Why Portion Control Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)

Let me know if this sounds familiar to you.

Healing from compulsive overeating / bingeing is impossible within this cycle.

You go on a diet or meal plan and you do really well with it for a little while.You feel in control, healthier, just “better” overall.

And then something happens. You have a rough day at work. You have a fight with your partner. You wake up feeling too tired to work out or just hungrier than usual. And then … you binge or just generally eat past the point of comfort.  Maybe you eat something that isn’t on your plan, something forbidden. Maybe you go back to your plan or diet the next day, but these “cheat days” or binges seem to happen more and more frequently.

You beat up on yourself. You feel like you failed. You feel overwhelmed with emotions. Your body feels uncomfortable and bloated.

So what do you do? The only thing you know how to do. The thing that everyone tells you to do. You go back on a diet or plan (maybe the same one, maybe a new one) and hope that overwhelming feeling, that hurricane of desire to binge, won’t happen again.  You start to feel in control, healthier, just “better” overall. And then something happens . . .

Why Portion Control (& Restricting & Dieting) Don’t Work
There are many, many reasons why portion control, restricting, and dieting  do not work if you have bingeing* or overeating patterns. (Diets don’t work for weight loss in the long run either, but that’s a whole other story.)

Portion control doesn’t help a binge. It only leads to a new one.

As I wrote in Stop Dieting Now, using portion control to deal with overeating is like putting a band-aid on a deep knife wound. Maybe it’ll stop a bit of the bleeding or seem to be taking care of the problem for a bit, but eventually you’ll realize that the band-aid isn’t helping. Plus, you may find that  just putting a band-aid on it caused more problems than it solved.

The main reason why portion control doesn’t work is that it only deals with the symptom of bingeing, not the root cause. If you’re eating past the point of comfort as a way to ignore your feelings, those feelings don’t go away. They just get driven deeper down, only to come up again when you’re not paying attention. If you’re eating past the point of comfort because your body is desperately hungry because you’ve been restricting food, restricting more will not solve the problem.

Restricting will only lead to your next binge, and the cycle will start again.

What To Do Instead
In order to really heal, it’s important to break out of the restrict/binge cycle. That can be hard to do on your own, so getting additional support is helpful. However, here are three tips to get you started.

1) Intentionally Stop Restricting – This is different than stopping restricting because you’re bingeing. This is an intentional move out of the cycle. Decide that you are going to start a practice of listening to your body more. This process can take a while and be more complicated than it first appears, but it’s important to set this intention for yourself.

2) Respect Your Emotional Reality – Sometimes it’s hard to really acknowledge the depth and breadth of your emotions. You may have been raised to not express certain “negative” emotions, like anger or fear.  But the more you deny your emotions, the more difficult they are to deal with. So it’s helpful to practice connecting with and acknowledging your emotions. Sometimes it’s helpful to just take a breath and ask yourself “What am I feeling?”  Trust that it’s okay to feel your feelings and practice finding safe ways to express them. The more you acknowledge your emotional reality, the less you’ll need to use food to handle your emotions.

3) Let Go Of Doing This Perfectly – Trying to be perfect is often a big part of what keeps you stuck in the binge/restrict cycle. We try to be perfect with food, handle our emotions perfectly, deal with friends and loved ones perfectly and the end result is that we feel massively flawed for being imperfect. There is no perfect way to eat, no perfect way to deal with your emotions, and no perfect way out of the binge/restrict cycle. What is perfect is your particular journey, no matter how imperfect it may seem.

An Offer Of Additional Support

This week only, I’m offering my Heal From Emotional Eating Home Study Program for only $47.

In this program you will learn to break away from the never ending binge/restrict cycle, eat in a way that is connected to your body’s needs, and discover new methods of dealing with your emotional needs. I normally charge $147 for this program, but I want to make this decision a “no brainer.” To learn more and get this special deal (no code required!), click here.

*I use bingeing and overeating pretty interchangeably in this post, mostly because what counts as overeating vs. bingeing is often open to interpretation, and different people describe their habits differently.

Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and her work, click here.

3 replies on “Why Portion Control Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)”

Alcohol use is also important to address when talking about “emotional binging” and weight problems.  Before I admitted to myself that I had a problem with alcohol, I blamed my weight problem 100% on food – because the social narrative on dieting is almost completely based on “avoid indulgences like brownies or cakes, and eat healthy things like salads”.  So, I’d avoid any cake, eat only salad…and then go home and down 6-7 drinks a day (and often more).  It sounds ignorant, but I compartmentalized my drinking away from my other activities mentally, and didn’t count those calories into the equation.  Emotional drinking (which was my problem – drinking to blow off steam, relieve stress, to feel “social”) can be an even bigger factor in a weight problem than emotional eating, but I rarely hear it talked about outside of the bland generalities of “Miller 64” commercials and “Skinny Girl” margaritas.

When I cut substantially down on my drinking, I found my sugar cravings were much less frequent and urgent.  I did too much damage to myself over the course of a decade to be able to say “Oh, I cut out drinking and lost 30 pounds!” because it’s obviously more complex than that…however, I will say that eliminating binge drinking has made it much easier to approximate a healthy lifestyle.

I overeat the most when I’m bored. I definitely have those occasional moments where I binge when I’m upset or stressed, but 9 times out of 10 its because I’m bored and I need something to do. Gum doesn’t work. Maybe my body knows I’m trying to trick it into thinking I’m eating. Who knows? I know restricting doesn’t work in the long run, but so far, its what works. My weight has fluctuated all my life but cutting calories is what has worked the most. Even at my heaviest, I was still going to the gym every other day. It wasn’t until I started significantly cutting calories that I saw a difference. I’m trying to eat healthier and it isn’t easy and I’m taking it one day at a time but my biggest fear always has and always will be that one day I’ll binge and then give up and backslide on all the “progress” I’ve made.

I’ve found these methods really do help. I can usually manage whatever calorie restriction I have myself on (I’m pretty laid back on that, opting for a range that never leaves me hungry), but there are always a few days a month that are ‘eat all the food’ days. By factoring them in from the start I’m able to go with the flow, plan around them, whatever I need to do. It keeps me feeling on top of things, and keeps me from berating myself/giving up/overcompensating.

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