Anti-dieting advocates (yep, those exist!) are quick to point out that statistically speaking, restrictive dieting is a huge risk factor for binge eating. And statistically speaking, they’re right! Constantly being around very delicious food but consciously restricting how much we eat is totally unnatural for humans. Physically and psychologically, it tends to mess us up. This paper puts it very clearly:
“prolonged caloric restriction disrupts hunger and satiety cues, driving urges to eat, which the individual interprets as a lack of self-control and/or “failure”. This causes the individual to abandon their efforts to restrict their eating, resulting in a binge eating episode (commonly known as “all or nothing” thinking). After binging, the individual experiences extreme concern about their inability to control their diet, as well as anxiety regarding body weight and composition. This prompts further dietary restraint, which consequently increases the risk of further bingeing.”
That critique has led to approaches like “intuitive eating” (eat whatever and however much your body is telling you to eat – avoid restriction-induced binging by never restricting). In light of all the awful statistics about dieting, it seems very natural and relaxing to just follow your body and eat what it tells you.
But here’s the thing: there is no “natural” way to choose food for people in the 21st century unless you want to move off-grid and farm your own chickens in the woods. We live in an unnatural food environment, full of foods that are specifically designed to hijack our natural tastes for fat/sugar/salt and overwhelm our natural appetite control mechanisms. In that context, intuitive eating just doesn’t make sense for most people: in an unnatural environment, sometimes our natural default behaviors just don’t guide us very well.
…which brings us right back to restriction. Paleo is a restrictive diet: it completely eliminates a lot of foods and minimizes a lot more. It’s definitely good for your body, but there’s no denying that it’s restrictive compared to the “eat what you want” approach. So if we have to do this psychologically and physically weird thing of restrictive eating, how do we stay sane?
What actually causes rebound binging in dieters?
First of all, what it’s not: rebounding binging probably isn’t an inevitable result of calorie restriction – at least, for most people.
Successful weight-loss diets, including Paleo, work by creating a calorie deficit. Most humans are awful at counting and tracking calories, so diets like Paleo use other techniques (fill your plate with vegetables, don’t eat sugar…) to automagically create a deficit without making you do calorie math. But the actual loss of fat comes from the calorie deficit. The calorie deficit is the “active ingredient” in the diet.
Research on calorie restriction suggests that it doesn’t cause cravings by itself
In people who aren’t underweight, a few studies have shown that a calorie deficit doesn’t cause cravings. In fact, this review found that in people with pre-existing binge-eating disorder, a calorie deficit actually reduced binging episodes. (Note that this doesn’t apply to people who are underweight or diet until they’re underweight, as in the famous Minnesota Starvation Experiment – that’s a different issue. We’re talking here about people who start out overweight and diet to a lower but not unhealthily low weight).
In other words, there must be something about “dieting” other than just a calorie deficit that gives so many people trouble. This is tricky to pin down since it’s unethical to deliberately try to give people a binge eating disorder. Researchers can’t just try different diets to see what messes up their subjects the most – or at least, they can’t do it to human subjects…
How to Give a Rat a Binge Eating Disorder
The short answer: put it on a diet, then stress it out, and then give it junk food.
This study lays it out: the researchers took rats and made them diet, then stressed them out. Then they gave the rats either ordinary rat chow OR ordinary chow with just a taste of junk food (in human terms, think either “chicken and vegetables OR chicken and vegetables with a package of M&Ms on the side”).
Rats who got only chow didn’t binge. But if the rats got even a little taste of junk food, then they started chow-binging like crazy. If they were hungry on top of being stressed, the binging got even worse. In fact, another study found that even the sight of junk food could trigger a binge in stressed rats after calorie restriction.
In other words, food restriction + stress + hunger + junk food = binge.
Rebound binging in people
On an anecdotal level, it’s pretty obvious that food restriction + stress + hunger describes how most people “go on a diet.” Is it any surprise that people go a little bit nuts from stressing out over how fat they feel, starving themselves to compensate, and feeling hungry all the time when they’re always surrounded by tasty junk food?
Research in human subjects supports the stress + hunger + junk food model of diet-induced binging. For example, people who binge eat have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This study goes more in-depth on how stress hormones affect cravings and binge eating in humans – it’s pretty clear that stress is a huge part of the process.
On the hunger front, the “hunger hormone” ghrelin is also associated with cravings and pleasure eating. Binging isn’t really about physical hunger, but that doesn’t mean hunger has nothing at all to do with it. Hunger, or a history of feeling regularly hungry and anxious, can still make people more vulnerable to losing control around food, even if they’re not physically hungry for the amount they eat.
Escaping the rebound
Knowing that hunger and stress are key parts of the “rebound binge” effect, you can make a plan to tackle them even on a calorie deficit or a restrictive diet. And in fact, that’s one thing Paleo does really well: the basic structure of the diet is set up pretty well to control hunger and stress. But to highlight the important parts, have some research-backed tips for avoiding rebound eating on Paleo (or another restrictive diet).
Eat high-quality protein at every meal.
Higher-protein (about 30% protein) diets are famous for reducing hunger, which would be helpful all on its own. But eating a high-protein diet can also help minimize stress during weight loss. For example, in this study, higher-protein diets in athletes reduced stress and “mood disturbance” compared to moderate-protein diets.
This study is also interesting on the protein front: women in the study got a high-protein or a high-carb meal, or a mixed meal. After the high-protein meal, the women had changes to their serum proteins that were associated with a lower desire to binge and a lower likelihood of actually binging.
(If you swing towards the keto side of Paleo, that protein number might need to come down a bit – see here for more.)
Other diet tips
A miscellaneous collection of other diet tips with some evidence to suggest that they can help address diet-induced binging:
- Probiotics: One study found that in men and women who were dieting to lose weight, probiotic supplements relieved cravings and reduced stress. Your gut bugs, working for you!
- Enough fat: this study found that, of all the types of dietary restriction, restricting fat was particularly prone to inducing “bouts of overeating.” Eat enough healthy fat: it’s good for you!
- Regular meals: this study pointed out that one big aspect of stressful diet restriction (aka binge-inducing restriction) is irregular or skipped meals. So an easy way to take the stress out of your diet and reduce the temptation to rebound binge might be simply eating to a regular schedule. When participants in the study ate to a pre-planned meal schedule, they had much lower weekly binge frequency.
It’s not just food!
Reducing stress in your non-food life can also be helpful, regardless of what you do with your food. For instance, social isolation is stressful. Unsurprisingly, one study found that social isolation was associated with binge eating even after accounting for dietary restraint and negative mood. Spending more time with friends: the secret to successful dieting?
Another study found that yoga helped reduce binge eating. These studies suggest that managing stress in general might be a useful tool, regardless of what you eat or don’t eat. And managing stress will save your life in other ways anyway, so it’s generally a good plan for sanity and health.
Is it possible to restrict food and stay sane?
It’s not that any attempt to limit or control what you eat automatically causes rebound binging – otherwise no diet would ever work. The rebound might actually be a factor of the way most people do “dieting:” they’re stressed and hungry all the time, while being surrounded by junk food. Most of us can’t do much about the “surrounded by junk food” part, but if you can avoid the hunger and stress of typical “dieting,” research suggests you’ll have a much better chance of avoiding the rebound effect.
All of the tips above are actually key aspects of the basic Paleo template, which suggests that Paleo might be particularly helpful for avoiding rebounds. But in theory you could use them with any diet, or any variation of Paleo/keto that works for you.