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I asked an anti-diet dietician how to break a binge-restrict cycle

WORDS BY EMILY HOLGATE

“The hard-to-swallow pill about eating disorders is that while many do recover and create healthier relationships with food, these thoughts and patterns are often with us for life.”

Content warning: This article discusses things that may be triggering for those who have experienced eating disorders.

I was first (loosely) diagnosed with an eating disorder at 16 years old, after spending two years dieting, counting calories, and losing a dramatic ten kilos from my already healthy, teenage body.

The term ‘anorexia’ was often thrown around when my family and friends looked at my gaunt face, pale skin and arms that resembled thin, limp noodles.


Interested to hear how others navigate the world? Head to our Life section.


While the spectrum of eating disorders is broad, I always assumed my eating patterns (or lack thereof) were mostly in line with the clinical diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. All of the symptoms fit – below-average BMI, obsession with food, restricted eating and depriving myself of calories.

At 19 years old I was living out of home and I was in major denial – trying to convince myself and everyone around me that I was recovered. But I wasn’t. I’m still not. The hard-to-swallow pill about eating disorders is that while many do recover and create healthier relationships with food, these thoughts and patterns are often with us for life.

I had never been one to purge food, and the only times I had vomited was from eating too many sweets as a kid or in more recent times, from too much alcohol – all seemingly unpleasant experiences. But the first time I forced myself to puke, I felt a sense of relief.

Ever since I had stopped counting calories, there was an unsettling lack of control in my life. I would fear food, which incidentally heightened my OCD and anxiety. But in that moment, alone, hunched over the toilet bowl in my tiny first apartment, I felt relieved.

As I flushed, I watched the large pizza I had just devoured disappear down the toilet. I settled into bed, empty and exhausted, but strangely proud of myself. This was just the beginning of what became a regular occurrence, and it marked the raging return of my eating disorder. It wasn’t until recently – being mostly recovered and no longer purging – that I started to look into bulimia and binge eating disorders (BED).

BED tendencies had been with me for a lot longer than I realised. Before I initially lost weight as a teenager, I had always felt out of control when it came to food. I grew up in a household where every meal was based on portion control and nutrition. So, on the rare occasions where I was faced with decadent food, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from eating until every morsel was consumed.

After I forbid myself from eating any junk food at all, I would daydream about it at school, spending hours looking at food blogs on Tumblr, mouth watering and stomach groaning. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I would actually feed into these cravings, but even then, I was never able to fully enjoy food without feelings of guilt.

But – more importantly – learning about BED has made me realise that while I had some symptoms of the disorder, I did not actually fit the bill for a diagnosis, as my bingeing was most often followed by compensatory behaviours.

Instead, I realised I had spent the majority of my life in a ‘binge-restrict cycle’ – one that, sadly, many are familiar with. It’s a repeated cycle, whether constant or recurring, of bingeing food with a lack of a sense of control (similar to BED binges), followed by feelings of guilt and a fear of gaining weight, causing restrictive measures to be taken.

I’ve participated in every type of restriction in this cycle – purging, taking laxatives, refusing to eat the day after a binge, over-exercising – you name it. And every time I veered away from the cycle and thought of myself as ‘recovered’, it reared its ugly head and I found myself right back in the depths of my eating disorder. 

After years of suffering and fearing the looming lifetime of restriction before me, I began to wonder: can this vicious cycle ever be broken? And if so, how? I turned to ‘anti-diet’ dietician, Darcy Jongebloed to break it down for me.  

What is BED?

BED is categorised as bingeing in the absence of compensatory behaviours such as purging or over-exercising, Darcy tells me. She explains how a lot of people can experience binges or bingeing behaviours without actually being diagnosed with an eating disorder. Like most things, disordered eating behaviours are part of a broad spectrum. 

However, Darcy said major BED “red flags” for her include behaviours like overeating at night, feelings of ravenous hunger, participating in restrictive diets, inflicting shame around food and food choices, and preventing certain foods from entering the house. 

“People with other diagnosed eating disorders can have elements of bingeing but not have BED. They can also have disordered thoughts surrounding food and eating, and struggle with subjective binges which may not actually meet the criteria to be considered a binge,” she says. 

What is a binge-restrict cycle? Is there a common trigger? 

Darcy explains to me that there are many factors that can increase someone’s risk of developing disordered eating. “Wherever there is bingeing, there is always restriction of some sort,” she says. “One of the biggest risk factors for eating disorders is dieting – often there are feelings of negativity surrounding body size and a sense of shame entrenched in diet culture.”

Diet culture certainly plays a huge role in why so many people struggle with disordered eating, with roughly four per cent of the national population – around one million people – suffering.

When asking Darcy to explain diet culture, she says that it’s “society’s expectation around the value of ‘thin-ness’ or a socially acceptable body shape, and the pursuit of ‘wellness’ above all else.”

She says that diet culture often does not take into account all of the many factors that encompass health, but instead focuses on “perfectionistic” eating and calorie restriction. It also normalises negative body image and praises those who attempt to change their bodies, placing a person’s worth on their looks.

“Diet culture also feeds into discrimination and fatphobia – you cannot talk about it or talk about disordered eating without addressing the horrendous treatment of people living in bigger bodies in our society,” she says. 

Darcy also explains that disordered eating or bingeing commonly begins as an innocent attempt to “get healthy”, “eat better” or undergo a “lifestyle change”. While there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to improve your health, the issue is that often people change their eating habits for the wrong reasons – usually, to alter the way they look. 

What does a ‘binge-restrict’ cycle look like?

When I asked Darcy this question, she painted a very clear scenario of a typical person stuck in this cycle – one I was all too familiar with.

“It’s Sunday night,” she says. “You’ve had a great weekend of eating and drinking with friends, but when you look in the mirror you have some negative thoughts about your body. You think to yourself, ‘next week will be different’. Monday rolls around – you hit the gym then head to work after only having a coffee and a banana. You eat a salad for lunch, then when the 3pm niggle comes along you say no to the office chocolate, which makes you feel good.

“You get home, starving, then have a dinner which doesn’t satisfy you or nourish your body. All night, all you can think about is the ice cream you know is in the freezer – this is your brain telling you that you haven’t eaten enough that day. Soon enough, you ‘give in’, eating the whole pint of ice cream.

“Feeling upset at your failure, you can’t stop. You keep eating until you finish all the snacks you can find – you don’t enjoy it, but you just can’t stop. You look in the mirror and feel a sense of shame, thinking ‘I’ll do better tomorrow’. But the cycle keeps on going.”

Darcy explains that this scenario comes from different variations of the same story that she’s heard repeatedly – not just from clients diagnosed with an eating disorder, but from most of her clients as a dietician. 

“What people don’t realise is that they haven’t failed – the diet failed them,” she says. “Our bodies are born to be intuitive with food, but unfortunately diet culture can make it difficult to listen to your body and understand hunger and fullness cues.” 

Is it possible to break a ‘binge-restrict’ cycle? If so, how?

“Yes! It’s not simple or easy, but you can escape the cycle,” Darcy says. She explains to me the importance of having a team around you – usually a dietician, psychologist and GP, in addition to support from friends and family. These professionals can help to unpack the complex relationship many have with food and their bodies and help them find peace with food.

Often the first step can be as simple as recording food behaviours, by keeping a diary that logs what you eat and how you’re feeling. “But please, for the love of god, do not use MyFitnessPal,” Darcy says. Instead, she recommends using Recovery Record – a service used by thousands of clinicians to assist patients recovering from eating disorders – or simply, a notebook. 

Darcy tells me that dieticians often start by incorporating all foods into a patient’s diet, including those which are deemed ‘bad’ or ‘fear foods’ or particularly those that usually induce a binge. But this must be done under the guidance of a professional, to ensure these foods are introduced in a safe way. “This is an important part of the [recovery] journey,” she tells me.

If the cycle is broken, what can sufferers do to prevent falling back into that habit? 

One of the most important things, Darcy says, is self-care. While this may sound cliche, you need to be able to give yourself permission to not always “get it right”.

She also explains the importance of regular eating and “nourishing the body.” This is why Darcy recommends working with a dietician who practices using a “non-diet approach” or the “health at every size” paradigm (HAES) – one which focuses on health, as opposed to one’s weight or shape. 

Darcy also tells me that sufferers should avoid starting a new diet at all costs, as this will only lead to further restriction. Instead, she says to focus on taking moral judgement away from food and to consider the language you use around it. “Food is never ‘naughty’, and the only ‘bad food’ is food that is past its use-by date or has fallen on the floor,” she tells me.

“Also make sure to unfollow any social media accounts that don’t make you feel good or those that make out like a certain diet is best for everyone. And be curious about the way that diet culture impacts our everyday life – it’s completely centred around needing us to feel like we’re ‘not enough’.” 

Darcy tells me that once recovered, nutrition is not off the table. She says that “when you have a good relationship with your body and have made peace with food, mindful eating and gentle nutrition have a big role to play.”

Lastly, Darcy wants to remind people that binge eating is never an issue with a person’s “willpower” and is something that can affect anyone, in any body size. “People always deserve help – it’s not something that should be tackled alone,” she says. 

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline at 1800 33 4673 for free and confidential support, or email or chat to them online here.

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