If you feel like your eating is “out of control,” whether you label it as “binging,” “compulsive,” “emotional,” “lack of willpower,” or “giving into cravings,” consider this: opposites attract. Food deprivation can lead to binge eating, or at least something that feels like it.

Where there is excess, there is usually deprivation. Where there is “out of control-ness,” there was often restriction. And restriction and deprivation are two sides of the same coin. I wrote about this topic a few months ago, describing the deprivation-rebound (or restrict-binge) pendulum swing.

When my clients feel out of control around food, whether that’s binging, compulsive overeating, or “emotional” eating, we look for a history of restriction – in adulthood or way back in childhood.

The many faces of deprivation

I’ve had clients who endured food insecurity as kids. (Food insecurity is limited or uncertain means to access nutritious food in a safe and socially acceptable manner.) As adults with a stable and comfortable income, they kept their shelves and pantries stocked with all the breakfasts cereals and snack foods they always wanted but rarely — or never — got to have as kids. Sometimes, they have difficulty eating a “moderate” portion of these foods, too.

Some grew up in households where certain foods – or perhaps any between-meal snacking – were banned. Sometimes this ban only applied to them, if they were deemed “too fat” as a child. Sometimes the ban applied to all the children in the house, with different food rules for the adults. Sometimes, the adults followed restrictive diets and took their kids along for the ride. No matter what the exact scenario, the restriction often led to food hording and secret eating in childhood…and right on into adulthood.

Some clients had access to abundant food but were deprived of fundamental needs – love, safety, understanding, respect – and turned to food to try to fill those voids. Those survival habits are totally valid, yet it can feel frustrating, or even shameful, when they don’t disappear because conditions have changed.

Some clients were subjected to non-consensual dieting (i.e., dieting before they were of an age to give informed consent.

Any form of neglect and trauma in childhood causes lasting scars. Neglect and trauma around food and body – not enough food or enough appealing foods, restrictive adult food agendas, criticism about weight or body shape – can lead to serious eating and weight struggles.

Food insecurity and food neglect

Research has found that many people living with food insecurity experience a “feast-or-famine” cycle in which food intake varies according to fluctuations in food availability. In other words, you eat less when food is scarce and eat more when food is more abundant, such as after receiving a paycheck. This is similar to the binge-restrict cycle.

Even though I’m a big supporter of programs such as the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), it can unintentionally worsen the “feast-or-famine” cycle by only providing benefits once per month. Most recipients redeem their monthly benefits right away, using the food up well before the end of the month, leading to another period of food restriction.

Research on this topic has found that food-insecure participants often describe feeling immense excitement accompanying the influx of food after receiving a paycheck or SNAP benefits, particularly for favorite foods, as well as feeling out-of-control during overeating episodes, often characterizing such episodes as binge-eating episodes. Overall, research is finding that food insecurity is associated with higher risk of binge eating disorder and bulimia (binging followed by vomiting or compensatory exercise).

Childhood food neglect—restricted access to food due to caregivers neglecting their responsibilities to provide adequate food to their children, even if they have the financial resources to do so—may also increase risk of developing eating disorders. One recent survey of 36,145 U.S. adults found that the lifetime odds of developing anorexia or binge-eating disorder among those reporting childhood food neglect were three times higher than that of the general population.

Food neglect is one type of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). These experiences also include experiencing violence, abuse or neglect, or witnessing violence in the home or community. ACEs are linked to a number of chronic physical and mental health problems.

Deprivation and binge eating disorder

Restricting – or trying to restrict – food, whether voluntary (as with a diet) or involuntary (as with food insecurity or neglect), has been shown to result in a range of mental, emotional, and behavioral changes, including preoccupation with food, heightened emotional reactivity towards food, and a tendency toward binge eating once food is no longer restricted.

A stark demonstration of this comes from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in 1944–1945. The study, which enrolled conscientious objectors during World War II, was designed to help researchers understand how to safely “refeed” individuals affected by famine during the war. (Basically, when the body is starving, refeeding too quickly can lead to fatal imbalances in our electrolytes. This is a big issue when treating people with anorexia nervosa.)

Physically and mentally healthy young adult male volunteers were put on a semi-starvation diet (about 1,560 calories per day, half of the men’s usual food intake) for six months to lose about 25 percent of their starting body weight. Then came the 12-week recovery phase, when different methods of nutritional rehabilitation (refeeding) were tested in a controlled way. Then came eight weeks when the men were allowed to eat whatever they wanted, but their food intake was being recorded and the men were being monitored.

Here it is in a nutshell: the 36 men developed intense preoccupation with food during the semi-starvation phase, then started to exhibit binge-eating behaviors as more food was made available during the rehabilitation phase. Some of the men would vomit following binges.

Research has also found that when parents try to control their children’s consumption of “junk” or “unhealthy” foods by keeping foods out of reach or restricting when and how much food may be consumed, this ends up backfiring. These restrictive feeding practices only increase children’s preferences for the “forbidden” foods, cause excitement when they’re around these foods, and promote overeating when these foods are freely available. Plus, girls are more likely to eat when they aren’t hungry if their mothers restrict their food intake.

Recovering from restriction

Do you feel out of control around food? Before assuming that you are lacking in willpower or that you are “addicted” to food, look at your personal history of restriction. If you have never dieted or restricted food (you unicorn, you), look for potential restriction earlier in life.

I’ve had a few clients who had some vague early childhood memories suggesting that their families may have experienced food insecurity for a time. I’ve had other clients who grew up with strict family food rules and had not connected the dots to their current eating struggles.

If you do connect some dots of your own, it can be a bit of a relief to be able to say, “Oh…now things make more sense.” But while it can be helpful to understand the past, it’s still important to move forward. That’s where the challenge lies.

If your history of restriction was due to food insecurity or childhood food neglect, show compassion for yourself when you feel the urge to overeat, which is really an urge to “get enough.” Remind yourself that it’s natural to feel that way, and that things are different now – you really do have enough food.

If your restriction was “voluntary,” (i.e., dieting), then persuading yourself that you can “get enough” is more about giving yourself permission to eat. There’s a whole principle in “Intuitive Eating” devoted to that. Giving yourself food permission isn’t about free-falling into a food free-for-all. It’s about having the assurance that you can have the food you want, when you want it, so you no longer feel compulsive or out of control around formerly “forbidden” foods. And that’s true food freedom.

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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