Even the most disciplined of us occasionally overeats, helping ourselves to seconds or even third portions, especially on holidays or at parties. This is not a binge eating disorder. It becomes a disorder when the bingeing occurs regularly and is accompanied by shame and secrecy. The binger is deeply embarrassed about overeating and vows never to do it again. However the compulsion is so strong that subsequent urges to gorge themselves cannot be resisted.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by several behavioral and emotional signs:
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating occurring at least once a week for three months
- Eating a larger amount of food than normal during a short time frame (any two-hour period)
- Lack of control over eating during the binge episode (feeling you can’t stop eating or control what or how much you are eating)
- Binge eating episodes are associated with three or more of the following:
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
- Eating much more rapidly than normal
- Eating alone out of embarrassment over quantity eaten
- Feeling disgusted, depressed, ashamed, or guilty after overeating
In addition there is marked distress regarding binge eating present, it is not associated with frequent inappropriate behavior such as purging, excessive exercise, etc.
A person with binge eating disorder may crave sugar, experience stomach pain, find high or low temperatures difficult to bear, and have frequent headaches. The psychological characteristics include despair at being trapped in a binge/feelings of guilt/attempts at self-discipline cycle followed by more bingeing and more guilt. This cycle damages the individual’s self-esteem and is accompanied by self-blame which further damages self-esteem. The problems that may already exist or occur as a consequence include depression, panic attacks, lack of focus, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness.
There are many reasons people binge. Everyone uses food to meet needs other than hunger sometimes. It is not about an “event” of overeating. It is about a “pattern of behavior”. It’s also important to remember the relationship with food and eating behaviors are the symptoms of more profound underlying factors for most people with Binge Eating Disorder. Individuals with Binge Eating Disorder use food to:
- Reward themselves
- Avoid a stressful issue or problem
- Sooth anxiety, fear, shame, grief, and loneliness
- Express anger or frustration
- Rebel from dieting, from other’s needs, from the “rules”
- Distract from feelings, people, and feared situations or stressors
- Distract from disturbing memories of traumatic experiences
While the exact causes are unknown, several factors are thought to play a part in binge eating disorder. The combination of causes and risk factors varies from person to person. Possible factors include genetics, a history of significant weight changes due to dieting or restrictive /irregular eating patterns, depression, mood disorders, weight related discrimination or bullying, problems with significant relationships, trauma and loss, emotional abuse or neglect, addictions, and sexual trauma.
People who are obese and also have binge eating disorder may be at greater risk for several potentially life-threatening complications, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, gallbladder disease, certain cancers, osteoarthritis, joint and muscle pain, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
The experience of living with binge eating disorder is as distressing as any other eating disorder and often accompanied by a belief that it is a willpower issue and they are simply not “strong enough” to stop. Within a diet and thin-focused culture, the focus has been on weight loss as the goal. This “treatment” is often promoted by well-intentioned friends, family, and professionals. But with binge eating, dieting is a causal factor in the development of binge eating disorder. So it’s essential for treatment to provide alternatives to dieting for improving health and body image. In fact, weight loss as a goal of treatment—as opposed to goals of improved self-care–can be damaging to the process of recovery.
For recovery to be lasting, people typically work with trained therapists, physicians, and others to address any underlying mood disorders, family dynamics, and complications from trauma. Ultimately, individuals must learn to treat themselves with the compassion and self-awareness needed for lasting recovery. Treatment is about helping people and their supporters begin this process successfully and knowing it will not be a perfect journey. There will be ups and downs. But over time and with proper treatment, those with binge eating disorder can find a much more peaceful relationship with food, their bodies, and themselves.
Bonnie Harken NCLC has been in the eating disorders treatment field since 1987. She was a founding officer of Remuda Ranch Centers for Anorexia and Bulimia. Since February 2002 she has served as the Managing Director of The International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation (iaedp). She has also served many major eating disorders treatment facilities as a consultant. She is the Founder and CEO of Crossroads Programs for Women in Pekin, IL. She is a Codependency Anonymous Group Facilitator, a Celebrate Recovery Trained Group Facilitator, and a Nationally Certified Life Coach through the Addictions Academy.
Crossroads Programs can help women struggling with eating issues. Call today for more information: 800-348-0937 or email me (All calls are confidential and there is no obligation.)
Reference Sources for this article: Binge Eating Disorder Association, DSM-V, and Medical News Today.com