Updated: Sep 28
Binge Eating Disorder
There are an estimated 3 million Americans who suffer from binge eating disorder—three times the number of cases of anorexia and bulimia combined. BED affects about one in thirty-five adults in the US, according to a 2007 Harvard study. Unlike other eating disorders, it affects almost as many men as women and is seen across all ethnic groups. About 20 percent of people with BED are of normal weight, and about 65 percent are obese. However, BED was first recognized as an eating disorder in the DSM-5 (the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association), in 2013.
Fat-shaming contributes to the lack of recognition of BED.
Most of us know what it’s like to overeat if we’ve ever had Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Or, eating at your local Golden Coral or Seafood Buffet. However, binge eating also involves severe emotional distress and a frequency of at least once weekly over a three-month period, although this can lessen during recovery.
Emotion—not hunger—drives the binge. The binge can last about two hours. Binge eaters feel out of control about how much and what they eat. Binge eaters eat food when they are not hungry, eat faster than normal, and past the point of fullness. They often hide food and consume food alone due to shame and embarrassment. After a binge, they feel disgusted, depressed, and ashamed. One in three Americans is overweight, but not all have BED. Overeaters may feel uncomfortably full and slightly guilty after consumption, but they enjoy eating and feel content with the taste of the food.
BED is caused by a combination of factors, including cultural and media influences, biology, personality, and early childhood experiences. At its root, BED—similar to other addictions—is about using food to numb pain. Food becomes a drug, which is why binge eaters are compared to alcoholics and drug addicts more often than anorexics. Like other addicts, binge eaters can’t cope with emotional distress in a healthy way. This distress is a combination of current stress, previous childhood experience, and a learned dysfunctional emotional pattern of suppressing feelings.
The mechanism of using food to cope typically happens at a subconscious level. A binge eater doesn’t often come into my office and say, “I’m really hurt because my father neglected me so I binge.” Instead, they talk about wanting to lose weight and getting angry with themselves for not having willpower. I often ask, “What percentage of the day do you think about food?” For people with BED, that number is usually around 80 to 90 percent, which is a signal that there’s deeper pain to unearth.
Underneath this pain there is often a deep-seated self-hatred. For instance, I coached a BED client who also struggled with childhood emotional neglect and she suffered from depression, anxiety, and self-esteem issues. She was angry that she couldn’t overcome one-sided relationships. As a child she was left to take care of her sibling while her mom worked and spent her off days with different men. She tend to get swallowed up in relationships and seeking approval and validation by performing for love. As a young girl, she had always felt that she was a disappointment to her single mom, who often lost patience with her. She never felt that she fit in socially. She always felt like she was different, and something was missing from her life. Her relationship with her mom was nonexistent as she always found herself taking care of her after breakups due to her not being able to cope when rejected by men. The only communication was during those episodes of nurturing her mom back to health while listening to her make promises about finding a man to take care of them so they wouldn't have to worry about money. As a part of her wellness plan, we worked on her on money blocks, seeing herself through a more compassionate lens, developing her social skills, dealing with her emotional eating, anxiety, low mood, and finding purpose in her work. We discuss lesson that gave her clarity about emotional abandonment and childhood emotional neglect. Eventually she grew to love herself, and this transformation helped her to stop neglecting her on needs and stop bingeing.
Understanding that BED has a biological component helps people reduce the heavy self-blame they often carry. BED tends to run in families, and research suggests that people with BED have a blunted response to dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved in many cognitive and behavioral effects, including the feelings of pleasure we get from food.
According to neurologist Jay Lombard, “Similar to drug addicts, binge behavior resembles addictive behavior linked to the reduced dopamine activity, which affects food intake amounts, satiety, and food choices.” This means that binge eaters may have difficulty with impulse control, including controlling food cravings; may experience increased pleasure with food; and may not receive correct messages of hunger and fullness from the brain.
Evidence indicates that BED is due to a combination of learned behaviors and biological factors, but as we know through the emerging field of epigenetics, our biology does not necessarily determine our destiny. BED can be overcome with psychological intervention, medication if necessary, and coaching from folks like me that have gone through the BED experience and is in Full remission supporting others.
The first step in healing is understanding that they are using food as a drug and making a commitment to change. With my clients, I introduce the concept of self acceptance—compassionately accepting the situation for what it is without resistance or judgment. It’s the balance between acceptance and change—accepting that they have an addiction and making a commitment to change and recover.
Coping Mechanisms When they feel the urge to binge, we find other coping mechanisms to quell that urge. This might include mindful breathing, taking a walk, or even throwing rolled-up socks against the wall. Exercise is often a highly effective antidepressant. In my own experience I use building my Avon business as a way to cope. I kept a box with 100 Avon brochures and supplies I would need to sign, stamp, package, and get ready to toss into my community or drop off at partners businesses. This was a great way to stop urges, stay business, and get my mind off what ever I was stressing about. Journaling writing and expressive art was also tools I used along with the HALT concept Asking myself am I hunger, anger, lonely, or tired.
Mindfulness I encourage them to become mindful of their thoughts, which may have been buried by years of bingeing. So often, we do not notice the constant stream of negative thoughts going through our minds. Understanding how thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected is critical. For instance, “I hate my life” leads to feelings of sadness, which lead to bingeing. Changing thoughts creates behavioral change. Our inner world can dramatically shift our outer lives. I found reading Lousie Hay You Can Heal Your Life as a great way to stop doubt and negative thinking.
Relationship with Food As a nutritionist, wellness behavioral health coach, and intuitive spiritual counselor we work on food education, changing eating habits, mindful eating, and redeveloping a relationship with food.
Spiritual Counseling and Life Coaching In addition to processing any current and childhood pain, we work on life goals that range from developing better communication skills to a career change—anything and everything to bring them into the vision of the life they want. Maintaining a healthy relationship with food involves maintaining a healthy emotional relationship with yourself and your world. Food cannot be used as a substitute for feelings.
The National Eating Disorders Association is the largest nonprofit dedicated to supporting people affected by eating disorders. It has a help line to call, text, or chat for support. It also offers an abundance of resources on where to get help in your area, as well as access to educational material, legislative advocacy, and charitable organizations. If you're ready to overcome self neglect, emotional eating, codependency, and embrace self care as a lifestyle, and require additional support, schedule a Clarity Session with me now by going to the contact page and sending a message explaining your story and what you need support with. Together we can partner on your journey and to clear up emotional blocks and understand your emotional wounds, and start dealing with your unhealthy eating habits by prioritize your self care and wellness goals.
P.S. Note that according to the National Eating Disorders Association, up to half of all people with eating disorders also use alcohol or drugs. Up to 35% of all people with substance use disorders (SUD) also have eating disorders (ED). To learn more regarding this issue take a look at the article written by Elena Hill, MD, MPH.