The urge to binge is primal, an instinct intended to protect us from starvation. "It goes back to the cavemen days," said Judith Beck, clinical psychologist and author of "The Beck Diet Solution: Train Yourself to Think Like a Thin Person." "People binged when food was plentiful to prepare for times when food was scarce or unavailable."
And who hasn't been a victim of that primal urge, falling off the healthy-eating wagon and indulging in an all-out pig-out? If you've ever eaten yourself into an ice cream coma, you probably know the pure pleasure of an extreme eating binge. You probably also know the awful pain that follows, the guilt that descends after inhaling a box of Girl Scout cookies or the panic that strikes after a week of gorging on a cruise. But there's no need for reproach or a hunger strike. All it takes is some smart eating and a little extra exercise to get your fitness goals back on track.
Binge eaters often tell themselves eating is the only way they can calm down or ease depression.
Judith Beck, clinical psychologist and author of "The Beck Diet Solution: Train Yourself to Think Like a Thin Person"
Why We Binge
While binging may have been a way for our ancestors to withstand famines, it's hardly necessary to our survival in modern times. These days, the triggers for overeating are often emotional, according to Beck. It's not uncommon to binge on food to cope with depression, boredom or anxiety.
"Binge eaters often tell themselves eating is the only way they can calm down or ease depression," Beck said. But the body often responds to the binge with biochemical changes, which can set up a pattern of repeat binging. Overindulging on high-sugar goodies, for example, can actually cause changes in the brain, leading to sugar cravings.
Winter weather can also bring on eating binges, Beck said. Some people feel depressed during the long, dark days of winter and turn to food for solace. "Winter is the binge season," Beck said. "You can't get to the gym, and many people can't stop eating."
But in spite of why we do it, the ways in which we binge are all too familiar.
The Late-Night Pig-Out
"Late-night overeating is the most common type of binging behavior," said registered dietitian Heather Bauer, owner of Nu-Train, a nutrition counseling center in New York City, "because the stress of life hits us more at night, when we have a chance to reflect on our day, leading to stress binging."
Another trigger for late-night binging is the glass, or two, of wine you had with dinner. Alcohol decreases the inhibitions that control overeating while also increasing your appetite, according to Bauer. Other people binge late at night to cope with loneliness. "For many single people, late night can be a lonely time, and eating is comforting," she explained.
To bounce back from your late-night binge, shift your exercise routine into high gear the next day and moderately cut your calorie intake. But don't starve yourself as penance for your crime. "Deprivation has only one effect -- another binge," Beck said.
The damage is probably much less than you think, in any case. Even if you ate an entire pint of full-fat ice cream with two packages of candy-coated chocolates, that's only 1,560 extra calories, or just barely enough to put on a whopping half-pound. Cutting 110 calories from your daily diet and taking a brisk half-hour walk every day will erase the damage in a week, Bauer said.
The Eat-It-All Weekend
Sometimes the discipline you showed all week -- bypassing the office candy bowl, avoiding the vending machine -- is crushed by that diet Waterloo, the weekend. "Without the structure of the weekday, it's harder to eat healthfully," Bauer said.
Start your recovery plan by ignoring the scale on Monday morning. If your binge included food high in sodium -- and it did if you ate in restaurants at all -- you're probably carrying around a couple of pounds of water weight, said Bauer, and it may take 72 hours to get an accurate reading. Rehydrating with plain water can hasten the process.
Next, regroup and plunge yourself back into your healthy routine. If you binged all weekend, you could have put on a pound or two. It will take about a month to lose those 2 lbs. if you walk for a half-hour and subtract 100 calories a day. Bump up your workout to 45-minute walks and reduce your food intake by 200 calories a day and you'll be back to your pre-binge weight in as little as two weeks, Bauer said.
The Week Off the Wagon
The weeklong eating binge often takes place while on vacation. After all, it's the time to relax and live it up. The result of this indulgence, though, is that you could easily take in 4,000 calories a day, Bauer said. That translates to 5 lbs. of weight packed on in just a week.
To bounce back from your weeklong binge, Bauer recommends taking a gradual approach. For the first week or two, steer clear of starches and halve your portions. Eliminate desserts that are rich in sugar and fat for seven to 10 days to help quell cravings for sweets.
If you're not good at restrictive diets, Beck suggests alternating full-calorie days with lower-calorie days. You'll feel less deprived if you're not limiting your food intake every single day. Or, you might try devoting one day to what Beck calls "grand physical activity" in addition to your regular routine. You'll burn an extra 3,500 calories with an uphill hike, which will jump-start your weight loss.
But the damage is reversible only if you don't get down on yourself and go on another eating binge. "If you had a flat tire, you'd simply fix it and continue on your journey," Beck said. "It's important to take the same approach to your diet and refrain from self-sabotage by continuing to binge out of habit or for emotional reasons."
Do You Have Binge-Eating Disorder?
It's normal to overeat every once in a while, according to Beck, but frequent binges could signal an eating disorder. Binge-eating disorder, also known as compulsive eating, is the fastest growing eating disorder in the United States, said Kate Daigle, a Denver psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders.
Out-of-control episodes that strike two or more days a week for six months can be a sign of binge-eating disorder, or BED. In people with this eating disorder, the binge is almost always followed by feelings of embarrassment, shame or guilt, Daigle said. Other signs of BED include eating more quickly than normal, eating until you feel uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when you're not hungry, and eating alone to hide your binging, she said.
If you suspect you have binge-eating disorder, talk to your doctor, who may be able to refer you to an eating disorder specialist or clinic. For more information on BED, consult the National Eating Disorders Association website, nationaleatingdisorder.org.