Everyone overeats from time to time. Binge eating or compulsive eating however is different. Something seems to take over you and you lose all control. You may eat until you feel sick or just continuously graze. You may wonder ‘why do I do this when it makes me feel so much shame and guilt?’, ‘why can’t I stop?’.
Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder. It accounts for 50% of all eating disorders. Binge eating episodes are defined as eating a large amount of food within a short period of time (2 hours) as well as the inability to stop the binge.
What’s the problem?
There are many consequences associated with bingeing. Following a binge, feelings of shame, self-loathing, guilt and depression are common. There is often an associated gastrointestinal distress due to the volume of food consumed. There are also medical consequences. Those with binge eating disorder have an increased risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and osteoarthritis.
The willpower myth
“I just need more willpower!”
“I need more self control!”
Bingeing has nothing to do with a lack of willpower. In fact trying to control or restrict your food can actually trigger a binge!
Why do I binge then?
The reasons why people binge are complex and varied but there are two main causes:
1. It distracts us from unwanted feelings/thoughts
Bingeing can be a coping mechanism to help deal with different stressors. Bingeing may be a welcome distraction from stress and anxiety. It may be soothing or calming. It may help numb painful emotions. Over time binging can become habitual.
2. Bingeing is a normal response to deprivation (real or perceived)
Your body doesn’t know the difference between a diet and a famine. Your body responds the same. Your brain responds by thinking more about food and your body increases hunger hormones. Humans are hardwired to be obsessive about food when we are hungry!
Even if you are eating a food regularly, just the idea of thinking a food is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ can even make it more desirable! Viewing food in this way can also lead to an all or nothing mentality (what the hell, I’ve blown it anyway) which triggers binges.
How do I stop?
- Have regular meals and snacks to avoid letting yourself get over hungry.
- Eat satisfying meals. Choose what will satisfy you in the moment. Do you want something crunchy? Something warm? Or Spicy? Choosing a salad because it’s ‘healthy’ when in fact you felt like a spicy ramen will likely leave you feeling unsatisfied possibly adding to any feelings of deprivation.
- Eat mindfully. Mindfulness is being aware of what is present for you mentally, emotionally and physically in each moment. Eating without distraction can help you tune into your hunger and fullness signals. Mindfulness also helps us tune into our real needs that bingeing masks.
- Soothe emotions without food. There may be times you are more vulnerable to binge eating. At these times, or when you feel the urge to binge, use an alternative way to soothe yourself first. This could be calling a friend, progressive muscle relaxation, going for a walk, taking a bath or working on a hobby or craft.
- Get help. Binge eating disorder is a complex and serious mental illness. Recovery is possible. A specialist eating disorder psychologist and dietitian can support you through your journey to recovery.