Do you sometimes feel like you can’t control what you eat? Do you sometimes feel that you can’t stop eating? Or do you sometimes eat to punish yourself or others?
If so, you may be binge eating, or even have developed binge eating disorder.
What is Binge Eating?
It might be easier to define first what it’s not. It’s not normal overeating like most of us do at celebrations and festive occasions. It’s not a once-in-a-while indulgence in a pint of ice cream in front of a rom-com on TV. And it’s not even the overeating that many people struggle with, thanks to highly processed “foods” that are carefully optimized with sugar, salt and fat to make us eat more of them.
Binge eating is something different, characterized by very specific behaviors.
Do You Have Binge Eating Disorder?
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you lose control over how much you eat?
- Are you distressed and disturbed by binge eating?
- Do you binge eat at least once a week?
If you answered these questions with “Yes,” you may want to go ahead and ask yourself:
- When bingeing, do you eat more rapidly than you normally would during that same time (for example, a 2-hour period)?
- Do you eat until you are uncomfortably or painfully full?
- Do you eat a lot of food when you’re not physically hungry?
- Do you eat alone or in secret because you’re embarrassed or ashamed of how much you eat?
- Do you feel disgusted, guilty or depressed after you’ve overeaten?
If you answered “Yes” to 3 or more of this second set of questions, you may have what DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, defines as binge eating disorder. And you’re not alone. About 3.5% of women struggle with binge eating, as do 2% of men and 1.6% of adolescents.
What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?
There are 3 significant causes of binge eating disorder:
Your hypothalamus, which is a part of your brain that controls appetite, may not be able to tell whether you’re hungry or satiated. You may not produce adequate amounts of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes your mood. And you may have a genetic mutation that appears to play a role in compulsive overeating. But biology isn’t destiny…
When parents use food to comfort, reward, or dismiss their children, they create enormously unhealthy associations between the use of food and eating to manage emotion. This is a separate topic entirely, but suffice it to say that binge eating is the use of food to manage emotion, especially unpleasant emotions. Food won’t fire you, lie to you, cheat on you, or abuse you in any way. Food won’t mock you. Unfortunately, the relief provided by binge eating is only temporary, followed by feelings of guilt because you know that you are ultimately hurting your body and your health.
Emotional issues are compounded by the intense and unrealistic pressure we face to be conventionally attractive. A common trigger for binge eating disorder is restrictive, severe dieting in an attempt to meet those unrealistic expectations, even if the person is eating “healthy.” You can eat so healthy, it’s unhealthy for you. Sometimes we just need to eat things because we enjoy them, regardless of whether they’re “good” for us.
Is Binge Eating an Addictive Behavior?
The food industry hates this question, even though they have spent huge amounts of money to develop foods that produce neurochemical responses that are virtually identical to addiction. Salt, sugar and fat are very carefully used to make us eat tremendous amounts, such as a whole bag of chips, without noticing. Even though a mini-bag of chips does just fine. Why? Because you lose the ability to appreciate their taste after the first few bites.
And sugar is truly addictive. Sugar triggers the same receptors inside our brains that cocaine does. In fact, rats in laboratory studies tend to prefer sweet rewards, such as sugar, to cocaine. And the more sugar you eat, the more you must eat to enjoy it the same. Trying to reduce the sugar in your diet can lead to acute cravings—or withdrawal symptoms, a classic sign of addiction.
Overcoming Binge Eating Disorder
The first thing you have to do is love yourself and love your body enough to be willing to understand why you are binge eating, then develop a healthier relationship with food and your body. This is easier said than done for many people. If you feel overwhelmed, please seek professional help. If you just need some motivation to help you through, then here are some of our best tips.
The following are tried-and-tested steps to overcome binge eating.
- Keep a Food Diary. It can help you understand not only what and how often you’re eating, but also why you’re eating. Use it to understand what triggers your binges.
- Don’t “Diet”. Dieting is are about restriction and deprivation, and it frequently does significant harm to your body and psyche. Instead, eat nourishing foods, in nourishing portions that satisfy you, not stuff you. And make sure to allow yourself your favorite treats—if not every day, then at least once in a while.
- Feed Yourself. Three healthy meals composed of high-fiber vegetables and fruit, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, every day. Between meals, have healthy snacks. Eat scheduled meals and snacks on time, because you are much more likely to binge when you’re hungry.
- Avoid Temptation. Remove your favorite binge foods from your home, car and workplace. How to reconcile this with “Don’t diet?” After due consideration, you may decide you have to cut ice cream entirely out of your life—but rich dark chocolate doesn’t push the same buttons in your head. So enjoy that. Alternatively, keeping ice cream at home may be impossible—but going out and enjoying some at a restaurant doesn’t create problems. Enjoy that, too.
- Sugar is a Drug. This is probably the key to avoiding both deprivation and temptation. Sugar and refined carbs flip very specific neurobiological switches in your body. Sharply limiting your intake of them may be extremely helpful to you.
- Control Your Stress. This means, get enough sleep and exercise. Meditation, yoga and breathing exercises are also excellent ways to manage stress. It is enormously important to be able to face painful emotions without using food. If you are dealing with significant trauma, you may need to seek professional help.
- Get enough Sleep. Most adults need 8 to 9 hours a night. Remove electronics from your bedroom and don’t use them for about an hour before going to bed. Sleep helps you cope with stress and stabilizes your energy levels so you’re not turning to sugar and refined carbs for a hit of energy.
- Get Enough Exercise. You should be doing at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, and you should feel good about doing it. Exercise doesn’t just help you control your stress, it helps you appreciate your body’s strength and stamina and beauty.
- Get a Hobby. If you find yourself eating out of boredom, you need to develop a hobby. It can be as simple as taking walks with friends, gardening, knitting or reading. Find ways to entertain and amuse yourself that do not involve food—and that includes laughing at the food advertising on TV. Often, diverting yourself from eating for just a few minutes can derail a binge.
- Get Support. If you suffer from binge eating, it’s very important not to try to go it alone. It is an addictive behavior, and just like any other addiction, you benefit from drawing on the strength of others. Your local chapter of OA (Overeaters Anonymous) may be extremely helpful to you. In particular, they may be able to refer you to qualified local therapists.
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