PHOTO: Viktor Szabo
Text: Anna Nagygyörgy, Viktória Farkas and Alejandra Misiolek
In this post we are going to talk about the possible daily patterns of problematic eating habits: binge eating and restrictive eating. We will also discuss some possible explanations behind these patterns, focusing on the circadian model.
Recent evidence indicates that the frequency of eating-disordered behaviors and associated psychological vulnerabilities may vary across the hours of the day.
First of all, let’s clarify what binge eating and restrictive eating are.
- Eating, in a discrete period (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is larger than what most people would eat in a similar period under similar circumstances.
- A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
Restrictive eating can be characterized by the following:
- It involves eating less than is required to meet nutritional needs and/or is typical for an individual.
- An absence of eating at times when eating typically occurs (which can mean skipping meals/snacks and also daytime fasting).
The reasons why some people binge and/or restrict are numerous. For instance, a worsening mood, difficulties in emotion regulation and heightened food cravings may lead to a binge as an intent to down-regulate the emotions or to “feed” the dopaminergic craving. However, the binge itself triggers even more negative feelings toward oneself, especially related to guilt and shame, and may lead to even more binging (a vicious cycle). On the contrary, in the case of controlled eating, the idealization of thinness can be a factor that can increase the likelihood of restrictive eating as an intent to lose weight. This would be the most typically believed one, however, refusing eating as a way of setting boundaries, especially in adolescence, or restricting as a way of compensating for a binge, are among other frequent reasons for restricting.
What are the daily patterns of binge eating and restrictive eating?
According to a study in the United States, as the day goes by, binge eating episodes become more common. The times during the day with the biggest risk of binging are the following:
- It is the highest around dinner time (5:30 p.m.).
- It also peaks around lunchtime (12:30 p.m.).
- There is also a high risk in the late evening (11:00 p.m.)
It has been observed that while binging typically occurs later in the day, restrictive eating is more likely to happen earlier in the day.
Is this a surprise or something that may have been expected? If you ever experienced an episode of binging, you might identify with this exact description. Let’s have a look at how the hours of the day may be related to the eating patterns.
What does the circadian rhythm have to do with these patterns?
The circadian model is one of the possible frames to explain the daily patterns of restrictive eating and binge eating. The circadian rhythm can be understood as our internal clock following a 24-hour cycle that regulates processes like appetite, alertness, sleepiness, or body temperature. It follows the period of the day, for example, it is important to be exposed to light when waking up and to have darkness when going to bed for adequate functioning. This synchronicity can be disrupted by several ways, for example by having jet lag or shift work.
Eating disorders are also causing significant harm to the circadian rhythm, especially because people with disordered eating behavior tend to not respect their daily rhythms (e.g., because they don’t listen to their bodies) or because they don´t have an established routine. As presented above, restrictive eating is typical in the mornings while binge eating happens usually in the afternoons and nighttime. As a possible consequence (and probable cause at the same time), a considerable delay was found in appetite among people who have eating disorders, which is in line with the finding that the appetitive hormones also rise later in their case as compared to people who don’t suffer from an ED. As a result, hunger can accumulate in the second part of the day and thus the risk of binging increases. Eating a large amount of food, especially before going to bed makes it difficult to fall asleep, leads to poor sleep quality and in general, blurs the activity-rest rhythm in the long run. Moreover, it has been observed that our metabolism tends to slow down in the late afternoon and at night, contributing to possible overweight and obesity (another cause to try to restrict as a compensatory mechanism).
The role of self-control
Another possible explanation for this daily pattern can be that people try to control their food consumption, which is successful in the morning, but as our capacity for self-regulation is limited, they may run out of it by the afternoon. This assumption is supported by the Chocolate and Radish Experiment*, based on which it can be concluded that willpower is a limited resource that works as a muscle.
The role of the thoughts
Our patterns or typical ways of thinking also play an important role in all that. We can recognize the black-and-white thinking behind this behavior, which is a so-called cognitive distortion. It is among the typical features that describe the profile of a person with anorexia, bulimia or a binge eating disorder. How does it work? As the control lessens and it is not possible to maintain the restrictive eating, there is a tendency towards the absolute opposite behavior and may result in binging (a so-called fresh start, sounds familiar?). At the end of a day like this, it is typical to say: “from tomorrow, I’m on a diet”, but this might be counterproductive, and the process just described repeats itself and we find ourselves in a vicious circle.
As presented above, there is a noticeable daily pattern both in binge eating and restrictive eating. Apart from emotional regulation difficulties, black-or-white thinking, and the tendency to dissociate from the body (not be connected to its needs) and try to control (using our mind) or lose control (and consequently does not trust our body), the circadian rhythm and its disruptions can also serve as an explanation. It is important to note that the aspects that we highlighted are not exclusive but complement each other and contribute to a better understanding of this complex phenomenon.
Knowing about these patterns can help people dealing with problematic eating habits to manage their routines better, thus we encourage the exploration of personal characteristics. Also with scheduled regular eating, scheduled sleep/wake times, and regular light exposure, they can regulate their circadian rhythms and can achieve a better appetitive rhythm.
*Chocolate and Radish Experiment
Study participants were asked to enter a room where there were chocolate cookies and radishes. One group was allowed to eat what they wanted, and others were forbidden to eat the cookies, they could only eat the radishes. They were then asked to work on a complicated problem that seemed impossible to solve and generated frustration. The participants, who were allowed to eat cookies, held out for an average of 19 minutes, while those who had to resist the temptation of chocolate, only held out for an average of 8 minutes. The scientists concluded that resisting temptation has produced a psychic cost and caused them to be more vulnerable to frustration and to give up more easily.
We can draw a conclusion that the more restrictions we endure with diets and the more frustration they cause, the less guarantee we have of sticking to them, regardless of character or other individual differences.
- Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(5), 1252.
- Byrne, S. M., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2004). Psychological predictors of weight regain in obesity. Behaviour research and therapy, 42(11), 1341–1356. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2003.09.004
- De Young, K. P., & Bottera, A. R. (2022). A biobehavioral circadian model of restrictive eating and binge eating. The International journal of eating disorders, 55(10), 1291–1295. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23758
- Forester, G., Schaefer, L. M., Dodd, D. R., Burr, E. K., Bartholomay, J., Berner, L. A., Crosby, R. D., Peterson, C. B., Crow, S. J., Engel, S. G., & Wonderlich, S. A. (2023). Time-of-day and day-of-week patterns of binge eating and relevant psychological vulnerabilities in binge-eating disorder. The International journal of eating disorders, 56(9), 1694–1702. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23995