make your stomach bigger than when you feel only slightly hungry. It just means the signal from your brain is stronger and more urgent.

Eating five to six small but nutritious meals a day (think three meals with a couple snacks) will keep you from getting so hungry that you must eat everything in sight. When you are eating several small meals a day, your stomach also shrinks a bit. So, when those holidays come around you get uncomfortably full much more quickly than if you were to eat three large meals a day.

2. Plan Ahead for Special Occasions and Holidays

Like I briefly mentioned before, it’s ok to indulge in a large meal or delightful dessert here and there. You can make one of your other small meals or snacks even smaller or incredibly light. For example, if you have an event in the evening you can eat lighter meals and snacks during the day to compensate. Have a light salad full of fat burning fruits and vegetables for lunch rather than a large sandwich with chips. Learn which foods you should never eat.

It’s best not to prepare for a big meal (say, Thanksgiving, for example) by skipping a meal or snack. Just eat light throughout the day (find snacks that are low in calories and low in fat). To prevent overindulgence at a party, eat a small healthy snack right before you go. It will help you be hungry enough that you can enjoy the party, but full enough that you won’t go overboard and regret it later.

Keep in mind that eating healthy is all about balance. It’s not as black and white as many people may think. There is room for mistakes and indulgences. The important thing is to keep working at it and finding the method that works best for you.

Another good piece of advice is to avoid quick-fix diets. Quite often the restrictive (but short-lived) nature of these diets can lead to binging. You’re not any better off even if you’ve lost weight on the diet. You can think of those diets as a type of binge themselves.

You go on a weight loss binge—which can be as bad as a food binge. Until you’ve established steady eating habits that help you lose and then maintain your weight you can get stuck in the pattern of over-restricting your diet and then overeating.

3. Make Healthy Snacks More Convenient Than Unhealthy Snacks

While we’re talking healthy eating—keep the choices you have for between-meal snacks on the healthy side. If you have a variety of fruits (dried or fresh), nuts, veggies, or other such foods you enjoy and that are low-fat and nutrient-dense (and nothing else worth snacking on) you will be more likely to choose healthy snacks.

If you have a craving for a treat, satisfy it immediately. Just be sure that you are satisfying it with a small serving. The most common example is chocolate—quite often a major craving can be satisfied with a few bites of dark chocolate (make sure it’s quality dark chocolate—then it’s actually good), a cup of low-fat chocolate milk, or even a bite or two of milk chocolate.

With treats or any snack, don’t eat from the bag. Pull out the exact serving size you wish to eat and then put the rest of the bag away. It sounds simple, but it can really help keep you in check.

Wait at least 15 minutes after you’ve had your small serving of craved food before eating anything else—unless you are going to eat a healthy snack. Usually, by about this time your body will have started metabolizing the chocolate (for example) and quite often the food craving will be gone completely.

Also, try to analyze exactly what you are craving. If you are simply craving something sweet you may be able to squelch the craving with some fruit.

4. Give Away Holiday/Special Occasion Leftovers

If you’re fridge is too full of goodies, find people to share them with. Friends, neighbors, coworkers, relatives, almost anyone loves a good treat. Host a game night or an after-party party. If you do take leftovers to work, be sure that you are not the one eating them. Or, bring them packaged easily for your coworkers to take home so that they aren’t eaten at work at all.

You may also want to freeze some leftovers and come back to them in a month or two. In my family, whoever hosts Thanksgiving has relatives coming to their home throughout Thanksgiving weekend to finish off the leftovers.

5. Know Your Triggers

Find out which situations or circumstances make you feel like binging. If you can prevent the situation, you can prevent the binge. If you tend to binge because you have waited too long between meals you can usually prevent those situations with a little extra planning ahead.

Some people binge when they are frustrated at work or aren’t getting enough sleep. These can be harder situations to prevent because sometimes work is just going to be frustrating and your kids won’t let you sleep. That’s when the safeguards we’ve talked about above will really help.

Eating several meals each day, making sure healthy snacks are the most convenient, and pulling out just a serving and putting the rest of the bag away will minimize the powerful urge to binge when life gets you down.

6. Get Help

Team up with a friend and call him or her when nothing else is working. You can help yourself by completely removing yourself from the situation. Go on a walk. If it’s too cold for a stroll, go to the library (you usually can’t eat there) and pick out a good book. Be careful about just driving unless you have a beautiful canyon nearby you can drive through and look at scenery.

Most of us feel the urge to binge at one time or another, but it’s good to keep in mind that binge eating can be tied to an emotional disorder that requires the help of a professional counsellor to overcome.

If you are having an extremely hard time controlling your binges and are feeling extreme guilt, shame, or depression after each one it might be a good idea to talk to your family doctor about the problem, or a medical professional who specializes in the area of binge-eating disorders.

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