There are generally two triggers to an eating binge: Either you're on a diet and your body needs the extra food or you overeat because you're trying to suppress some emotion-stress, loneliness, depression or anger," says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Human Nutrition Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Either way, the end result is usually feelings of guilt."
While doctors say understanding and resolving your feelings is the best way to get off these feeding frenzies, here's some immediate help.
Write about your feelings. "I tell my patients who binge-eat when they're angry or depressed to write down their feelings in a letter they don't intend to send," says Karyn Scher, Ph.D., director of training for the Graduate Hospital Eating Disorders Service in Philadelphia.
"One reason why women are much more likely than men to go on eating binges is because our society has trained them to suppress their anger or other 'negative' emotions. Simply write how you feel, or pen a sample dialogue as you would like it to unfold for two people--yourself and the person causing those feelings," suggests Dr. Scher.
Besides keeping you from bingeing (both your mind and hands are occupied), this technique has another benefit: You'll learn healthier ways to deal with negative emotions.
Antibinge hotline: Call a friend. If you binge-eat out of boredom, it may be a sign of loneliness or social isolation, so Dr. Scher suggests you call a friend or relative. "I tell my patients to create a phone chain with at least six people they can call when they feel lonely or bored."
Count to 20. The next time you get a food craving, make yourself wait 20 minutes before you succumb. Most food cravings that aren't due to hunger will subside in that time. If not--if you're still hungry after 20 minutes--then you probably do need food.
"Ideally, you should do something that's incompatible with eating, such as taking a walk," suggests Linda Crawford, a certified eating disorders counselor at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a weight and health management center in Ludlow, Vermont.
Take to the sidewalk. Walking and other forms of aerobic exercise are among the best ways to kill food cravings, adds Dr. Scher. Vigorous exercise may break a cycle of stress-induced bingeing. Lots of people report a sense of physical well-being after 20 minutes of aerobic exercise that offsets the urge to binge.
Drown your sorrows. Even if emotion rather than hunger is driving you to eat, drinking lots of water can help--by freshening your taste buds and filling your belly, which reduces your food cravings, according to George Blackburn, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Nutrition/Metabolism Laboratory at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston.
Choose low-fat alternatives. "If you totally deny yourself, you'll go crazy and just binge out even more later on," says Dr. Drewnowski. "Instead of forbidding yourself to eat, indulge in a smaller portion of a lower-fat substitute. For instance, if you're craving a bowl of ice cream, give in to a scoop of frozen yogurt. "
Although many people suggest carrying around a bag of carrots or celery sticks for when the munchies hit, Dr. Drewnowski has found that these crunchy substitutes don't work. "You need to eat something along the same lines as what you're craving, only in smaller portions," he advises.
Sizzle your taste buds with spicy foods. Ever try to wolf down mass quantities of chili or peppers, horseradish or curry? It can't be done. So when the urge to eat is overwhelming, reach for a hot Mexican, Thai or Indian snack.
"The flavor is so intense that you'll find yourself eating much smaller portions than you would of bland or sweet foods," says Maria Simonson, Ph.D., Sc.D., professor emeritus and director of the Health, Weight and Stress Program at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. Another bonus: Since they heat your entire body (not just your mouth), spicy foods speed up metabolism--so you won't gain as much.
Eat three squares every day. "A lot of people set themselves up for binges by restricting their food while dieting," says Dr. Scher. "When you skip breakfast and have nothing but a salad for lunch, by the time dinner rolls around, you're literally starving for food and will eat anything and everything. But if you consume three sensible meals each day--even while dieting--your body won't experience this intense starvation, and you'll be better able to control nighttime binges."