Have you ever had those days where nothing you ate seemed satisfying? Sometimes we snack and eat without awareness of what we are doing, while on other occasions we are extremely attentive to what we are putting into our bodies. For many individuals, emotional eating can feel something like this:
“Mmmm I’m hungry. I was hungry for something and thought about the chips in the pantry. I almost ate the entire bag. Why did I do that? I’m not sure. I’m still hungry; ooh cookies. I’ll grab a couple, maybe a few more. Well, there’s only a few left, may as well finish off the box. Oh wow, I ate all of that? I can’t believe it — how did this happen?”
For someone with a diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder (BED) a similar monologue may sound disconcertingly familiar. The thoughts that occur before, during or after a binge can be overwhelming. If someone were to ask if you noticed what you were experiencing or feeling during that time frame, the response is often, “I don’t know.” What if the question was, “What are you hungry for?” In her book Hunger, A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay states, “…hunger is a natural state of being for most people. I mean, hunger is a desire—and you don’t only have physical hunger, you have emotional hunger.”
Emotional hunger is often confused with physical hunger and is even more difficult to satisfy, often resulting in emotional eating. Emotional eating is the practice of consuming food, usually “comfort” foods, in response to emotional needs instead of physical hunger. Emotional eating can be triggered when someone is both truly hungry and also is having difficulty managing emotions. Approximately 75% of overeating occurs in response to emotions.
While BED is not the same as emotional eating, the individual’s experience of “hunger” may be similar. Binge Eating Disorder is the most prevalent of the eating disorders and is characterized by:
- engaging in recurrent episodes of binge eating
- consuming large amounts of food even when not hungry
- eating until uncomfortably full
- experiencing a lack of control over eating, as though you cannot stop
Individuals are often embarrassed or ashamed of their eating behavior and will binge in secret or hide evidence of the binge. Overwhelming feelings of shame often result in a binge cycle—experience temporary relief while bingeing à feel badly again (both physically and emotionally) à Binge!
What causes an eating disorder?
BED may originate from psychological, physiological, socio-cultural, and/or environmental factors. An individual diagnosed with binge eating disorder may experience depression, anxiety or low self-esteem. They usually will have difficulty expressing or tolerating overwhelming emotions /or managing impulsive behaviors. Often, their thoughts confirm the negative opinions they have of themselves and they tend to be critical in their judgements of others and their behaviors. It is important to note that social pressures to be thin can also contribute to the shame binge eaters feel about their actual – as well as perceived – size, shape and weight. Additionally, research has suggested that there is a genetic component to the development of eating disorders.
Individual risk factors for developing BED are varied, but may include:
- Dieting – dissatisfaction with body shape and frequent dieting with hopes of looking like filtered images of themselves or an actress considered attractive
- Weight-cycling – losing and regaining weight over and over again
- Increased sensitivity – individuals that have been diagnosed with BED tend to be more sensitive to comments from others
- Trauma – a history of being bullied and/or abused may be a risk factor for bingeing to cope with emotions
- A history of food used as rewards or punishments
How can an expert help?
Although BED is the most common eating disorder, 57% of people never receive treatment. They may be reluctant to seek treatment because of the stigma associated with binge eating disorder. It is helpful to explore common misconceptions:
- “I’m disgusting. How could I let myself get to this point?”
- “I don’t have enough will power.”
- “If I could lose weight, everything would be better.”
- “You don’t have any self-control.”
The key to wellness is not as simple as stopping eating, treatment is recommended! An eating disorder expert will assist individuals diagnosed with binge eating disorder to understand what the cycle of their behaviors represents. Increased recognition of situations and feelings that trigger and maintain binge behaviors helps create opportunities for new, adaptive behaviors. Counseling focusing on increasing emotional awareness and helping individuals tolerate all emotions sets the stage for change. Treatment leads individuals to implement and practice new skills.
There are a number of treatment approaches used to treat binge eating disorder. At The Renfrew Center, we believe it is important to:
- Engage in both individual and family therapies
- Develop emotional tolerance
- Practice mindful and intuitive eating
- Address physical and nutritional health
- Embrace the concept of body acceptance
- Establish healthy boundaries
- Develop self-compassion
- Trust that recovery is possible