Cutting Calories, Skipping Meals.… and the Binge Eater

I’m reprinting here a verion of “Must Calorie-Cutting Lead to Binging”, from my Psychology Today blog (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thin-within)    You can find several previous blogs dealing with binging under “addictions”, “Thin From Within”, and “emotional eating” (see categories at left).  Also, Eat Sanely:  Get off the diet roller coaster for good offers a workbook supplement to reinforce supports for the binger.  Relief from binging is a prime goal of sane eating, after all.

We’ve known for a long time that calorie-cutting can spur binging.   A strong diet-binge link first caught national attention in 1985, when psychologists Polivy and Herman demonstrated the connection in their laboratory.  Further studies consistently confirmed that “dietary abandon follows dietary restraint”–so reliably, in fact, that eating disorder experts usually consider the link a given.   Recent headlines, though, highlight research supporting deep calorie cuts, and even breakfast skipping, as potentially effective weight loss aids.  In other words, in these studies eaters did not necessarily “rebound” eat after restriction, and thus weight loss continued.  All this will surely confuse the binge-prone overeater, who may have worked hard to not skip meals or cut calories too deeply.   What’s there to learn here?

One study at Cornell, for instance, found that subjects indeed did not “rebound” eat when they followed extremely low calorie (500 cal) regimes two days per week for six months.  Their weight loss, in fact, matched that of a comparison group who reduced on a more traditional regime.  The New York Times summarized the study as “A Low Calorie Meal is Shown to Pay Off”.   The study’s lead author, David Levitsky, found “no evidence of any compensation” in the dieters.

As for breakfast-skipping, the long-held notion that successful losers must eat this meal has met challenges as well.  Nutrition Action, a publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, recently summarized the controversies in their “Breakfast Debate”.  It seems that often breakfast does help people lose, though a sizable group appears capable of skipping the meal without later overeating.

At issue in both lines of study, of course, is whether or not cutting back, or “depriving” must necessarily lead to overeating that then undermines weight management.  In the first case, where extreme low-calorie days (including “meal replacement” foods) aided the weight loss, researchers admit that results may not apply to the obese.   Subjects were, after all, not from high body mass index categories.  Neither were they screened for pre-existing binge tendencies.  The focus of the research, in any event, was not on binging.  It asked instead whether or not a biological “set point” might drive the appetite to make up for missed food.

Summing up the breakfast debate, David Schlundt of Vanderbilt University suggests that all things considered, breakfast probably most often helps the weight loss cause.  Both metabolic and appetite management factors would back this idea.  However, that’s still not a straightforward recommendation for everyone.  Changing one’s routine, in fact, whether that means adding or skipping the meal, proved the key weight loss factor in one study.   Other studies have similarly shown complicated results, with meal skippers not always and necessarily “making up for it later”.

For those with a history of binging, such severe calorie-cutting, or meal skipping, may well lead to greater overeating for reasons ignored in this current news.  Indeed, Cornell’s Levitsky speculates that subjects cognitively labelled the study’s “meal replacement” bars as “meals”.  This certainly could have reduced a perception of deprivation.  The perception of deprivation, and not the biological fact, may be the strongest factor in that drive for binging, after all.  Cognitive, emotional, and psychological reasons may indeed propel “rebound” eating with no help needed from biological set-point drives.Schlundt, of the breakfast research, wisely concludes that, after all, “you need to personalize a diet”.  Personalizing a diet, however, especially considering the well-proven tendency for calorie-cutting to backfire, goes beyond the question of how and when you eat your meals.  How you think about your eating, and how you manage related feelings also matter.  It’s important, of course, to arrange meals and meal times to avoid becoming ravenous and confusing the appetite.   But to avoid “rebound” or “compensation” eating, you’ll probably need to do more than that.  Perceiving food changes as choices, not forced deprivations, helps.  Perceiving yourself as one who can choose, and not one whose diet is dictated by others—doctors, spouses, the culture—helps a lot, too.  Extremely important, too, for anyone making dietary changes:  separating out hunger that calms frayed nerves from hunger that signals bodily need.

In the end, in our confusing (and fattening) food environment we all end up needing to personalize how we eat and deal with food.  Very few of us have bodies that can eat whatever, whenever, and stay healthy.  Those trying to lose weight, as well as those seeking control over binging, need to find what works—eating less, yes, but in what way can this occur without binging or otherwise undermining the process?   One way to read the recent news is as a support for diverse approaches, where even age-old prescriptions are questioned when it comes to figuring out what’s going to work for you, and your body.

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