On today’s episode we are talking to Dr. Jake Linardon, who is a research fellow and psychology lecturer at Deacon University in Melbourne. Jake specializes in research on binge eating and body dissatisfaction, so I wanted to get his expert opinion in this area and clear up any misconceptions you might have about either of those topics.

Jake’s also helping me test out the effectiveness of my group Binge To Food Freedom program, which I will continue to test and redevelop over the years. I’m really excited about that and was so excited to have this conversation with him, so I hope you learn a lot from this content! 

In this episode, we talk about:

  • How Jake got into the world of binge eating and body dissatisfaction research 
  • The problematic way to approach binge eating 
  • Misconceptions behind binge eating 
  • The difference between objective and subjective binges 
  • Binge eating stigma 
  • The causes of binge eating 
  • Trauma and binge eating
  • Why shame reduction is key 
  • What the research says & doesn’t say about binge eating 
  • Distracting yourself from a binge 

How Jake Got Into This Work 

When people get involved in this line of work, it’s usually because they have a personal experience with it. Issues with body image and mental health affect so many people, including Jake when he was younger. For a long time he chased a certain physique, and would frequently go to the gym and persistently watch what he ate. Eventually, he realized this wasn’t helping his well being or making him feel as good as he should. 

Jake studied psychology in his undergrad, which sparked his interest in the research on body dissatisfaction and binge eating. Not only could he relate to the content, but he also knew so many others who were going through the same thing. Through this interest, he wanted to find out more about it and also to address binge eating, body dissatisfaction, and dangerous dieting behaviours by furthering the research on it. 

Over the years, Jake has seen the shift that society has started to go through. People are slowly realizing that strict dietary practices and the thin ideal spirals into something much more dangerous. Now, Jake is so invested in and passionate about this area that he doesn’t see his career going in any other direction. 

The Problematic Way To Approach Binge Eating  

There are plenty of people out there trying to solve binge eating, but many do it for the wrong reasons. Those are the individuals who are trying to break binge eating as a way to ‘unlock’ thinness. 

We know that the root cause of binge eating is the issue, not the binges themselves. When you try to address the binges with the purpose of achieving weight loss, you’re actually fuelling the binges even further. Maybe you’ll stop the binges temporarily, but if you don’t address the underlying issues, you’ll fall back into those unhealthy eating patterns. 

It’s necessary to address the associated body image concerns when it comes to binge eating. If you’re able to effectively address those things, then you’re part of the way there to breaking the full binge eating cycle. 

The Biggest Misconceptions Behind Binge Eating 

Jake describes 2 of the biggest binge eating myths that the research disproves: 

1. There is no difference between binge eating and overeating. 

The biggest misconception when it comes to binge eating is the inability to distinguish between binge eating and general overeating. Everyone overeats from time to time, but not everyone binge eats. If you actually look at the statistics, there’s only a small percentage of people in the world who truly binge eat. 

Binge eating is like being in a trance. Even if the individual wants to stop, they can’t. Along with this is the overwhelming experience of shame (as opposed to some guilt associated with overeating) that lasts for a significant period of time. 

2. Only women binge eat. 

When we think of eating disorders, the misconception is that women suffer more commonly than men. Especially when it comes to binge eating, many believe that women outnumber men. We now know that there’s almost an equal distribution; both men and women struggle, and men have largely been neglected in this area of research. 

Another reason this misconception is so strong is that it’s normalized for men to eat a lot. There are a lot of culturally polarizing issues around gender and food, which makes it more difficult to pick out what’s normal and what’s not. 

Objective vs. Subjective Binges 

What defines binge eating is the consumption of an abnormally large amount of food in a short period of time. The amount is not clear cut, but the important feature is the lack of control. What we see is that people who self-report binge eating overestimate how much they’ve actually eaten.

From that, we now recognize that there are 2 different kinds of binges: objective and subjective binges. 

  1. Objective binges are when individuals consume X calories within a 1-2 hour timespan.
  2. Subjective binges are when people may experience the loss of control, but they just don’t eat that much food (although it may seem like a lot to them).

Although there is the common experience of loss of control, the distinguishing factor between these 2 is the amount of food eaten.

Regardless of the type of binge experienced, people from both groups experience similar feelings of impairment in their daily lives when it comes to social and interpersonal functioning. It’s not the eating that’s the issue, it’s the cognitive component associated with inability to control oneself.

Binge Eating Stigma 

There is so much shame associated with binge eating. This deters people from actually seeking help as well as coming to terms with the fact that experiencing binges means they’re ‘sick enough’ to get help. 

As a society, we need to do a better job of alleviating the stigma and shame associated with binge eating and seeking help for it. There is a shift happening, but there’s still a long way to go. 

What Causes Binge Eating 

Dieting is the strongest risk factor for developing binge eating. There is an abundance of research showing the association between these 2 behaviours. 

So why doesn’t everyone who diets go on to have an eating disorder? To answer this question, we first need to figure out what types of people are developing binge eating. We have a bit of understanding why this is, and we know that the diet itself is a contributing factor. 

Diet Rigidity As A Predictor For Binge Eating

What Jake means by this, is that people who diet in an inflexible fashion go on to develop binge eating rather than those who take a more flexible/relaxed approach. 

The rigid diet approach is when people have all these diet/food rules that dictate what/when/how much they’re allowed to eat. Jake breaks this down into 3 rules: 

  1. The ‘what’ rules (a list of forbidden foods)
  2. The ‘when’ rules (that dictate when you’re allowed/not allowed to eat)
  3. The ‘how much’ rules (a calorie limit, which is usually pretty tiny)

When you have so many rules, you’re bound to break one of them at some point. When that happens, it triggers a chain of reactions. First, there is an intense feeling of shame. People feel they’ve completely ruined the diet, and question why there’s a point in trying anymore. They figure they’re going to go all out and start again fresh tomorrow, but this time harder and stricter.

Strict dieting and rigid rules are the factors that are most strongly associated with binge eating. 

Trauma & Binge Eating 

There are 2 instigating factors that bring about binge eating: diet-induced binge eating and trauma-induced binge eating. 

Trauma comes from a traumatic experience and brings about a whole host of negative emotions. There are some theories as to why this affects binge eating. The main theory is that binge eating is a method of coping, since binges typically follow negative mood states, such as feeling depressed, lonely, or scared. The binge serves as a distraction and a temporary escape. 

The theory is that people who binge eat do it as a means to escape that traumatic experience they’re feeling in that moment. Binge eating serves to remove the individual from the trauma, but unfortunately it’s not a healthy coping mechanism. Psychotherapy can help these individuals develop more productive coping strategies that doesn’t involve food. 

Why Reducing Shame In Binge Eating Is Key 

Another important part of recovering from binge or emotional eating is reducing the shame that occurs when it happens. The shame is part of what is keeping the cycle going. 

We may not be able to stop someone from binge eating forever- they may have slip ups from time to time. The important thing is to not view these slip-ups as relapse, and figure out what to do after instead of going back to all-or-nothing behaviour. This is another great example of where coping strategies can come in and help with long-term recovery. 

What The Research Says On Beating Binge Eating 

There are so many books out there on binge eating, and each one says something a little bit different. Jake says there is no panacea when it comes to beating binge eating, but some approaches are better than others. 

There is evidence suggesting that a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the best approach for dealing with binge eating. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is composed of multiple different types of strategies designed to help target binge eating. 

Activity Scheduling

One CBT tool Jake recommends is called ‘activity scheduling.’ In a nutshell, this is supplementing the urge to binge with another activity. Since urges are temporary, if we can get through the peak then we’re on our way to getting through the urge completely. Jake often gets people to list potentially distracting activities they can do- mindfulness or ‘breathing through it’ could be one of these activities, but it may not be helpful for everyone. 

For some people, talking on the phone with someone for an extended period of time is an effective activity. But that doesn’t work in every situation. People need a wide variety of activities at their disposal to ride out the urge to binge eat. 

‘Distracting Yourself’ From The Binge 

If you’ve ever looked up ‘how to stop binge eating,’ you’ve probably found at least a couple articles that say distracting yourself is the best way to get around a binge. I personally struggle to recommend this strategy, especially in the beginning. 

I tend to fall more into the category of giving unconditional permission and allowing yourself to binge then working through the shame to heal it. I’ve found that’s a really productive method of healing, plus it really highlights any underlying restriction.

I might recommend a ‘distract yourself’ technique later down the road, but I see it on the internet as a main strategy for binge eating. Jake emphasizes that the research says the distraction-based method is only one in a suite of tools you can choose from.

Importantly, distracting yourself is not particularly useful if you’ve already experienced the binge, because you’re just left with all the guilt with no way to deal with it. Activity scheduling is only helpful for preventing an episode, not recovering from one. People can usually predict when they’re going to have an episode, so if we can disrupt that sequence, then it can be a helpful method.

What The Research Doesn’t Tell Us About Binge Eating 

When it comes to binge eating, what we don’t know yet is what particular person responds best to unconditional permission and what type responds best to distractions. Unfortunately, the research isn’t there yet. 

Right now, all we can do is choose a method and trial it and hope for the best. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll try the other way. 

Jake also makes the disclaimer that he’s coming at this from a research perspective. Things are done in a very clinical manner, whereas it’s much more unpredictable and uncontrolled in practice. Sometimes research doesn’t translate well to the real world. In the real world, we deal with so many complex variables that we just can’t control. 

The luxury of research is that we can control external variables and identify a cause and effect relationship. We can say intervention X causes people to stop binge eating. X causes Y. In the real world we can’t do that, because we don’t have control over all of those other factors that get in the way of Y.

The Research Process

In research, we want to develop a treatment, pilot it, and then take that initial information and test it in a randomized control trial. This allows us to say that the intervention caused people to reduce their symptoms. After that, we apply it in a real-world setting. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t translate. 

The research is there, for the most part. It’s a matter of clinicians implementing it and seeing how well it applies in the real world. That’s not to say they ‘must’ do something in a particular way- it’s showing what the evidence provides and seeing how that lands with clients. 

Take Home Message 

If you struggle with binge eating, try to identify what the factors are that are maintaining your binge eating- that’s the first step. 

Those factors could be: 

  • Dieting/food restriction
  • Body dissatisfaction (placing too much value on body weight/shape)
  • Inability to tolerate mood changes
  • Conflict in interpersonal relationships
  • Perfectionism
  • Low self-esteem

If you’re reading this and you struggle with this, start with pinpointing what is causing the binge eating for you. If you’re able to find a pattern, then you’re halfway there to addressing your binge eating. Without addressing the root cause, you’re just putting out fires when you could be preventing them.

About Jake

Dr. Jake Linardon is a Research Fellow and Psychology Lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. After completing his PhD in 2017, he continued his research into eating disorders, with a primary focus on testing and evaluating a broad range of treatment approaches for eating disorders.

He’s extremely passionate about helping people with eating disorders and his ultimate goal is to find more novel and effective ways to treat them. He’s published over 35 peer-reviewed  scientific research articles on eating disorders. 

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This episode is brought to you by Club TYB, which is your food freedom family. If you have people in your life who don’t understand what you’re going through, or maybe you don’t have anyone in your life who you’ve talked to this about yet, Club TYB is where you can get support. We’ve got weekly journaling prompts, affirmations, and wins, monthly calls and monthly experts talking in the group. Coming up in December, we’re going to be talking about setting intentions for the new year and navigating the holidays, so you don’t want to miss out on that. If you’re interested in joining Club TYB and finding an amazing community of people who are committed to healing their relationship with food, head over to whitneycatalano.com/club-tyb. P.S. If you join at the 6-month level, you’ll also get my 5 Pillars Of Food Freedom course for free!  

This post was transcribed and edited by Brittany Allison, Intuitive Eating Counsellor. You can find her on Instagram @thefoodfreedomlife.