When having a conversation with someone who says “I binge eat”, it’s important to learn what that means to them. Are they really binge eating, or do they just think they are?
The experience of binge eating varies with each person; what some consider a binge is really not a true binge at all. However, if they chose to use that word to describe what happened, it is an indication that there is an underlying problem with their relationship with food.
In this episode, I'll dive into what I call 'clinical' vs 'casual' binge eating. In other words, true binge eating vs sub-clinical binge eating. Both are a disruption in one's relationship with food, but the severity is slightly different.
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Today’s topic is something I am really excited to talk about. Why? Because binge eating is ridiculously common, but we don’t realize it! It’s a bit of a hush-hush subject because of the nature of it.
Admitting you struggle with binge eating is hard, and even knowing if you struggle with binge-eating can be equally as hard.
I’m going to break down all the top questions surrounding the topic of binge eating. If I don’t answer a specific question you have, you are welcome to submit your question to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to have it answered on a future episode.
Let’s get started!
What is Binge Eating?
I like to think of binge eating in two different categories: clinical (or objective) binge eating, and casual (or subjective) binge eating.
When having a conversation with someone who says “I binge eat”, it’s important to learn what that means to them. The experience of binge eating varies with each person, and what some consider a binge is really not a true binge at all. However, if they chose to use that word to describe what happened, it is an indication that there is an underlying problem with their relationship with food.
Clinical Binge Eating
A clinical binge means:
1. An individual is eating an amount of food within a 2-hour period that is definitely more than would be expected in that same circumstance i.e. Thanksgiving dinner does not count. However, an entire pizza, carton of ice cream, and package of Oreos on a Tuesday evening in January is not typical and would be considered binge-eligible.
2. Binge eating in the clinical sense is also accompanied by a lack of control. The person may feel like they don’t remember eating, they cannot control what they eat, or they cannot stop once it starts.
Casual Binge Eating
An individual may not be eating a vast amount of food within 2-hours or feel out of control, but still feel like they are ‘binging’. If this is the case, they could be experiencing one of the following symptoms, which leads them to casually saying they are a binge eater:
· Eating faster than normal
· Eating until feeling uncomfortable, even sick
· Eating when not physically hungry
· Eating alone out of guilt/shame/embarrassment
· Feeling disgusted or guilty about eating
· Going ‘off plan’ and eating what is not allowed on their diet or meal plan
· Eating at a time of day one is not ‘supposed’ to be eating
· Feeling addicted to food or sugar
· Generally feeling like one overeats
These symptoms do not necessarily mean someone clinically suffers from binge eating or has binge eating disorder (BED), but it does indicate that there are issues with how one is experiencing their relationship with food.
If an individual is going through any of the challenges listed above, my guess is that they are in need of healing and freedom with food. There may be an underlying diagnosis of the eating disorder BED, but if not they are still showing signs of disordered eating.
What is Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?
Binge Eating Disorder is a life-altering and even life-threatening mental illness that requires clinical help and support. It cannot be diagnosed without meeting the follow criteria as outlined in the DSM-5:
Criterion 1: Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
Criterion 2: The binge eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
Criterion 3: Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
Criterion 4: The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for 3 months.
Criterion 5: The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging) as in bulimia nervosa and does not occur exclusively during the course of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.
BED is also given a severity ranking depending on the frequency:
· Mild: 1 to 3 episodes per week
· Moderate: 4 to 7 episodes per week
· Severe: 8 to 13 episodes per week
· Extreme: 14 or more episodes per week
What Does Binge Eating Feel Like?
Binge eating has a variety of physical and psychological feelings associated with it.
Physically, one may feel overfull, uncomfortable, weighed down, sick to their stomach, pain/cramping in their stomach, fatigued, unable to concentrate, and/or have noticeable fluctuations in weight.
Psychologically, binge eating can create feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, defeat, distress, fear, and extreme concern over body weight/shape.
One of the most common things I hear from women in my line of work is, “I feel addicted to food”. They say things like, “I want to be able to eat for fuel, not just for pleasure or to cope with emotions.”
Is Binge Eating Normal?
Extremely. In the casual sense, many dieters (which is about ½ of the U.S. population) experience feeling like they binge eat at some point in time. In fact, dieting is a predictor of binge eating.
BED is actually 3x more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. It is also more common than breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia.
Is Binge Eating an Addiction?
Kind of. Without having a PhD in psychology, there’s only so much I feel comfortable saying about addiction. What I will say is that binge eating is a learned behavior that can function as a coping mechanism, similar to the function of an addiction.
Does that mean it’s as difficult to break as an addiction to cigarettes? Not necessarily. With the right support & help, the ‘addiction’ to food does not have to be a lifelong battle.
Why Binge Eating Happens
In my professional experience and study of binge eating, there is 1 common thing that it always seems to boil down to: restriction.
I know what you are thinking… “that doesn’t make any sense”
Restriction is probably the last thing that comes to mind when you think of binge eating. However, when I dig deep into the ‘why’ behind a binge, I can always tie it back to restricting in 1 of 2 ways: physical restriction or psychological restriction.
Believe it or not, your body wants you to stay alive. We were created with many, many intelligent survival mechanisms so that our heart keeps beating and the breath continues to fill our lungs.
What is one of the most basic things that humans need for survival? Food! I think we forget in the midst of our loud and obnoxious diet-obsessed culture that food is actually a source of energy and a key reason we continue to live and breathe.
When our body receives the message that we aren’t getting enough food (like in the case of dieting aka restricting) there are multiple systems that turn on and push us towards food.
An example of this is Neuropeptide Y, aka the answer to “why do I crave bread all the time?”
NPY is a chemical produced in the brain that triggers our drive to eat carbohydrates (our main source of energy). Undereating drives NPY into action, causing the body to seek more carbs. This means that we can easily be driven into a binge. This isn’t for lack of self-control, rather, it is your biology working correctly.
Another example is the basic sensation of hunger. When we feel hunger, we need to eat. End of story. The longer we go without eating, the worse it gets. It might turn off for a little while, but eventually it comes back with a vengeance and there’s no possible way you can slow down your appetite. This is prime time for binging.
Oftentimes, dieters will find themselves stuck in a rollercoaster of dieting/restricting and then binging. They are either all in or all out, and it is because of the restrictive nature of dieting.
This is a lot sneakier and harder to identify than physical restriction. Psychological restriction is when there are foods we think we shouldn’t have. We have rules about what’s good, bad, okay, off limits, clean, sinful, etc. When we do this, we are creating a psychological restriction around a specific food.
Have you ever told a toddler they can’t have something (a toy, dessert, game, etc)? How did that go? Did their desire for that thing just go away? I’m going to guess it didn’t.
Just like toddlers, we want what we can’t have. Therefore, when we decide there are specific foods we ‘cannot’ eat, we want them 100x more.
This is an example of why giving oneself unconditional permission to eat any foods (that are medically safe) is so important.
I have a client who is diagnosed with BED and she recently relapsed into some binging. After further investigation, we were able to find that she still thought she shouldn’t have certain kinds of foods, which not surprisingly were the foods she would binge on.
When is Binge Eating a Problem?
Binge eating is a problem if you find yourself distressed and/or preoccupied about your patterns and behaviors around food. If you binge eat, you should not wait until you meet criteria for BED to reach out for help. The sooner binge eating is addressed, the quicker it can be resolved.
Can Binge Eating Disorder be Cured?
Absolutely, 1,000% yes.
The problem with binge eating and/or BED is that not everyone seeks help, or they give up too early.
It is estimated that less than ½ of people with diagnosed BED will receive treatment for their disorder.
With the proper support system, tools, and resources, there is no reason that binge eating cannot be overcome.
If you are ready to walk away from binge eating, apply to work with me so we can get started on your journey to a binge-free life right away!