This post is inspired by someone I spoke to yesterday but I’ve been asked similar questions many times before. Often it comes from women in recovery from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA) who are on the journey of recovering their natural menstrual cycles. They have changed their diet, cut back on exercise and gained healthy weight. But still they experience binge eating episodes which impact their physical and mental health. They are left wondering “why am I still binge eating?” when they thought they were doing everything right.
“Characteristics of a binge eating episode can include eating much faster than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry, eating alone through embarrassment at the amount being eaten, and feelings of disgust, shame or guilt during or after the binge.”
This dysregulated eating pattern can certainly play a role in the hormonal imbalances which lead to HA and other menstrual cycle issues.
Binge eating due to physical hunger
The only element from this definition I would remove when talking about women with HA is the part about not being physically hungry. Often, in those who binge as a result of restriction (current or historical), physical hunger does play a major role in triggering binge eating episodes. It can be that beginning eating in response to an initial physical hunger signal leads to eating unusual amounts of food, continuing long after the physical hunger has passed.
For many women in recovery, there is an initial period of extreme hunger where their appetite appears to be insatiable. The physical hunger may not be what a “normal eater” experiences day to day. However it’s definitely driven by a deep hunger signal from the physical body. Usually once the nutritional rehabilitation is complete and the body is truly satisfied, the binge eating stops naturally. However, this may take longer than many women expect or hope for.
Why am I binge eating in HA recovery?
If you are in HA recovery and you still experience binge eating you might be wondering why. Especially if you have been providing your body with enough food for a while. Or if you have reached or even surpassed a healthy weight for your body. You might be waiting patiently for your menstrual cycle to return. Or maybe you have already had a few recovery periods. Perhaps you are in quasi-recovery where you have made progress but are still not quite where you want to be..
In my experience, there are a few common causes of binge eating in HA recovery. These are the same reasons why someone might experience binge eating before recovery too. If your body is giving you regular signals to eat unusual amounts of food and you find yourself asking “why am I still binge eating?” long into HA recovery, it’s a sign something isn’t right. Some of the common “binge foods” are:
- Whole jars of nut butter
- Boxes of cereal
- Packets of biscuits or crackers
- High calorie fruits such as dates
- Sweets, crisps or chocolate
These are all foods that the body understands to be quick and dense sources of calories. This gives us a hint as to why someone might still be binge eating.
Why am I still binge eating? Reason 1: Not enough calories or nutrients
This one might seem obvious and yet at the same time, it’s elusive. You might feel you are eating enough and the right types of foods but are you really? But what are you basing your ideas of “enough” and “right” on? Many women with HA don’t trust their own bodies and so often they outsource this knowledge. They rely on calculators or follow specific diets which tell them how much and what to eat. This creates a feeling of safety and control. Everything will be ok if I just follow X, Y and Z rule.
I see women who recover from HA by increasing their calorie intake whilst following restrictive diets. For example, vegan, keto, paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free, whole 30 just to name a few. It’s definitely possible to recover your period on any of these restrictive diets. But it’s a fine line between holding onto mental restriction and food rules vs. following a diet because it truly supports your optimal health.
Thinking about the list of common binge foods above, some are higher in fat and others in carbohydrates. The go-to usually depends in some cases on what the body is missing or in others what you consider acceptable based on the current dietary rules. For example, someone following a keto diet could find themselves binge eating foods high in carbohydrates. OR they might consume large amounts of high fat foods in an unsuccessful attempt to satisfy their bodies’ need for carbohydrates. Hopefully that makes sense!
I find that any diet which is too strict usually causes an issue at some point. I’m all for having some general dietary principles to guide us. In fact I think it’s necessary for each of us to find a sustainable lifestyle philosophy that works for us. However, when rules become too binding and we feel like we are doing something wrong when we break them, it’s not ok. There is simply no right or wrong way to eat and buying into any dietary dogma and food fear never works in the long-term.
Why am I still binge eating? Reason 2: Over exercising
Over-exercising is another trigger for binge eating that I see commonly in clients. It was an issue for me too at the start of my recovery from HA. After taking a complete break from intense exercise and getting three recovery periods, I decided it was time to get fit again. I jumped back into a workout routine and BAM my period disappeared. I also started to experience binge eating episodes again when previously my appetite had balanced out completely.
This was a major red flag for me and luckily I was committed enough to the journey to do something about it. I knew that long term health and balance was my goal. So I was prepared to accept being patient for a little longer. I stopped exercising and went back to my recovery routine of walking and yoga. My appetite quickly stabilised, I stopped having urges to binge eat and the following month I got my period again. I see this exact same pattern with women I work with time and time again.
There appears to be a sweet spot for exercise intensity for women. Up to a point, exercise helps to suppress appetite and has many health benefits. However, high intensity exercise leads to increased appetite. Interestingly, this is not the same for men! In women with HA, I see that returning to high intensity exercise often leads to binge eating episodes with energy intake way above that burned via the exercise. I know, it might not seem fair. But if you want to train like an athlete you need to fuel, rest and reduce stressors like an athlete would too.
Why am I still binge eating? Reason 3: Emotional dysregulation
Finally, another trigger of binge eating episodes is emotional dysregulation. For many women with HA, binge eating becomes a way to relieve uncomfortable emotions, particularly stress and anxiety. Eating large amounts of food in one sitting has a numbing, soothing effect. It helps to calm down the nerves, and is a distraction from racing thoughts. Unfortunately, this usually only lasts for a short while until the shame and guilt of over-eating kick in. Then anxiety can rise even higher and the cycle continues.
HA recovery is an emotional rollercoaster in itself. For many women it’s an unravelling, a time when their whole identity and belief system is called into question. Who are you now you are no longer the “fit one” or the “health freak”? How do you move around the world in this new recovery body? Is everyone thinking that you’ve let yourself go? These questions are often swimming around on the surface or deep within the sub-conscious of women with HA.
So for some, binge eating can become a way to self-regulate through this difficult time. Especially when there aren’t adequate emotional-management tools and support systems in place. Even in women who are nourishing their body and taking plenty of rest, binge eating can come an emotional crutch. However, it’s a double edged sword as the effects of binge eating on the metabolism, hormonal balance and also self-esteem tend to out-weight the benefits. It can easily become a catch 22 situation.
So what’s going on with you?
So if you find that you are still binge eating in HA recovery, I hope that this post gives you some ideas as to why. It could be one of these, a combination of all three or something else entirely! Only you know the truth for you. In coaching I help woman to drop into their internal wisdom system and find the answers. It’s up to them to then go and put this into practice consistently.
The same reasons apply if you are still on the fence about starting recovery and you are experiencing restriction and binge eating cycles. Each of you are individuals with a unique history and physical constitution. So your HA recovery will not look like anyone else’s. If you are committed though I believe it is possible for every woman to recover her natural cycles and find that sustainable, balanced lifestyle that she is longing for.
Over to you…
If you would like to work with me 1-2-1 to balance your hormones and improve your health, contact me to set up a free discovery call. I am a nutritionist, yoga teacher and women’s wellness coach. We will create a plan tailored to your individual needs and vision for your health. I will then be there for support, guidance and accountability as you work towards your goals!