Who suffers from binge eating?
Binge eating disorder (BED) is widely considered to be the most common eating disorder in the US. (1) It’s characterized by regular episodes of binging (eating large amounts of food) even when not hungry, which is usually followed by feelings of shame and guilt. People with binge eating disorder typically feel a lack of control when eating and usually eat in secret.
However, it’s not only those living with binge eating disorder that engage in binge eating. Those with bulimia nervosa also engage in binge eating episodes, which are typically followed by purging or compensatory behaviors - such as self-induced vomiting, compulsive exercise, or laxative and diuretic use.
People with the binge-purge subtype of anorexia also engage in regular binge eating followed by periods of food restriction. Some individuals diagnosed with OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder) also engage in binging behaviors, as do some people who do not meet criteria for any eating disorder currently in the DSM V.
Why do I binge eat?
One of the most common reasons people engage in binge eating is in an attempt to manage or cope with unpleasant emotions, such as depression, low-self esteem, stress, fear, loneliness, trauma, anxiety, and even boredom. (2)
Binge eating temporarily eases these upsetting thoughts and feelings, but the relief doesn’t last. Before long, without the right help, the cycle of binge eating will begin again.
Some people also develop binge eating behaviors in response to restriction, either of overall food intake or of specific foods. Both the physical and psychological effects of dietary restriction can trigger binge eating. (2)
Consequences of binge eating
There are numerous consequences of regular episodes of binge eating, some of them short-term, some of them more long-lasting. Weight gain is a common consequence of regular binge eating, though not all people who struggle with binge eating disorder are in higher weight bodies. (3)
Binge eating can also result in gastrointestinal issues such as acid reflux, lethargy, and repeated weight cycling. Gastric rupture is a potentially life threatening complication that can occur from binge eating.
Some people who engage in an ongoing binge-restrict cycle can become malnourished over time because they are not consistently meeting their energy and nutrient needs. Individuals struggling with binging can also experience mental health consequences, including significant feelings of depression, shame, guilt, and powerlessness about their behaviors. (4)
Tips to stop binge eating
There are several things you can do to reduce your chances of engaging in binge eating and redirect your urges to binge. However, it should be mentioned that if you’re living with binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or the binge-purge subtype of anorexia nervosa (AN), these tips are designed to accompany eating disorder treatment, not replace it.
Identify triggers for binge eating
Binge episodes are often triggered by unpleasant emotions, thoughts, feelings, or even certain situations that a person finds difficult to manage.
Identifying your triggers can help you avoid or manage them, or even better, find ways to cope with your triggers without feeling the urge to binge. For example, if feelings of boredom often seem to precede binging episodes, the next time you notice you’re feeling bored or restless, distract yourself with an engaging activity, such as reading, going for a walk, or playing a game,
Avoid rigid diets
Physical or mental restriction from diets that are very low in calories, eliminate specific foods, or both can make an individual more likely to engage in episodes of binge eating.
Research confirms this with studies showing that in adolescent girls, a fad or restrictive diet increased the risk of the development of bulimia or binge eating disorder. (5)
Rather than moving from one diet to another, you would do much better nourishing your body in an adequate, balanced way that doesn’t leave you feeling hungry or deny you of any food groups or assign moral value to food. If you do change your eating plan, stay away from any diet that:
- Eliminates entire food groups, such as carbohydrates or fats
- Guarantees rapid weight loss
- Requires rigid eating plans or limited food choice
- Claims certain foods fall into a “bad” category
Studies show that stress is a common trigger for binging episodes. Plus, stress is known to reduce a person’s awareness of their satiety and hunger cues, which can contribute to eating past the point of fullness during a binge. (5)
There are many ways you can help reduce the impact stress has on you, including: (5,6)
- Practicing deep breathing techniques
- Trying meditation, yoga, or tai chi
- Exercising regularly if it is appropriate for you
- Make sure your getting enough sleep
- Using alternative relaxation techniques including massage, aromatherapy, or acupuncture
Mindfulness has been proven to be a successful technique for reducing stress and episodes of binge eating. (5)
Mindful eating involves focusing on the here and now while enjoying your snacks or meal. This includes eating slowly and purposefully, which allows you to savor the flavors and textures of food, as well as, enables you to recognize your satiety cues. This may help avoid the dissociated or compulsive mental state that many people experience during a binge episode.
Regularly engaging in an exercise you enjoy can help prevent binge eating as it releases the feel-good chemicals, endorphins, that boost your mood. Exercise can be used as one of many alternative coping skills for those looking to manage difficult emotions. For individuals dealing with an eating disorder, communicating with a treatment team about if and how much exercise is appropriate is an important part of healing. (7)
Eat enough consistently and work to include all foods
Telling yourself that certain foods are completely off limits can make them feel more powerful and trigger binge eating. As both physical and mental restriction can contribute to urges to binge, learning to be aware of and honor both your physical hunger and food cravings is an important part of working towards a more positive relationship with food. Ensuring that your body is consistently and adequately getting food regularly throughout the day can help break the binge-restrict cycle.
Telling yourself that you cannot be trusted around specific foods or that you are addicted to them can increase their salience and potentially trigger binging behaviors. Allowing yourself to eat those foods regularly and intentionally, such as part of a planned meal or snack, can reduce the power that they hold in your mind and the likelihood that being around them will lead to a binge.
When to seek treatment for binge eating
Although certain lifestyle changes can help with preventing the urge to binge eat, if implementing these changes on your own is not helping or if binging behaviors are causing significant disruption and distress, it is important to reach out for help. Treatment by a multidisciplinary team experienced with eating disorders will be able to help manage your binging episodes as well as identify the underlying causes.
Through treatment, you’ll learn how to build a healthier relationship with food and with yourself via a combination of different therapies, including:
- Cognitive behavior therapy
- Dialectical behavioral therapy
- Interpersonal psychotherapy
- Nutritional counseling
- Mindful eating
- Group therapy
- Family-based therapy