Binge Eating Disorder

What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is an illness which resembles bulimia nervosa. Like bulimics, binge eaters have episodes of uncontrolled or compulsive eating or bingeing. During such episodes, binge eaters consume large quantities of food in a short time (usually less than 2 hours) without having the willpower to stop.

Binge or compulsive eating, may be decsribed as a way of managing anxiety through the use of food. It often occurs in secret.

Unlike bulimics, people with binge eating disorder do not usually resort to purging behavior to rid their bodies of food and calories. They eat and eat without worrying about getting rid of the food consumed. Therefore many people with binge eating disorder are seriously overweight (obese) and have a history of weight problems and weight fluctuations. Binge eaters consume large quantities of food and do not stop until they are uncomfortably full. They are aware that they lack control over their excessive eating and feel powerless to change. Binge eaters can’t stop eating even though they hate what it is doing to them. Typically, they have more difficulty losing weight and keeping it off than do other obese people.

Who suffers from binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is probably the most common eating disorder of all. Most people with binge eating disorder are obese (20 percent above a healthy body weight), but normal-weight people are also affected. Binge eating disorder is estimated to affect 2 percent of all adults, or about 1 million to 2 million Americans. Recent research indicates that nearly 1 in 3 people participating in medically supervised eating disorder programs suffer from binge eating. Obese people with binge eating disorder often became overweight at a younger age than those without the disorder. They also may have more frequent episodes of losing and regaining weight (yo-yo dieting).

Causes of binge eating disorder

As with Anorexia and Bulimia, the causes of binge eating disorder are still unknown, although it is viewed by most experts as having psychological roots. It is known that up to 50 per cent of binge eating disorder sufferers have a history of depression, although this may be both a cause and/or a consequence of binge eating. Episodes of binge eating are frequently triggered by emotional feelings or reactions, and impulsive behavior patterns appear to be more common in people with binge eating disorder. Strict or forced dieting is not the answer to this condition: indeed it may even aggravate binge eating.

Medical problems associated with binge eating disorder

People with binge eating disorder are often seriously overweight (obese). Therefore they are vulnerable to the standard medical complaints associated with obesity, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Obese individuals also have a significantly higher risk of gallbladder disease, heart disease, as well as certain cancers. Individuals with binge eating disorder also tend to suffer from higher rates of depression and other psychiatric conditions. The social pressure of being obese will only aggravate these problems.

Depression may also be an independent consequence of binge eating. Binge eaters feel they have no control over their lives. They feel totally dissatisfied with themselves and are ashamed of their lack of self-discipline. As they seek to hide their behavior, they can become even more isolated and stressed out.

Treatment for binge eating disorder

Due to the psycholgical roots of this eating disorder, it is common for binge eaters to receive counselling that focuses on the reasons and triggers for their abnormal eating habits, before they are given a weight loss plan. This may be supplemented with a variety of medicational treatments.

For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches patients how to monitor and change their eating habits and helps to modify the way they respond to stressful situations or memories. Interpersonal psychotherapy helps people to re-examine their relationships with friends and family and make changes in problem areas. Treatment with medications such as antidepressants may be helpful for some individuals. Self-help /support groups are also a valuable tool in treating binge eating disorders.

The exact combination of treatments required is something that should be decided by the patient and his/her health care provider.

How to cope with a binge eater

Having spoken with many individuals suffering from binge eating disorder, I advise the following:

1. Binge eating is a serious illness. Do not wait for it to ‘go away’ or try to treat it yourself. Instead, seek professional medical assistance at the earliest possible opportunity.

2. If you have a loved one whom you suspect of having a binge eating disorder, tell them you are worried about their health and offer to accompany them on a visit to their doctor.

3. Be supportive and non-judgmental. Remember, the cause of binge eating is not greed – it is a psychological issue. It could just as easily happen to you.

4. Find a support group where your loved one and/or yourself can share your experiences with others.