By: Briana Arteaga
We work hard, we eat well; we sacrifice the extra sweets; we hike on the weekends, show up on Mondays when we wish it was still Sunday, and crawl in the door Fridays even when the workouts have been killer all week long.
For some of you, nutrition is straightforward. You get ample amounts of protein, enjoy balanced portions, and intuitively know when your body has signaled it is fueled appropriately and no further consumption is necessary.
Some of you, however, may experience food a little differently. I’m talking about those moments when you dive elbow deep into whatever is nearest; where food just disappears into the black hole that is your mouth…you’re not even sure what you’re tasting and you’re asking yourself if you even like the flavor but the answer doesn’t matter because regardless, its going in.
That loss of control is experienced by more people than you’d think. And for that reason, I want to talk to you about binge eating: what it is, why it occurs, and a strategy I, as a recovering binge-eater myself, utilize to beat the irresistible urge to overeat.
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
Recent research has shown that binge eating is more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined. Binge eating disorder (BED) differs from the others in that it does not include compensatory measures such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or using laxatives to counter the binges.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), binge eating is an eating disorder in which a person regularly eats unusually large amounts of food (more than most people would consume) within a nominal period of time (2 hours). During binge eating, the person also feels a loss of control and is not able to stop eating.
Symptoms may include the following:
- Feeling out of control over eating behavior
- Feeling ashamed or disgusted by the behavior
- Eating rapidly
- Eating in secret
- Eating until uncomfortably full
- Self-medicating with food
- High levels of anxiety/depression in general or regarding food specifically
While overeating is common on holidays and large life events for most people, BED is classified by regular occurrences averaging at least once a week for 3 months. BED is the most common eating disorder in the US. It is estimated that 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men in the US have a binge eating disorder. Women tend to be affected as young adults, while men experience it more often in middle age.
Factors that contribute to BED:
- Family struggles
- Genetics (those that have a mother or sister with disordered eating are 12 times more likely to develop the behavior)
- Impaired body image
- Low self-esteem or depression
- No feeling of personal identity
- Lack of perceived control
- Stress (food is treated like a drug, linked to anxiety and depression)
- Food preoccupation and food restriction including unhealthy dieting such as not eating enough nutritious food or skipping meals
- Inability to cope with modern stresses, cultural ideals, and food availability
Over-eaters may also have physiological factors involved:
- Underlying metabolic or digestive tract disorders
- Disruption of dopamine
- Under active satiety mechanisms
- Lack of sleep leading to increased hunger hormone (ghrelin) and decreased satiety hormone (leptin)
The compulsion to eat can affect a person’s quality of life causing problems functioning at work or may develop into social isolation. Physical issues such as joint problems, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), insomnia, weight fluctuation, among other side effects may also ensue.
Structuring a Plan for Recovery
“It’s not just about the food; it’s not just about the choices. People need to know what the underlying issues are that need to be addressed,” states Ginger Cochran, a Registered Dietitian in the San Luis Obispo County area. “It may mean they need to develop stress management strategies, restructure their environment to avoid mindless snacking, have protein in the morning to decrease ghrelin hormones, or simply get more than 6 hours of sleep to decrease cortisol and carb cravings.”
Overcoming the act of bingeing through modifications in lifestyle and behavior change efforts can prove to be difficult. It may even further develop poor eating behaviors, morph food and body perceptions, stimulate yo-yo dieting cycles, or induce depression and anxiety. If you or someone you care about might have a pattern of binge or disordered eating, you should contact a medical professional for assistance as soon as you can.
Your general practitioner can recommend therapists who provide cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical therapy, psychotherapy, pharmacological therapies, or connect you to a Registered Dietitian for nutrition therapy. These options are to support health-centered behaviors rather than weight-centered dieting. There are also online resources that provide information for people who want to recover or help a loved one on their journey.
If you wish to speak to someone because you are concerned by their eating patterns, take some time to do a bit of research before approaching them. Each person experiences their relationship with food differently. Attempt non-confrontational language to express what YOU feel and try not to offer generalized advice because it may raise defensive behavior. The best thing you can do for that person is to simply state, ‘‘I’m here if there is anything I can do to help”.
A Little Bit About My Journey
I have used food to control my feelings for most of my life. It has kept me from engaging in certain social situations, also has made me feel isolated with perpetuated negative self talk. I have lied or eaten in secret, ate foods I hated the taste of, and vowed to never binge again just to find myself in the same predicament a week later. For me, it runs deeper than something I can WILL to change. I’ve come to realize that food and I have a relationship that needs to be nursed back to health with positive, empowering strategies. Below is a tactic I use to help reshape over-eating behaviors. Keep in mind I am in no way qualified as a personal trainer to suggest treatment options, I am just sharing my journey and what I am working on currently to beat the binge.
Goal: Interrupt The Act
We tend to mask emotions with food instead of identifying and addressing the root cause. To interrupt a binge, I try to discharge the immediate emotion that causes me to feel the need to overeat and replace the impulse with a positive, alternative solution.
These are the questions I try to ask myself before giving into the binge:
- What are you feeling?
- What do you need?
- What can you do instead?
Being prepared is winning half the battle. At all times, I have a list prepared of alternative activities I know will ease the emotion I am feeling. This allows me to make a quicker decision, since most of the work is already done for me. Below are just a few examples on my list; yours may look very different from mine depending on what makes you feel at peace.
|What to do…||When I’m feeling…|
|Make a list||anxious, overwhelmed|
|Clean the house||frustrated, anxious, bored, confused, scattered, low self-esteem|
|Listen to a guided meditation||almost every emotion|
|Call a friend||needy, vulnerable, sad, happy|
|Exercise||frustrated, anxious, bored, tired|
Developing a deeper connection with my emotions challenges the surface level cover up I allowed myself to use in the past. I now can choose to recognize an emotion, feel it, and release it.
Retraining behaviors like binge eating is a very difficult process and I still sometimes continue to choose food over the strategy discussed in this blog (and the ones I’ve adopted from my own research) because healing takes time. I understand this doesn’t make me a failure as these patterns have been developed throughout my whole life. It will take effort to get into a new frame of mind, and that’s okay!
I hope you find this blog encouraging and informative so that if you or a loved one experiences issues with eating behaviors, you are better prepared to take it on!
“Binge Eating Disorder.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/bed.
“All about Disordered Eating: Understanding and Addressing Eating Disorders.” Precision Nutrition, 20 Sept. 2019, www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-disordered-eating.
“Management and Outcomes of Binge Eating Disorder (BED).” Effective Health Care Program, 21 July. 2014, https://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/products/binge-eating/research-protocol
“Find Treatment.” The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/find-treatment/.
“Binge Eating Disorder.” The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/binge-eating-disorder/.
Gold, Sunny Sea. Food: the Good Girls Drug: How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings. Penguin, 2012.
Ginger Cochran, MS, RDN, CEP, CDE