Vegan Binge Eating Disorders: Causes & Strategies for Prevention
Vegan Binge Eating Disorders: Causes & Strategies for Prevention
So, you consider yourself a healthy eater.
You buy fresh vegetables and make lots of soups, stir-fries, and salads. You have oatmeal for breakfast everyday, with chia and flax seeds. You try to avoid simple carbohydrates like bread and pasta, and eat lots of beans, lentils, and quinoa.
But even though you eat a filling breakfast and healthy lunch, you constantly get these awful sugar/carb cravings. And they just won’t go away.
On a regular basis, you find yourself elbow deep in a tub of vegan ice cream or downing a chocolate bar. You are always thinking about food, and you especially give into your cravings when you’re alone. Sometimes you lie about what you’ve eaten or eat in secret.
All of this extremely defeating and discouraging. You eat so healthy and seemingly lose all your progress during a binge. Why can’t you just get your eating under control?!
What you might not realize is that building up this resistance to “unhealthy food” could be the cause of your binge eating on a vegan diet – or any diet, for that matter.
I am a specialized in binge eating and healing relationships to food. There’s lots to unpack about vegan binge eating, so let’s get started.
What is a vegan binge eating disorder?
First of all, let’s describe vegan binge eating disorders.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort), a feeling of a loss of control during the binge, and experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards.
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in Canada. You are not alone if this is relatable to you.
To meet the official diagnosis, binge eating must occur on average, at least once per week for three months or twice per week for six months.
Bingeing ‘stuffs’ difficult feelings down for a few moments or hours, temporarily providing a distraction from them. A person affected by bingeing may have an initial heightened response to the taste of foods but experiences little pleasure or satisfaction as food is eaten.
Bingeing often leads to immense shame and guilt afterwards, prompting further restrictions and further fuelling the diet-binge cycle.
A note on disordered eating vs eating disorders
Disordered eating is present when an individual engages in abnormal food behaviours on a regular basis but may or may not have an official eating disorder diagnosis.
The main differences are the clinical frequency and intensity of engaging in these methods to control one’s body weight, shape, or size. This does not generally apply to those with certain food intolerances, allergies, or health problems, who might have no choice but to adhere to a certain diet.
In the case of vegan binge eating, someone with disordered eating might engage in frequent binge eating and experience distress around food and body, but not necessarily meet the binge eating disorder criteria.
Typically, disordered eating is a hint that someone may develop an eating disorder. Both disordered eating and diagnosed eating disorders create suffering. Both are valid and are worthy of support.
Breaking disordered eating habits before they lead to an eating disorder is important and can be accomplished.
A note on veganism and eating disorders
As a plant-based dietitian, I work with many clients who experience a wide range of eating disorders, including vegan binge eating disorder. I often get questions like:
- Is veganism the cause of my eating disorder?
- Can I stay vegan during my eating disorder recovery?
- Am I at increased risk for disordered eating if I’m vegan?
My answer is, it really depends. And it’s complicated.
Considering that veganism is a lifestyle that severely impacts food choices, it can certainly be interpreted as dieting or disordered eating. Sometimes this interpretation is wrong, while sometimes it might be correct.
For more on this topic check out my other blog post on veganism and eating disorder recovery.
Common reasons for vegan binge eating
It is probably no surprise to you that there is no single cause of binge eating. Eating disorders and binge eating are complex mental health issues.
Many factors are involved, including a person’s relationship with food, personality, mental health, genetic and biological factors, and social environment. The causes are different for each person.
However, a few patterns and common psychological reasons for binge eating have been found.
Restriction or “food rules”
Food restriction often provides a brief relief from certain anxieties. Maybe it feels like you are “good” because you are “following the rules.” Some of the common food rules that my patients tell me they try to follow include:
- “I can’t eat past 8pm”
- “I can’t go for second servings”
- “I need to avoid white bread and pasta”
- “I need to avoid all processed sugar”
- “I can’t eat foods with more than 5 ingredients”
These food rules can often serve as relief from the shame or guilt from a previous binge. They also help distract from stress or other emotions. They may actually calm you for a brief time.
But that thrill phase just won’t last. And it is not a failure within you – you are not the problem. Eventually this restriction leads to a hyper fixation on food.
After even just a few hours of restriction, you become emotionally and physically depleted. Physically, your body is desperate for food and wants fast energy. It wants food that it can break down quickly. And your mind wants a pleasurable reward.
Oftentimes, this is why binges usually occur on fun foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt that activate reward centers in the brain and are palatable to the tastebuds.
One of the major (albeit very difficult) steps for how to prevent binge eating is letting go of these food rules.
Feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, or sad
These are common emotions for where emotional eating is most likely coming from.
Seeking out a way to release tension, feel supported, or simply wanting a distraction from uncomfortable feelings can be one of the causes of binge eating.
Stress can cause both binge eating and the desire to overeat. It’s common for someone with a vegan binge eating disorder to use food to deal with emotions they want to turn off including anger, sadness, and boredom.
Bingeing ‘stuffs’ difficult feelings down for a few moments or hours, temporarily providing a distraction from them. If you have a heightened response to the taste of foods but you experience little pleasure or satisfaction as you actually eat the food, you might be mindlessly eating to avoid your emotions.
This is one of the major psychological reasons for binge eating.
What if it’s not binge eating, and is actually just biological hunger?
Your body is incredibly smart. It knows how much energy (i.e. calories, carbohydrates, fat, and protein) it needs to meet its needs. And if those needs aren’t met, there are mechanisms in place to drive you as a human to meet those needs.
Actively restricting food creates a state of starvation in the body. This triggers a biologic drive to eat through the release of specific hormones and neurotransmitters.
Your body releases ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”) to tell your brain it’s time to eat. Your brain also releases neuropeptide Y, which is a hormone that increases your appetite specifically for carbohydrates.
So that sugar craving and carb binge you’re having every night? That’s your body biologically screaming, “FEED ME!”
Strategies for how to prevent binge eating
Do you relate to any of those binge eating causes? You are not alone! Trust me on this one.
If you think you have a vegan binge eating disorder, here are some suggestions for how to prevent binge eating.
This is not easy work; be kind to yourself throughout the recovery process. And remember that these tips are not one-size-fits-all. You can take what works and leave what doesn’t.
To stop the binge-restrict cycle, you need to eat!
If you come from a dieting history of cutting back on calories and food restriction, then you aren’t used to eating enough food.
Bingeing is your body telling you it’s not feeling satisfied. You need to ditch the arbitrary food rules and give yourself permission to eat.
You need to find the place where you no longer feel ravenous by giving yourself steady sources of food. You need to re-feed yourself and regain your body’s trust that you are a reliable source of food. That will take time.
Do you have friends or family that keep fun foods around the house, yet don’t seem to constantly reach for it? And you think, “How can they allow this in the house?!”
The concept of food habituation centers around the idea that the more we’re exposed to a food, the less our brains care about it.
On the flip side, the rare and “bad” the food, the more our brains fixate on it. This promotes intense cravings and drives us to want to eat that food. The more we say we can’t have something, the more we think about it and crave it!
This can seem impossibly difficult and counter productive. You might be thinking that this cannot work as you will simply go overboard (binge) if you let yourself have the “bad” foods. And you might at first, but if you trust your body, you will find an equilibrium.
In binge eating recovery, the more you can expose yourself to your binge foods (i.e. try eating them every day!), the more bored of them you will get and the less “special” they will get.
You might also notice how some foods make you feel bloated or hurt your stomach. Your body will be able to tell you what it wants and what it doesn’t.
This is a key principle for how to prevent binge eating. When you’re ready, a registered dietitian can guide you through a supported food habituation process if you aren’t too sure with how to approach food habituation.
Labelling food as “good” and “bad” can further perpetuate the diet-binge cycle as it assigns morality to food. You are not a morally bad person for eating chocolate cake! That’s not how food works.
The reality is, food is just food.
You need to work towards neutralizing foods. If you don’t, that inner critic is going to come out and beat you up for your choices. And that will set you back from overcoming binge eating.
Instead of judging and criticizing yourself after a binge, what if you were kind and loving to yourself?
Self-compassion involves showing warmth and caring towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or binge eat. Instead of just ignoring your pain and being harsh, you stop to tell yourself, “this is really difficult right now,” and ask “how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”
Research has shown that practicing self-compassion is an important part of eating disorder recovery and can alleviate suffering.
Seek out professional support
The earlier you get help for a vegan binge eating disorder, the sooner you can achieve recovery and find food freedom.
An ideal complete treatment team for a vegan binge eating disorder is composed of family/caregivers, a medical doctor, a therapist, and a registered dietitian.
A dietitian specialized in vegan eating disorder recovery can help demystify nutrition myths that would otherwise be entangled in your recovery from binge eating disorder.
They can also help you explore your experiences around hunger, fullness, metabolism, feared foods, nutrition messages, body image, and more while guiding you along a healthy journey in regards to veganism.
A dietitian will help you find your binge eating causes and work through them with you.
Vegan binge eating disorders in summary
If you are binge eating, know you are not alone and you don’t have to live in this struggle.
It can sometimes feel like you have no control over an eating disorder. But in reality, after examining binge eating causes in your life, you can gain control of your eating disorder. It is hard work, though.
Eating disorder counseling with a dietitian can help you improve your situation and help you feel confident again. An eating disorder dietitian can help you understand and stop the vicious cycle of restriction and binge.
Having support is key to healing and feeling confident again.