Bingeing and purging are two disordered eating behaviours commonly associated with eating disorders, especially Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder.
Bingeing, also known as binge eating, is described by the American Psychiatric Association as:
- Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any two-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat during a similar period of time and under similar circumstances.
- A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)1.
Purging is a behaviour used to compensate for the food we have just eaten, and the goal behind this behaviour is usually to control weight or shape6. Some commonly used methods of purging include vomiting, overexercising and the use of laxatives.
Bingeing and purging often go hand in hand in what is sometimes referred to as the Binge-Purge Cycle. Individuals struggling with negative perceptions of themselves may begin to restrict their food intake in an attempt to lose weight, however, restriction deprives their bodies of the nutrition they need. Ultimately, they will become so physically hungry that they are driven to eat. This physical and psychological drive to eat often leads them to eat more than they planned2. These individuals may even experience loss of control to the point of binge-eating2. For some, the response to a binge may be to return to restrictive eating habits. For others, however, a binge may trigger purging behaviours. In this case, the temporary effects of the purge will fade and give rise to feelings of shame and guilt, which contribute to increasingly negative self-perceptions5. Thus, restrictive eating habits are adopted again and the cycle continues.
At the surface level, purging may seem like an effective way to get rid of unwanted calories. But both bingeing and purging are dangerous to our health, contributing to issues such as malnutrition, fluid and mineral imbalances, cardiac and renal dysfunction, erosion of tooth enamel and damage to the digestive system, to name a few5.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviours such as bingeing and purging, it is important to seek treatment. Once you are able to begin adopting unrestrained, normal eating habits, you may also want to start working away at eliminating destructive binge-eating and purging habits. One effective method for making these habits extinct is to practice delaying the binge or purge.
When an urge to binge or purge arises, that desire can feel overwhelming. Oftentimes, however, a desire to binge or purge will only increase to a certain point, and then will eventually subside – it won’t last forever. When you feel the urge to engage in these behaviours, try setting a timer on your oven or your phone for 5 or 10 minutes. Tell yourself you will delay bingeing or purging until that timer goes off.
While you wait, engage in an alternate activity that is incompatible with eating. The point of this is to distract yourself from the urge you are experiencing and allow that urge to subside naturally. It’s useful to make a list of activities that you find effective in distracting yourself from your desire to binge or purge. If the list is made before you feel the urge, you will be better prepared to delay the behaviour in the moment of the urge. Here is a sample list of alternate activities that you may find helpful:
- Calling a friend
- Listening to music
- Listening to a guided meditation
- Taking a bath or shower
- Painting your nails
- Lighting a scented candle
- Knitting, crocheting, or beadwork
- Coloring in a coloring book
- Video games
- Puzzles – crosswords, sudoku, or jigsaw
- Going for a walk
- Playing with a pet
- Cleaning the bathroom
- Playing with silly putty
- Doing simple relaxing yoga poses
- Putting on essential oils or scented lotion3
This list is just an example of what your own list could look like. Feel free to write down any of the above ideas that you like and add some ideas of your own too. Additionally, it may be helpful to keep a record the activities that you’ve tried, and whether they were effective in distracting your thoughts during a delay3. Figuring out which activities work best for you is based on trial and error – don’t be afraid to add or remove items from your list! Most times, different distractions will work in different moments and this will shift over time.
So after the timer goes off, what happens next? The first thing you should do is check in with yourself. How strong is the urge now? If you managed to not binge or purge during the delay, count it as a victory! And, if you are able to, set the timer again and return to your activity, or to a new activity. Whether you feel able to set the timer for two minutes or twenty minutes, just do what you can. Try to keep repeating the process, increasing the time of the delay incrementally until the urge dissipates enough to become manageable. Eventually, you won’t feel the intense need to binge or purge anymore. Remember, though, that this is a process. If at any point the timer goes off and you still need to binge or purge, then you can do so. Habits are difficult to break, and we all need to give ourselves grace in the recovery journey.
As you practice delaying binges or purges, always be trying to cultivate mindfulness. Check in with yourself and your emotions during the delays and when the timer goes off. Even if you decide to binge or purge, check in during those experiences and observe, describe and participate in what is happening in a non-judgemental way. Observing doesn’t mean terminating or changing an experience, but simply being aware of what is happening4. Describing is identifying an emotion as an emotion or a thought as a thought, without labelling those emotions or thoughts morally4. And participating means being fully present in the experience4 By learning mindfulness, you will gain a solid basis for helping you to regulate your emotions in healthy ways4.
Delaying a binge or purge is just one technique to help you eliminate these disordered eating behaviours. Cultivating mindfulness is another. Your therapist or a trusted support person in your life can help you practice these techniques, and we hope that by practicing them you will find freedom from the binge-purge cycle.
- American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Task Force. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- Fleming, K. (2018). Why diets do not work. In Centre for clinical interventions. Retrieved from: http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental%20Health%20Professionals/Eating%20Disorders/Eating%20Disorders%20-%20Information%20Sheets/Eating%20Disorders%20Information%20Sheet%20-%2034%20-%20Why%20Diets%20Do%20Not%20Work.pdf
- Muhlheim, L. (2018). Alternatives to help prevent binges and purges. In Very well mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/delays-and-alternatives-help-prevent-binges-and-purges-4063023
- Safer, D. L., Telch, C. F., & Chen, E. Y. (2009). Dialectical behaviour therapy for binge eating and bulimia. New York:Guilford Press.
- Whitney, E., Rolfes, S. R., Hammond, G., & Piché, L. A. (2016). Understand nutrition (2nd ed.).Toronto, ON: Nelson Education Ltd.
- What are eating disorders? (2018). Retrieved from: http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental%20Health%20Professionals/Eating%20Disorders/Eating%20Disorders%20-%20Information%20Sheets/Eating%20Disorders%20Information%20Sheet%20-%2032%20-%20What%20are%20Eating%20Disorders.pdf