Reviewed by Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Food is a universal need for survival and something that unifies people of different generations, cultures, and backgrounds. Often, meals are a way to nourish the body and a way for individuals to share their culture with others or express their desire to take care of one another. Recipes and family dishes can be taught and passed down generations as traditions. Local and seasonal ingredients are often used to create unique flavors that then establish a regional distinction. Restrictions to cuisine can reflect religious beliefs and customs.
It's no wonder then that the relationships individuals share with food are fairly complex and sometimes complicated.
Though the food's main and primary purpose is to nourish the body, the emotional response and physical effects experienced after eating can become highly addictive. In times of duress or discomfort, food can provide comfort or familiarity. Those who are homesick or under the weather may crave the intentional cooking of someone they love. When someone feels anxious or unmotivated, they may crave treats or guilty pleasures and view them as rewards or motivational devices.
Eating is necessary and primary behavior but instinctual, especially when the body is experiencing stress—when hungry, eating when will provide relief. As a result, eating to cope with discomfort may become a conditioned response when seeking solace or relief regardless of one's hunger. Overeating regularly is a sign that binge eating disorder has developed in an individual and should be addressed carefully and seriously.
What Is Binge Eating Disorder?
Binge eating disorder is a type of eating disorder in which an individual consumes large amounts of food at a given time. The quantity of food consumed during a binging episode can be extremely large and eaten quickly that discomfort is experienced.
This is not to say that this disorder should be simplified or thought of as "overeating." Many people who struggle with this disorder cannot stop engaging in their behaviors despite being aware of the severe repercussions. They often feel out of control during an episode. They may even be disconnected from the reality of what is happening in those moments, driving them to consume more due to their inability to consciously stop their behavior. There are instances where they might not even recall what they've eaten. Those who partake in binge eating may even go as so far as to adopt other harmful behaviors to compensate for their episodes. Left unaddressed and untreated, BED can be severely detrimental and life-threatening.
Aside from the gastrointestinal distress experienced after binge-eating, the long-term consequences on an individual's physical health can include diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more serious diseases or conditions that may develop as a result of overconsumption.
Those who binge are also more prone to struggle with their self-esteem, an unhealthy sense of body image, and mental health issues such as depression and feelings of extreme hopelessness or worthlessness. Mental health issues can be the triggers to binge eating as anxiety and depression may drive a person to seek comfort through food. Feelings of guilt and shame for binge eating can perpetuate a recurring cycle of cause and effect, contributing to existing mental health conditions' already underlying symptoms. It is thus important to get binge eating under control and address the causes that lead one to binge eat and the effects of an episode, as sometimes the binge eating is a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.
Symptoms Of Binge Eating Disorder
Though binge eating disorder is one of the newest eating disorders formally recognized in the DSM-5, the National Eating Disorder Association reports that it is now one of the most common eating disorders among those who struggle with food, being up to three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. Being mindful of and spotting behaviors that indicate a binge eating disorder can help create awareness to begin addressing and breaking out of a recurring cycle.
Those who binge eat typically will do the following:
- Eat large quantities of food despite not having an appetite or feeling physical hunger.
- Eat well past the point of feeling full, often to the point that they may feel ill.
- Eat much more rapidly than they would normally.
- Eating in insolation due to the embarrassment of how much they are consuming and having a desire to hide their eating habits.
- Experience feelings of shame, guilt, or disgust towards oneself along with depressive episodes
- Experience recurring events of binge eating, even going so far as to binge eat once a week or more often for long stretches of time.
It's important to note that binge eating disorder must meet certain conditions such as frequency--for a person to be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, they must exhibit a combination of the above symptoms and engage in binging at least once a week for three months or longer. The more frequent the binging, the higher the severity of the disorder.
Binge eating disorder should not be confused with other eating disorders, as binging can be a characteristic of other eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa. A person who binges will attempt to get rid of the food they have consumed. Those with anorexia may also experience periods of binging due to hunger in which they will then punish themselves after eating by extremely limiting their food consumption to compensate. Those experiencing binge eating disorder will not attempt to physically purge or starve themselves between episodes.
Signs Of A Developing Or Existing Binge Eating Disorder
In addition to the symptoms listed above, the Mayo Clinic reports that the following behavioral signs can also be exhibited if an individual is developing or has a binge eating disorder:
- Irregular eating behaviors that entail disruptions to normal meals such as eating throughout the day, skipping meals, or only eating small servings during a regular meal
- Attempting to maintain fasting schedules as to prioritize and plan around binging sessions
- Spending less time with or around family members and friends, either to binge or due to altered mood and issues with self-perception
- Displaying discomfort when eating in public or in the presence of others
- Adopting habits or developing rules to exhibit control when eating
- for example: eating only particular food groups such as carbs, sugar, or dairy, not allowing foods to touch on a plate, excessively chewing food
- Frequently trying out new diets or participating in dieting trends, leading to increased binging as a result of hunger
- Showing extreme concern or an obsession regarding personal body image and weight
- Constantly checking appearance, criticizing physical flaws or weight gain
- Evidence of significant decreases in food supplies
- this might be shown by an increase in empty containers or lots of empty food wrappers either in the trash or hidden somewhere in the home
- Evidence of stealing, storing, or hoarding food
- secret stashes of food in strange places may be created for an individual to binge eat later in secret
- an individual may go so far as to steal food from a roommate or from the kitchen and deny it. Others have reported even taking food from the trash after a meal to eat later
- Having trouble focusing or concentrating
- Fluctuating weight gain and weight loss
- Experiencing gastrointestinal trouble such as stomach pain, cramps, constipation, or acid reflux
As you can see, binge eating disorder can be extremely concerning and exhausting. Someone who is binge eating repeatedly can suffer emotionally, physically, psychologically, socially, and financially if they cannot break out of the cycle or away from their disorder. After a while, they may no longer be able to associate food with hunger or recognize signs of fullness as food becomes a means of coping or escaping rather than a tool for survival.
What Happens if A Binge Eating Disorder Continues? What Are the Consequences?
Consuming food is necessary to sustain every organ system in the body. In severe cases where an eating disorder is unaddressed, a person's physical and mental health will begin to weaken from the serious health effects of improper nutrition.
These are some of the more common and serious health consequences that may occur due to binge eating disorders:
- Troubles with digestion, including heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome
- Stomach ruptures due to abnormally large quantities of food being eaten at one time, creating a life-threatening emergency and requiring immediate medical attention
- Malnutrition that can cause inflammation of the pancreas and severe abdominal pain
- Development of type 2 diabetes due to the body's inability to regulate blood sugar
- in severe cases, type 2 diabetes will also lead to damage of the kidneys, eyes, and the heart
- Development of gallbladder disease due to obesity, increased cholesterol, and fluctuating weight.
- Development of or increased trouble with mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety
Ways To Prevent Binge Eating
Establishing a positive relationship with food and reframing the act of eating is necessary to get a binge eating disorder under control. This type of disorder can be complicated and hard to address as many people have different experiences and relationships with food. Some people may benefit by working with a nutritional coach or counselor who will help them better understand food and its benefits to establish healthier eating habits and lose weight. Others may need additional help from therapists to address underlying mental health disorders that drive them to binge eat as a coping mechanism to suppress negative emotions.
No matter the situation, recognizing that you need help is the first step. Binge eating disorder can be extremely difficult to address and get under control, and you don't have to do it alone. If you believe that binge eating is negatively impacting your life and are interesting in resolving it, you can take your first step with Mind Diagnostics and take the following test:
It's important to remember that you have the right to enjoy your life and nourish your body. Learning to be patient with yourself and changing your behavior will take time and grace. Asking for help to overcome your eating disorder is the first step towards a more positive future and your well-being.