Why Regular Eating Matters in Binge Eating Recovery

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If you think you may have an eating disorder it is important to seek advice from your GP or health professional. The information in this blog post is intended for information purposes only and is not a substitute for personalised clinical advice. 

Meal planning on ipad for regular eating

Therapists, dietitians, and coaches all agree that regular eating is crucial to stop binge eating. But why is this so important? And what exactly do we mean by regular eating?

I’m Dr Jenny Davis, a clinical psychologist specialising in eating disorder recovery. In this post, I’ll explore why eating regularly is so essential, what a regular pattern of eating looks like, and the physical and psychological benefits of maintaining a regular eating routine.

The Science Behind Regular Eating and Binge Eating Recovery

So why do eating disorder professionals care so much about eating regularly? To understand this, we first need to understand what happens to our bodies when we don’t eat regularly.

Minnesota study

In 1944 a group of 36 young men were recruited for an experiment to study the effects of being in a calorie deficit and how to safely re-feed people. The men were conscientious objectors to WWII and volunteered to be a part of the study as an alternative to being drafted into the military. To be eligible, they had to be in good physical and mental health.

For the first 3 months of the study the men followed a normal diet of 3200 calories per day. They then were placed on a restrictive diet of 1570 calories per day for 6 months. After this period, they were gradually re-fed back up to 3200 calories per day over 3 months. Finally, they were observed for 2 months while eating without any restrictions from the study protocol.

Four men were excluded from the study as they were unable to stick to the restricted diet. During the experiment, researchers documented the physical and psychological changes that the men experienced due to their restricted diet.

Minnesota starvation study candidates

Physical changes

During the study the men lost an average of 25% of their body weight. There were also a number of other physical effects:

  • Decrease in strength and loss of muscle mass
  • Decrease in stamina
  • Reduced metabolic rate
  • Decrease in body temperature and feeling cold all the time
  • Decrease in heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Reduced sex drive

Psychological changes

As well as the psychological changes the men experienced a whole range of serious psychological effects:

  • Low mood, depression, and anxiety
  • Withdrawing from social events
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Lack of motivation and interest in daily life
  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Increase in obsessional thinking
  • ‘Brain fog’

Thoughts and Behaviour around food

Most interestingly, the men experienced huge changes in their thoughts and behaviour around food.

  • Binge eating
  • Difficulty recognising and responding to hunger signals
  • Thinking about food all the time (e.g., browsing recipe books)
  • Trouble concentrating (e.g., can’t focus on a movie because distracted by the food the characters are eating)
  • Changes to pace of eating (slower or faster)
  • Feeling hungry all the time
  • Planning meals obsessively
  • Body image concerns

Why regular eating is necessary for eating disorder recovery

How easy do you think it would be to recover from an eating disorder whilst experiencing some or all of the symptoms above? Impossible!

You might be thinking “yes but doesn’t this only apply for people who are underweight or people with anorexia?”. The answer is no.

We know that anyone who is not eating enough to meet their body’s needs, for a prolonged period, will experience these symptoms. These men were not eating a stereotypically low amount of food, they still ate about 1500 calories a day.

Do you diet? If you do, how much do you try to limit yourself to? How long have you been doing this for? Most people I work with have been in a cycle of dieting and bingeing for years.

Regular Eating Stabilizes Blood Sugar Levels

Regular eating also helps keep your blood sugar levels stable and prevent binge eating. When you eat at regular times, your body gets a steady supply of glucose, which gives you energy. This prevents the highs and lows that come with irregular eating.

This is an example graph of someone who delays their eating until later in the day and then finds themselves bingeing repeatedly later in the day. We can see that their blood sugar steadily falls until it dips below the healthy range and triggers a binge.

bulimia blood sugar chart

Stable blood sugar levels help keep your mood steady, reduce irritability, and prevent cravings that can lead to binge eating. They also help regulate important hormones like insulin and cortisol, which affect your appetite and stress levels.

Benefits of regular eating

Regular eating benefits us in multiple ways:

Breaking the restrict/binge cycle

As we can see from the chart above, regular eating will help keep your blood sugar stable. By giving your body a steady supply of nutrients, you reduce the triggers that lead to binge eating. Regular eating helps normalize your eating patterns, making it easier to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness signals and address any emotion related urges to binge.

Happy child eating a sandwich

Managing Hunger and Fullness Cues

When you have an eating disorder it’s really common for hunger and fullness signals to get disrupted. Dieting and bingeing involve ignoring our natural signals, and vomiting can further interrupt this process and stop it from working properly.

When you eat at set times, your body starts to expect energy at predictable intervals. This helps regulate hunger hormones like ghrelin (which signals hunger) and leptin (which signals fullness). By sticking to a regular eating schedule, you give your body the opportunity to heal and function normally again.

The Psychological Benefits of Consistent Meal Times

Regular eating doesn’t just benefit your body; it helps our minds too. Eating at consistent times can reduce anxiety about food and eating. Having a predictable routine gives most people a sense of comfort and reduces stress.

Importantly, most people experience a “quick win” once the start eating regularly, and binges reduce significantly. This can give you a huge boost of confidence and sense that things can indeed get better.

Defining Regular Eating: What do we mean?

In short, regular eating means having meals and snacks at reliable times during the day. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, it’s common for your eating pattern to become chaotic. Sometimes people delay their eating until later in the day because they worry that if they eat earlier, they’ll binge earlier.

A regular pattern of eating usually involves eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. These should be equally spread out over the day, with no more than 3-4 hours between eating. You should aim to eat at roughly the same times each day as this will help build momentum but don’t be afraid to adapt and change the plan to suit your daily life.

This is a typical structure with example times:

3 snack meal plan2 snack meal plan
Breakfast: 7amBreakfast 8am
Morning snack: 10am
Lunch: 1pmLunch: 12pm
Afternoon snack: 4pmAfternoon Snack: 3pm
Dinner: 7pmDinner: 7pm
Snack 9pmSnack: 9pm

Practical Tips for Establishing Regular Eating Patterns

Meal planning is one of the best ways to establish regular eating patterns. By planning your meals and snacks ahead of time, you set yourself up for success.

These articles will give you more detail about meal planning for bulimia recovery and meal planning for binge eating recovery.

Alongside meal planning, I also recommend people carry easy and accessible snacks in the early days of recovery. These ‘emergency snacks’ will help you to stick to regular eating even when plans change, you get caught up at work, or get caught up in train delays!

Regular eating gives you the strong physiological basis you need to tackle the other reasons you might be binge eating.  It’s the first step to recover from binge eating disorder or bulimia. Throw yourself in, it will be worth it!

About

Welcome. I'm Dr Jenny Davis, a Clinical Psychologist with a special interest in eating disorders. I'm passionate about helping people recover and build a healthy relationship with food. 

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