Sometimes we find ourselves craving our favourite foods when life feels challenging — reaching for the cookies for comfort when we’re sad, or cosying up with a big bowl of hot stew on a cold, rainy day, for example. Emotional eating is something we’ve all indulged in, usually without major consequence. However, sometimes overeating may develop into a distressing issue known as Binge eating Disorder, which can feel hugely overwhelming for the person trying to manage it.
Binge Eating Disorder (also known as BED) is defined as “… recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances, with episodes marked by feelings of lack of control. Someone with binge eating disorder may eat too quickly, even when he or she is not hungry. The person may have feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or disgust and may binge eat alone to hide the behavior. This disorder is associated with marked distress and occurs, on average, at least once a week over three months” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
BED usually interferes to some degree with the normal activities of a person’s daily life, work and social events. Binging episodes can become like rituals, where much time is spent thinking about, planning, and preparing for eating. Isolating and secrecy are common factors in facilitating the pattern.
The binge-diet cycle
Those struggling with BED may find themselves caught up in a binge-diet cycle that feels impossible to escape. The hunger and feelings of deprivation that accompany calorie restriction can eventually lead a person to binge: because the body has been denied sufficient food for so long, it will naturally crave large amounts of it. This is a basic human reflex: the body is trying to keep the dieter alive by preventing it from starving, and craving high-calorie foods containing large amounts of fat and sugar is the most efficient route to survival. An ‘all or nothing’ mentality also perpetuates this vicious binge-restrict cycle: ‘I’ve broken my diet by eating that chocolate, so I may as well eat the rest of the chocolate in the house (as well as the ice-cream and biscuits), then I’ll start my diet again tomorrow/on Monday/next week…’ And the cycle continues.
The physical health effects of BED can include cardiovascular problems, joint or muscular pain, problematic skin, headaches, hypertension, diabetes and weight gain. Some people living with BED manage to stay avoid weight gain by compensating for their excessive eating with the aforementioned periods of calorie restriction. The psychological effects of BED can include feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness, guilt, shame, anxiety, depression and its related symptoms, and low self-esteem which is compounded by dissatisfaction with body shape and feeling out of control of life.
Therapy can provide a safe environment for identifying external binge triggers (for example, the smell of freshly baked cookies, enticing food advertisements, the presence of a specific person or being in a particular environment). But it is vital to understand that binge eating is less about taste, nutrition or filling one’s stomach, and more about filling an emotional need. Binging can represent an attempt to soothe inner pain, care for ourselves when we believe that no one else cares for us, or numb out from life. Food can serve as powerful temporary relief when we’re experiencing sadness, anxiety, frustration, or even “positive” emotions, such as excitement or anticipation.
The emotional distress underlying BED can be rooted in past trauma, difficult relationships, life circumstances or low self-worth. A therapist can help to work through these experiences, and to unpack the more complex internal binge triggers, such as irrational thoughts and beliefs. The therapy room can provide a space in which to challenge unhelpful behaviours, to instigate real change and healing. Therapy can help to explore new ways of coping with and regulating emotions — because more often than not, bingeing is only the tip of the iceberg.