For years I just thought I didn’t have enough self-control. I’d be so “good” all day, then come the afternoon or evening, I’d LOSE it and eat all the things. And then I’d feel the tremendous guilt for eating all the things, so I’d re-commit and dive right back into the restriction, counting and portioning the very next day. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. For years.
Then I started noticing. I started exploring my hunger and satiety. I started making connections between my hunger (and actually satisfying it, not questioning it) and these “random binges.” And I realized they weren’t so random.
In fact, they weren’t random at all.
Here’s what I noticed:
On days I missed my morning snack and/or under-ate, I’d be hit with an insatiable “snack attack” come 8-9pm. It was only once I recognized this and actively worked to eat regularly and sufficiently from a place of self-care earlier in my day that these evening binges diminished.
Diminished? Not ceased? Yup. I’m years into this, and still, some days I miss the mark. I don’t eat enough. Or due to #life I miss my morning snack or generally don’t eat enough and I am ravenous come evening.
But here’s the difference. I now recognize it for what it is: Primal Hunger. And I give myself unconditional permission to eat. What I want, however much I want. No guilt. No shame. Full permission.
Yet another gift from Intuitive Eating has been learning that this restrict-binge cycle is not only normal, it’s the body’s natural response to being under-fed. Yes I just said it, dieting is under-feeding yourself.
So, what is Primal Hunger and why do we do it?
Your body is brilliant. Like truly brilliant. It knows how much energy 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. If you actively restrict your food (diet) you are essentially creating a state of “famine” in the body. This is interpreted by the body as a famine state (read: stress) and this triggers a biologic drive to eat through the release of specific hormones and neurotransmitters. This is how your body communicates with you on a chemical level (read: automatic and uncontrolled by you and has zero bearing on your “eating plan” or “goals”).
Here’s what happens inside the body when you’re under-eating (according to your body’s natural innate needs):
- The body releases the hormone Ghrelin. You can consider this your “hunger hormone.” It tells your brain it’s time to eat. The more you ignore hunger, the more Ghrelin your body will produce (because clearly you’re not listening, so the body is getting LOUDER). Ghrelin will only decrease in response to eating; however, it may continue to stay elevated in response to a continued calorie deficit (ie. if you’re under-eating or dieting). This elevated level can persist up to a year after dieting. Yeah, let that sink in for a hot minute. But there’s more!
- Neuropeptide Y is released in response to Ghrelin. This hormone increases your appetite specifically for carbohydrates. Why specific for carbohydrates? Because your brain’s sole fuel source is carbohydrate. And it needs a minimum of 130g per day to function. If you’re consuming under this amount your body perceives this as a stressor and triggers you to resolve this by making you seek out carbohydrates. Similar to ghrelin, the longer you choose to ignore the desire for carbohydrates, the more the cravings will increase to the point where you want #allthecarbs. NPY levels are naturally highest in the morning as your body’s way of refilling liver and muscle glycogen stores following an overnight fast. When we eat carbohydrates, our body produces more serotonin (feel good hormone we produce when we eat carbohydrates), which in turn stops the production of NPY and reduces the desire for carbohydrates.
So that carb binge you’re having every night? Yeah. It’s your body biochemically saying, “Girl, eat, I’m legit STARVING!!!”
You are not alone.
If you’re struggling with what you would classify as “binging,” please know that you’re not alone. I hear this from pretty much every person I work with who has a history of dieting. We call it the restrict-binge cycle.
And this is what I really want you to hear: it’s not your fault.
You don’t have shitty “self-control” or a bad attitude, you have neurotransmitters and hormones driving the bus – as they should. They are actively working to help keep you in your natural set point range (the genetically pre-determined weight range that your body deems optimal and healthy for you).
But what if you don’t like that set point range?
That’s because Diet Culture has informed your beliefs and made you believe your body is broken – it’s not.
Your body isn’t broken, not at all. In fact, it’s doing it’s job, beautifully.
Do you want to stop this restrict-binge cycle? Awesome. Here’s how:
Well, for starters, eat!
I know, captain obvious right?!
And I know if you’re struggling with this you likely want me to tell you how much (specifically) and what you “should” eat. But I can’t. Because I’m not in your body. Only YOU are in your body. Only YOU know how to feed yourself. But what if you’ve been dieting for years? How do you know what is enough?
Trust me, you’ll know. You’ll find the place where you no longer feel like a ravenous insatiable beast and you’ll settle in there.
But you need to re-feed yourself and regain your body’s trust that you are a reliable source of food, and that will take time.
Tip: When I’m working with Intuitive Eating clients one of the first things we’ll often do is explore eating from a place of self-care. Without focusing on what or how much, simply making sure they eat every 3-5hours.
Over time as you begin to rebuild body trust, you’ll begin to be better able to hear and honour your hunger and truly make peace with food. It’s a powerful process.
It should also be noted that in many chronic dieters the sensation of hunger is quite blunted (from years of ignoring it). Hunger is also blunted by chronic stress. This is yet another reason it’s helpful to eat “for self care” to get your body back to a place where it feels as though you’re a reliable source of nutrition!
Your hunger signals and your ability to honour your hunger will return.
And it all begins with eating. Because truly, your body is brilliant. And it needs nourishment to work its wonders. You do too.
Note: if you are concerned about significant binging, or are engaging in any extreme restriction or purging type behaviours (physical purging of food or excessive exercise), please speak to your doctor as these are red flags for Eating Disorder. You are not alone and you don’t have to live in this struggle.