What is binge eating?
All human beings need to eat to stay alive and well. And most people want to eat because they enjoy it. In fact, sometimes we may eat too much of something we like very much, or if we're busy, we may even forget to eat once in a while. But for most of us, eating is just a normal part of everyday life.
That's not the case for everyone. In fact, millions of people in the United States today have what are called eating disorders. They eat too little or too much—or some combination of the two. The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa
, bulimia nervosa
, and binge-eating disorder.
Binge-eating disorder—also known as compulsive
overeating—affects about two million Americans. Both men and women develop the disorder, although it's a bit more common in women. Like a person who has bulimia, a binge eater consumes huge amounts of food. She may eat three meals a day, along with many snacks. Or she may overeat all day long. But a binge eater does not purge (make herself vomit) when she is stuffed. Instead, her binges are followed by intense feelings of guilt and shame. back to top
Are binge eaters overweight?
The majority of binge eaters are overweight. Some may be just a little bit overweight. Some may be extremely overweight, or obese. Researchers have found that up to 40 percent of people who are obese may be binge eaters. Many binge eaters are born with bodies that don't quite measure up to the ideal in our culture. In other words, no matter how hard they try to lose weight, they will never look like models. But they may still try to get close to that ideal—so they diet all the time. That makes them extremely hungry, which then leads them to binge. It's a vicious cycle that's hard to break.
Binge eaters usually prefer to eat foods that are high in calories, and especially high in fat. Pizza, ice cream, cake, cookies, and candy are some of a binge eater's favorite foods. She may eat as much as 10,000 calories in an hour or two.
But, like other eating disorders, binge eating is not really about food or weight. It is a way to cope with the stresses of everyday life and with deeper emotional problems. Feelings of anger, depression, rejection, failure, or even boredom can cause people to binge. Some binge eaters use food to comfort themselves, to avoid threatening situations, and to run away from emotional pain. back to top
I eat too much sometimes. Do I have a binge-eating disorder?
If you splurge now and then on a hot fudge sundae or even if you occasionally eat a large box of popcorn by yourself at the movies, you probably don't have a binge-eating disorder. But if you binge at least a couple of times a week—and if this pattern has been going on for at least six months—then you may need to worry. See how many of the following statements ring true for you. If you find that more than two or three are true for you, you could be suffering from a binge-eating disorder.
What causes binge eating?
- I eat when I am not hungry.
- I eat until I feel extremely uncomfortable, not just full.
- I eat a lot—and often.
- I snack and nibble all day long.
- I feel out of control and can't stop eating.
- I eat very fast.
- I prefer to eat alone.
- I keep my eating habits a secret from family and friends.
- I always seem to be dieting—and breaking my diet.
- My weight goes up and down by more than a few pounds.
- I feel disgusted, depressed, and guilty after I eat a lot. back to top
No one knows for sure what causes a binge-eating disorder. But scientists have noticed that about half of all people with the disorder suffer from depression
. Many binge eaters also suffer from anxiety and panic disorders
. What scientists still can't figure out is whether these problems cause bingeing, or bingeing causes these problems.
Scientists are also looking into how certain brain chemicals and metabolism
affect binge-eating disorder. back to top
What does binge eating do to my body?
Binge eating does not cause quite as much immediate physical damage to your body as anorexia and bulimia. But because binge eaters gain and lose a lot of weight, they may experience certain kinds of physical problems. If not treated, these problems can become serious—and even life-threatening. Here are some of these problems:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- gallbladder disease
- heart disease
- certain types of cancer
Of course, binge eating also affects your mind. Because our society puts so much value on being thin, carrying extra weight may lower your self-esteem and make you feel isolated from other people. back to top
What is the treatment for binge eating?
Dieting is not an effective treatment for binge eating. In fact, dieting almost always makes matters worse. That's because it doesn't get to the root of the emotional problems that cause people to binge.
The two best treatments for binge-eating disorder are cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy
. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you change your negative attitudes about your body and your troubled attitudes about eating and food. You will learn healthier eating habits, such as eating three meals a day and having small amounts of foods you once considered forbidden or even sinful. You will also learn to identify what situations, thoughts, and feelings trigger your binge eating.
Interpersonal therapy helps you understand the connection between your bad moods and your binge eating. Talking about your emotional difficulties with a trained mental health professional can help build your self-esteem and lift your spirits. And as these things improve, so will your eating habits.
Along with therapy, you may want to talk with a nutritionist. He or she will help you create a realistic, safe eating plan. Once you are able to stop bingeing and eat regularly, you can start controlling your weight. It's important not to rush this part of your treatment. It's also important to have realistic goals about how much weight to lose. Trying to shed too much weight can put you back on that binge-eating roller coaster. back to top
Tips for binge eaters
- Eat regularly. Don't let yourself get too hungry.
- Allow yourself to eat foods that you really want, even if they have more fat and calories than you feel like you "should" eat.
- Do things that give you pleasure. Spend time with friends. Develop your talents and interests. Take time to have fun. Go outside, play some music, watch a funny movie.
- At several points during the day, stop what you are doing and ask yourself how you are feeling. If you are feeling stressed or angry or sad, talk with a friend or do something else that will keep you away from the kitchen.
- Stay away from all-you-can-eat restaurants. If chocolate cake is one of your binge foods, try not to keep it in the house. Instead, when you really crave a piece of cake, go to a restaurant and order a single portion.
- If you feel the urge to binge, wait 30 minutes. During that time, try to figure out what may be upsetting you. Make a list of things you could do instead of bingeing.
- Remind yourself that you have a lot of choices and that you can take responsibility for your own life. back to top