Behind The Binge-Restrict Cycle: Undereating Causes Overeating

October 26, 2023

You might think that undereating and overeating are two entirely separate issues, but the reality is: they are connected in a cycle known as the The Binge-Restrict Cycle. It’s a paradoxical relationship, where undereating often causes overeating. This can be a distressing pattern that affects both your physical and emotional well-being. Restricting your food intake, whether through energy intake or food groups, can lead to feelings of loss of control, overwhelming cravings, and a sense viewing food as the enemy.

Restriction, whether it’s limiting specific foods, food groups, or overall intake (intentionally or unintentionally) has potential consequences. It creates the sense of scarcity, followed by intense cravings and obsessive thoughts about food. This can further lead to the feelings of being out of control around food. Thus, perpetuates the cycle of restricting and bingeing.

What is The Binge-Restrict Cycle?

1. Restriction

This can lead to a host of problems, including nutritional deficiencies, reduced energy levels, and negative effects on physical and mental health. When you cut out nutrients or limit our food intake, your body can feel the consequences. Not just physically. Restriction also impacts you socially and emotionally. It limits your ability to participate in social events or enjoy a wide variety of foods.

2. The Sense of Scarcity

Instead of focusing on what you can eat, your thoughts revolve around what you can’t. This leads to feelings of deprivation, anxiety, and a constant preoccupation with food. The sense of scarcity can also lead to emotional scarcity, where our enjoyment and satisfaction with food are limited. Over time, this emotional scarcity may trigger emotional eating, causing us to turn to food as a coping mechanism. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment (1945) showed the emotional affects of food restriction.

3. Intense Cravings & Obsessive Thoughts

When you tell yourself, you can’t have something, it often becomes even more desirable. You may find yourself obsessing about that particular food. Your thoughts become consumed with what you’re not “allowed” to eat, leading to constant preoccupation about food.

4. Bingeing/Overeating as a Response

Paradoxically, restrictive eating patterns often lead to bingeing/overeating. When you feel deprived of your certain foods, you experience an overwhelming urge to compensate for what we think you lack. If you’ve seen the “Girl Math” trend, it’s kind of like this: “I didn’t eat the cookie, so I will eat one spoonful of ice cream. And since I ate the ice cream and not the cookie, I will eat two mini candies, since I ate the candies and not the cookie then…”, you get this picture. This results in consuming more than we usually would, leading to guilt and shame.

5. Feeling Out of Control

You oscillate between rigidity and loss of control. This only adds to the to a range of negative emotions, including embarrassment, shame, fear, and guilt.

How to Break Free From the Binge-Restrict Cycle

Ditch the “All or Nothing” Mentality

One of the first steps to prevent the binge-restrict cycle is to steer clear of the “All or Nothing” Mentality. This leads to black-and-white thinking about food, while ignoring all of the middle ground. Instead of striving for perfection, focus on consistency and variety. Remember, all foods have their place.

Examples of the “All or Nothing” Mentality may include thoughts like:

  • “If I have a cookie today, then I can’t have another one this week.”
  • “This was a bad choice, I have to make up for this immediately.”

Practice Self-Compassion

Shifting to a mindset of self-compassion is an essential part of breaking free from the cycle. Instead of punishing yourself for enjoying a foods, be kind and understanding towards yourself. Reframe “all of nothing” think in to:

  • “Eating that cookie is absolutely fine, and I don’t need to feel guilty about it.”
  • “This food may not have been what I wanted right now, but it’s just one meal, and it’s not about perfection.”

You send a different message to your body—one that promotes balance and flexibility rather than scarcity and restriction. It’s essential to find a gentle and sustainable approach to that doesn’t lead to feelings of being out of control.

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I'm Krystal Dunham, and I'm so happy you're here! I'm always on the hunt for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe! So that would make me not your "typical" dietitian. Here you'll find non-diet-y recipes and intuitive eating resources so that you can reclaim your joy around food and nutrition, you in? Learn more about me.

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