When I was yo-yo dieting and binge eating, hating my shitty job, and constantly feeling stressed out and pulled in all directions as a single mother, I wasn’t in a clear enough headspace where changing my habits was even possible. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
Each night, I’d write out detailed plans outlining what I should eat, when I should exercise, and how I could be different. Sometimes, I’d provide myself with quaint motivational quotes, “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
I read a plethora of books and sought out a variety of healers and professionals, including a binge eating coach, mindset coaches, a hypnotherapist, doctors, and a psych-K instructor (don’t ask what that is because I still don’t know). None of it worked.
Unlike the others, the binge eating coach had lived experience and at least understood my problem. Her advice, however, was to simply remove sugar from my life completely. To me, that wasn’t a solution: it was just another diet. Extreme dieting was how I got in this mess in the first place.
The Neuroscience of Binge Eating
Neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s ability to change right throughout the entirety of our lives, and adapt to our repeated behaviour.
When we start binge eating for whatever reason (usually after an extended focus on food and restriction), it’s not really a problem as an isolated event. But over time, as the action is repeated, pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced, and the brain begins to build “super highways” of habit. In the words of neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Unfortunately, we can’t just “willpower away” the super highways. Once they’re built, they’ll be there for a long time. What we can do, however, is build new “country roads” of habit through mindfulness practises. With time and repetition, those country roads will become new super highways, while the old ones – unused and not maintained – will turn into country roads.
The neurotransmitter dopamine also plays its part in the cycle. Large quantities of sugar (whether it’s from sweet foods like chocolate, or from savoury foods like chips and bread, which the body converts to sugar), provide our brains with a dopamine hit. Over time and with repeated binge eating behaviours, the brain starts to lower our normal “baseline” dopamine levels.
Eventually, as we begin to operate on constantly low dopamine levels, our brains start to suggest the binge eating behaviour at other times to lift those levels – such as when we’re stressed, needing comfort, or feeling uncertain – just so we can get enough of a dopamine boost to feel normal again.
For those of us who partake in bouts of undereating in addition to the bingeing, the cycle is strengthened even further.
The Brain on Restriction
If we’re still trying to restrict and starve ourselves – which a lot of binge eaters do in an attempt to mitigate their binge eating – studies have shown there is reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.
The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that engages in the mental processes that enable us to plan, problem-solve, focus attention, remember instructions, and act with long-term goals in mind. The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our emotional responses and memory formation.
Naturally, it’s less likely a person will make rational decisions for their long-term benefit when the prefrontal cortex – the rational, decision-making part of the brain – is not fully functioning.
I should note here that sometimes we aren’t intentionally trying to restrict ourselves, we’re just trying to do “normal” as we perceive it. Having trained ourselves away from our natural intuition due to dieting rules, we end up under-eating.
In addition to the various brain processes I’ve mentioned above: inhibited prefrontal cortex activity, lower dopamine baselines, and neurons “wiring” together so that repeated behaviours become automatic and habitual, there may also be a level of cognitive dissonance involved when it comes to binge eating.
Binge Eating and Cognitive Dissonance
For many of us, when we’re in the midst of trying to change our binge eating patterns, we are torn in two. Part of us really really wants to change, but there’s also a tiny, mysterious part of us that doesn’t want to.
That’s because most of us are not motivated by long-term, far away costs, such as “you’ll get diabetes!” and so forth. We’re more motivated by perceived benefits in the short term, i.e. feeling better now. Note that as previously mentioned, our lower dopamine levels are playing a significant part in this, but it’s not the only factor.
For me, the list of reasons why I wanted to quit binge eating were extensive: I wanted to be healthier; I wanted to have more energy; I would have more money (regular junk food runs really add up); I wanted to avoid health issues like the diabetes and heart disease that run in my family.
Adding to this, when I incorporated more mindfulness practises into my life I started to notice that binge eating always seemed to lead to other behaviours I didn’t like, such as staying up too late which made me feel crappy the next day, and spending hours doom scrolling on my phone. It was all connected, and I knew it wasn’t the life I wanted.
When I made a list outlining the benefits of continuing to binge eat, it was comparatively short: I just like sugar; I don’t want to be deprived; I don’t want to live my life on a diet; I’m an “all or nothing” person; and what’s the point of living with a healthy body if you spend your life eating lettuce leaves?
Eventually, I could see that the list of why a small part of me still wanted to binge eat could be summed up to one word: freedom. Understandably, my own freedom carries significantly more importance than any scare tactic I could put on the “benefits of quitting” list.
Over time when I observed my life without judgement and really “felt” into it, I discovered that my perception was false; there wasn’t much freedom involved when I was completely controlled by my cravings. And despite 20 years of life experience showing me otherwise, I also discovered that “all or nothing” were no longer my only options.
This is not something I could have ever been taught, it was something I needed to experience for myself through mindfulness.
The Science of Mindfulness
Thankfully, we aren’t stuck in an endless cycle and we can actually change our brains. Previously, I had tried willpower, fear-tactics and being hard on myself, but in the end the road to changing my brain began through mindfulness practises.
The brain is considered an “expensive” organ and uses 20% of the body’s total energy. As you can imagine, when we’re trying to half starve and/or control ourselves, we don’t have much energy left for habit change. Even just living a normal life with normal worries such as parenting, relationship troubles, and work, can make the amount of available energy for habit change quite low. Mindfulness can’t magically fix anything, but it can free up some of that mental clutter, so that we’re more aware of where we’re putting our focus.
Scientific studies have shown that practising mindfulness can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. These benefits extend across many different settings and include: a reduction in stress; a reduction in depression and anxiety; an improvement in quality of life/wellbeing; and yes, an improvement in disordered eating.
That said, mindfulness was fairly useless for me until I discovered that I wasn’t practising it broadly enough. Everything is connected and it needed to extend throughout my whole life, not just my eating practises. Also, my methods weren’t ideal; I was simply trying to “think harder” around food, which goes back to efforting rather than shifting my inner state.
Mindfulness practices are extensive, but for me the most powerful ones were observing my thoughts without judgement, and learning to pay attention to how I felt without judgement. There was more work to come, but this was the most important first step.
When life is a little easier, change gets a little easier.
The Binge Eating Peace class will run in late June 2022, where we’ll be diving deeper into mindfulness and the neuroscience of binge eating over 4 live Zoom sessions. If you’re interested, please sign up to the waiting list here.
To read more about the course, go here.