Binge eating (also called compulsive eating) is now classified as an eating disorder along with anorexia and bulimia. Most of us know to stop eating when we’ve had enough but binge eaters continue to stuff themselves until they have eaten everything in sight. All eating disorders involve unhealthy patterns of eating and are very dangerous methods of weight control. However, binge eating is different from bulimia nervosa because the individual does not purge after the eating episode by vomiting or using laxatives/diuretics. Binge eating is common in people who are already overweight or obese, but can also occur in people of normal size and weight.
Unlike alcohol or tobacco abuse, food abuse is more difficult to control because the person cannot quit or “go cold turkey” by avoiding eating altogether. We all have to eat to survive but it’s a matter of learning to control the food rather than letting it control you. One of my clients once said that even though they felt physically ill from having overeaten, they felt compelled to continue until there was nothing left. Even though he knew he would feel terrible guilt afterwards he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
Most compulsive eaters tend to indulge after feeling angry, hurt or stressed about something. Many feel something comforting or soothing about eating and consume food to cope with other emotions such as boredom or even as a reward for achieving something. Again, much of this behaviour comes down to when we were kids and our mother used to give us a treat if we were upset or injured or even just to shut us up! The pattern of comfort eating is learnt from a young age and this is why many people start to have problems when they reach their independent years.
While most of us have overeaten to the point of feeling physically sick at one time or another, but how do you know if you (or someone you know) is a binge eater? Here are some common behaviours/feelings experienced by binge eaters:
- Eating faster than normal
- Eating even when feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts food even when not physically hungry
- Feeling a sense of loss of control over how much is being consumed
- Feelings of embarrassment if eating with company and/or a tendency to withdraw from eating in public
- Feelings of guilt, shame, disgust and depression or anxiety after bingeing
- Limiting food intake during the day and eating “one big meal” at night
- Having “secret stashes” of food and being good at hiding the behaviour from friends/family
- Feeling compelled to exercise or “work it off” immediately to avoid gaining weight
Although many of us may think these people must all be pigs or gluttons, some compulsive eaters actually suffer from a condition which affects the hypothalamus which is the part of the brain which controls appetite. It may fail to send proper messages to identify hunger and/or fullness. There could be a chemical (serotonin) imbalance which affects mood and this may also play a role in binge eating.
Rather than dieting, binge eaters should first seek professional help to address their eating patterns and to determine a plan to assist in their road to recovery and a new healthy lifestyle.