Binge eating disorder

Last updated on 19th December, 2012

A binge eating disorder is when a person regularly consumes excessive amounts of food. These habitual eating sprees are usually followed by feelings of guilt or disgust.  

Often, a binge eater will eat even when they are not hungry. They may also eat very quickly and prefer to eat their food alone. These eating binges can be both planned and spontaneous.

Binge eaters have been known to habitually eat one type of food more often than other types, depending on personal preference. Binge eaters tend to choose unhealthy, fatty, sugary or processed products. This often means binge eaters put on a lot of weight and end up becoming obese (although this will depend on the individual’s metabolic rate and how often they binge).

Binge eaters often feel that they have no control over what they eat. They tend to feel a strong and destructive sense of guilt afterwards. 

Causes of binge eating disorders

Binge eating disorders can be indicative of underlying psychological problems. Possible psychological problems include:

  • Depression - It is unclear whether depression is a cause of binge eating disorder, or if it is an effect caused by the act of binge eating. Results show that 50% of people who binge eat have suffered from depression at some point in their lives. 
  • Stress and anxiety - Particularly stressful events such as moving house, changing job, illness, relationship troubles or the death of a loved one are thought to trigger binge eating disorders. People under stress can feel a compulsion to eat a vast amount of food with the idea that it might make them feel better, or that they simply no longer care. This lack of control in relation to food can often reflect the lack of control in the rest of the sufferer’s life.

Research suggests that there are other possible factors that could cause a person to binge eat on a regular basis.These include:

  • Anger - One study shows a correlation between anger suppression and binge eating in women. 
  • Sadness - Some binge eaters may find that eating helps to distract from feelings of sadness. Thinking of appealing foods to buy and eat can sometimes offer a respite from feelings of grief or loss.
  • Low self-esteem - Many people feel unhappy about how they look or what other people think about them. This lack of confidence can often lead to a feeling of resignation - if you feel worthless then you are probably more likely to ignore guilt pangs and overload on bad foods for comfort. 
  • Worry - People who feel nervous may find the act of eating soothing or distracting.
  • Boredom - Occasionally people will eat a large amount of food when they have nothing else to do, or feel lonely. 

People who have eating disorders have been found to display other specific behaviours. If you think you have an eating disorder, you can ask yourself whether you recognise any of the following behaviours:

  • Do you binge drink? The inability to control food consumption can extend to other areas of life- especially when it comes to drinking alcohol excessively.  
  • Are you impulsive? Binge eaters tend to act brashly before considering the possible consequences of their actions. This impulsive nature is reflected in their lack of willpower.
  • Do you find it difficult to express emotions? People with binge eating disorders can sometimes find it difficult to talk about their feelings and emotions, preferring to bottle them up inside instead.
  • Do you feel like you don’t hold responsibility for your actions? Binge eaters tend not to feel responsible for themselves or for their actions. This allows them to justify their eating habits and reduce feelings of guilt. 

It is thought that one possible reason why people binge eat is, paradoxically, because they are trying to lose weight. There is a lot of social pressure to look a certain way and be a certain weight. This pressure can lead to some people feeling inadequate or guilty about their appearance. If you are trying to lose weight, you are more likely to skip meals, not consume enough food each day and avoid certain foods. By cutting out things you really enjoy, you develop cravings and temptations that can result in a binge. 

Diagnosing a binge eating disorder

If you feel like you might have a binge eating problem, it is advisable to visit your GP. A GP will officially diagnose your problem and possibly refer you to a specialist. The specialist support can be in the form of psychiatric help, psychological assessment, or dietary advice. During your initial appointment, your GP may ask you a number of questions.

It may be helpful to keep a diary documenting what you eat, how often and how much. The more the GP knows about your eating habits, the more accurately they can diagnose you, and the more effectively they can treat you. You may wish to prepare for the following questions:

  • Do you tend to eat faster during a binge?
  • Do you eat until you feel uncomfortably full?
  • Do you eat even when you are not hungry?
  • Do you prefer to eat alone because you feel ashamed of the amount you eat?
  • Do you feel guilt or disgust after you binge eat? 

Effects of binge eating disorder

Binge eating often leads to weight gain. If you gain too much weight, you raise the risk of developing a number of serious conditions and diseases, including:

  • High cholesterol - Excessive consumption of fatty products increases the likelihood of fatty deposits (cholesterol) building up in the arteries.
  • High blood pressure - Otherwise known as hypertension, high blood pressure can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Asthma - Lung airways become inflamed and breathing becomes difficult.
  • Diabetes - Too much glucose in the bloodstream.
  • Chronic back pain - Can be caused by strain of excessive weight.
  • Heart disease - Caused by arterial blockages that can result in heart attack or stroke.
  • Osteoarthritis - Where joints swell up painfully.

As well as physical effects, binge eating can also have distressing psychological effects. People who binge eat can feel powerless and out of control. They often find it difficult to understand why they can’t resist temptation like other people can. This leads to an exhausting cycle where a person will binge, feel guilty and repulsed by themselves, refrain from eating and then binge again. A binge eater will often blame themselves for their inability to break this cycle. This can lower self-esteem, self-confidence and make a sufferer feel worthless. These destructive feelings can in some cases lead to depression, stress and anxiety.

In other cases, constantly thinking about food or feeling guilty about eating can result in a lack of concentration. Binge eaters often seem distracted or preoccupied with their thoughts.

Living with a binge eating disorder

Many people with binge eating disorders do not seek help. This can either be because they don’t realise they have one, or because they are ashamed of admitting to their problem.

Binge eaters often feel disgusted by themselves and their unusual eating habits, meaning that they are likely to want to keep them a secret.

If you suffer from a binge eating disorder, you may feel like the cycle is impossible to break out of.

The important thing to remember is that it isn’t. If you let your GP know, you will be offered specialist (and confidential) healthcare to guide and support you through your problems.

Possible courses of treatment include: 

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy - There is a special form of cognitive behavioural therapy designed especially for people with binge eating disorders. The therapy involves talking to an expert about ways of dealing with situations by changing the way you think or associate emotions with food.
  • Psychotherapy - A psychotherapist can help you to work out the route of your anxieties. They will also help you to realise your strengths as well as your weaknesses.
  • Dialectical behavioural therapy - There is a special form of dialectical behavioural therapy designed especially for people with binge eating disorders. This form of therapy has been used to effectively treat other mental health disorders such as borderline personality disorder.

Occasionally people with binge eating disorders will be prescribed drugs known as Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs boost levels of a natural substance known as serotonin. Serotonin lifts the mood and reduces the need to binge eat. There are a number of side-effects such a diarrhoea, insomnia, low sex drive, sweating etc., and the long-term effects of SSRIs remain unknown. 

Regular exercise can help to reduce excess weight. If you burn calories faster than you consume them, then you will lose or maintain your weight. Recommended forms of exercise include swimming, cycling and brisk walking. Cycling and swimming are in particular great for people with joint, bone or back problems as they both involve minimal impact. Brisk walking can be incorporated into everyday activities and burns calories quickly. 

It is advisable to consult your GP before choosing your course of treatment. 

How can a nutritionist help with a binge eating disorder?

It is widely believed that eating disorders are, in most cases, caused by underlying psychological problems. These problems can be acknowledged and addressed by a therapist. The connection with food, however, can usually be addressed by a qualified nutritionist.

Nutritionists are trained to impart nutritional advice unique to individual requirements. Consulting a nutritionist can help you to develop an interest in the nutritional value of certain foods. They will show you that taking time to choose, prepare and understand your meals, could help you to channel your binge eating habits. Talking to a nutritionist is often more beneficial than trying to tackle the problem alone. As a binge eater, you will already know that resisting unhealthy foods can be incredibly difficult- especially when you are caught off guard during stressful situations.

A nutritionist will devise a personal programme to wean you off your old habits gradually.

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