If you’ve ever been on a diet, this feeling is probably something you’re familiar with. The restrict-binge cycle feels awful when you’re tripped in it, especially for someone who is desperately trying to control their eating. If there’s one thing I want you to know about this cycle, it’s that it is absolutely not fueled by a lack of willpower or because there is something wrong with you. Binge eating is a typical outcome of restriction.
The Restrict-Binge Cycle is Your Body Trying to Protect You.
The oscillating action of a pendulum is predictable because it’s controlled by gravity, a constant force of nature. Similarly, the restrict-binge cycle is fueled by another natural force – genetics. Namely, our body’s hardwired biology, designed to protect us against starvation.
As human beings, historically our greatest threat to survival was starvation. The fact that we’re around today is a testament our genetics, which allowed us (collectively) to survive long periods without adequate food. Basically, if an early human wasn’t eating enough, and wasn’t highly motivated to seek out more food, they got the survival of the fittest treatment.
One of the ways your body protects you is by ramping up hunger hormones in response to restriction. Ghrelin, the main hunger hormone (I always remember it by thinking of a gremlin, which you might turn into when you’re hungry), stays elevated when you’re undernourished, even after a normal sized meal. In fact, a year after weight loss, ghrelin levels are still elevated while leptin, the fullness hormone, is suppressed. Your body is trying to signal, via hormones, for you to eat more food.
While not the most, ahem, ethical study, The Minnesota Starvation Project provided an illustrative example of what happens psychologically when someone isn’t eating enough food. The goal of the study was to better understand what happens to the body during starvation, and how to safely refeed. Of course, this was done by actually starving a group of 36 healthy young men, who were conscientious objectors to war during WWII. I will note that the amount of calories they were given daily is not what you would associate with starvation -around 1600-1800. Hopefully a reminder that we need much more food than you might think.
As the men dropped weight, besides the physical side effects of starvation (which were profound), they also became obsessed with food. The men began reading cookbooks, staying up late trading recipes, and even buying food for other people to watch them eat. The obsessions continued for months, and for some, years after being refeed. A rreminder for those of you still feeling crazy around food even though you’ve stopped dieting or have been physically renourished from an eating disorder.
The restrict-binge cycle can happen on a smaller scale as well. Not eating enough earlier in the day, intentionally or not, can lead to “overeating” or binging later on as the body tries to make up for what it missed. This is especially true for people who have a history of dieting or an eating disorder, as their body is more attuned and reactive to restriction. Basically, if your brain has experienced the trauma of starvation, it’ll be more primed to react the next time you’re underfed.