Binge Eating Disorder affects far more people than you might think. HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull investigates.
Sometimes we find ourselves eating way too much (think Christmas, birthdays and holidays), but there are others who struggle with overeating on a far more regular basis. For these people, binge eating is part of their daily lives.
Overeating vs binge eating
When you hear the words ‘eating disorder, you’re most likely to think of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. It’s only in the last few years that Binge Eating Disorder has been officially recognised as an eating disorder in its own right. The good news is that now there are clearer guidelines to help diagnose and manage it.
What are the signs?
Regularly eating extremely large quantities of food in a small amount of time (e.g. within a two-hour period) is a telltale sign of Binge Eating Disorder.
This is different from having the odd too-large meal, or occasionally grazing through an entire packet of Tim Tams in front of the TV. If you have Binge Eating Disorder, there is an emotionally charged aspect to your food frenzy. You will probably feel that you just can’t stop eating or even control what you are eating, and this feels very distressing.
Sufferers struggle with at least three of the following:
Eating much faster than normal (gobbling down their food)
Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
Eating alone because they feel embarrassed by the amount they eat
Feeling disgusted, depressed or very guilty after eating
To be officially diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder, a person needs to be experiencing at least one episode of binge eating a week for three months or more. In extreme cases of Binge Eating Disorder, a sufferer can be found to binge as much as 14 times a week.
Is it common?
Evidence suggests that Binge Eating Disorder affects around 4 per cent of the population, making it much more common than anorexia and bulimia.
Of course, the real figure is probably higher than this as not everyone suffering from these issues will seek help and treatment.
It can strike a person at any time, from early adulthood to middle age, and there is little difference between the percentage of males and females who have it.
What can cause it?
There is a raft of factors which affect someone’s likelihood of developing binge eating.
As with other eating disorders, Binge Eating Disorder appears to run within families; however, the reason behind this link isn’t conclusive.
”How your friends and family behave around food can also be a trigger,” says Dr Jan Geary, a specialist eating disorder psychologist. These instances include having a family member with a long-term weight issue, or having a parent who suffers from depression or was criticised about their weight, shape and eating habits in the past.
“Those who learn from an early age that food can be used as a way of managing difficult feelings can also be at risk of developing binge eating issues later in life,” says Dr Geary. Struggling with low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, depression and anxiety, and weight issues can also play a major role.
Eating disorder dietitian Estella Leek has found that dieting can also be a trigger. When we don’t eat enough, our blood sugar levels drop and this intensifies our feelings of hunger. This may lead to episodes of bingeing.
Cutting out specific food groups
Banning carbs or other food groups can have the same effect as dieting. When you begin to think of certain foods as being ‘forbidden’, you actually run the risk of developing psychological or emotional cravings causing you to binge on these ‘forbidden’ foods in the one sitting, all while forgetting why you cut out these foods in the first place.
Why it’s on the rise
In the past, before fast-food outlets and supermarkets could be found in nearly every suburb, Binge Eating Disorder wasn’t as common. But in today’s world of convenience and abundance, it has become far too easy to go out and buy large volumes of cheap food, especially unhealthy fast food, at almost any hour of the day.
Eating large amounts of food can be very expensive, taking a huge toll on the family’s budget. This can cause arguments and feelings of guilt. Bingeing behaviour may also make relationships difficult, causing you to want to withdraw and feel like you don’t want to interact with the outside world.
Aside from the visible ‘cost’ of bingeing on your weight, there is a hidden emotional cost, too. Studies have shown that sufferers are more likely to suffer from distress, anxiety, depression and alcohol and drug abuse.
Case study: Elly Varrenti
Elly Varrenti has suffered from Binge Eating Disorder (BED) for about 30 years. The freelance writer, broadcaster and actress (formerly in Heartbreak High and Blue Heelers) shares her struggles and successes with the illness.
When did your BED start?
When I was around 19. I think it is a serious eating disorder or addiction that can be triggered by trauma. But I have stopped blaming circumstances.
What is a binge like?
I can eat a lot of junk food in a short space of time. Bingeing is not just overeating, like having a ‘guts-up’ at Christmas. It’s a temporary form of insanity. You know you’re going to feel bad afterwards but you can’t stop when you’re in it. It’s like your body is craving that food and you want more and more. Afterwards, you feel ashamed and a failure.
What foods trigger you to binge?
Sugar is a trigger — ice cream is my thing. Alcohol is also a trigger. It becomes disinhibiting, so I think ‘what the heck’ and start bingeing.
How do you eat between binges?
I eat healthily and exercise regularly. Like many people with BED, I have a lot of knowledge about nutrition and diets.
What have you tried to get better?
I’ve tried every diet in the world, health camps, boot camps, fad diets and fitness gimmicks. I’ve seen many health professionals and fitness experts and taken antidepressants (SSRIs). Exercise has helped. When I ran marathons I didn’t want to binge as much, I stayed at a good weight and felt healthy, strong and ‘present’.
The biggest thing that has helped me is a 12-step program (Overeaters Anonymous). I’ve been very sceptical about these programs all of my life but I’ve found OA can help. Also, I find a lot of support in online communities — reading and learning about other people’s experience is good.
How has BED affected your life?
It’s expensive — I can spend up to $30 on food for one binge and I can binge a few times a week. Some people steal money for binges or shoplift the food. My behaviour around food also affects those around me negatively — my family and intimate relationships in particular. I also have high cholesterol. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found the bingeing takes much more of a toll on my body. It’s exhausting.
What’s your advice to others with this problem?
Read the book Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach and Food: The Good Girl’s Drug — How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings by Sunny Seagold. And get support and be open about the condition — the worst thing you can do is isolate yourself and hide away.
A good first step is to talk to your GP who can suggest support groups or health professionals who they feel would be right for you to see.
Also, it may be that if you struggle with low mood, depression or anxiety that medication may be helpful as part of your treatment, which they can talk to you about and monitor.
They may also be able to refer you to a counsellor or psychologist. The ideal scenario is to work with a psychologist and a dietitian in combination, who together will be able to work out the approach that is best suited to your needs.
These techniques can help get you on the road to recovery.
1. Food journalling
Keep a record of what and when you eat each day to help you identify any patterns with your eating habits.
2. Identify the triggers
From your food journal, patterns may emerge such as bingeing after a conflict or when you have not eaten for a long time. You can then work on finding other — healthier — ways to soothe those triggers. Practise using these new ways when you feel the urge to eat.
3. Start eating regularly
Create a timetable for meals and snacks to help normalise eating patterns. Eating 5–6 times a day can be helpful. Don’t skip meals and ensure you have access to healthy snacks in between.
4. Practise a new attitude to food
Work at developing a healthy, positive relationship with food. Ditch the idea that you need to diet or restrict what you’re eating. Recognise that you need to be eating regular, balanced meals and snacks in order to nourish your body.
5. Eat with awareness
Take time to plan and prepare your meals; then sit down, eat without distractions (turn off the TV, put away the iPad) and really enjoy your food. Create a positive eating environment so you can really focus on enjoying the flavours. Tune into your hunger and fullness, too. Aim to eat when you are truly hungry (rather than because you are bored, tired, angry or just because food is there) and stop when you are just full, rather than overfull.
What to say to someone with Binge Eating Disorder...
It can be incredibly hard to watch someone struggle with binge eating. Sadly, you can’t force or pressure a person into changing when they aren’t ready to do so. Dr Jan Geary, a specialist eating disorder psychologist, suggests that you find out as much information as you can about this condition.
Choose an appropriate time to talk about it in a caring, non-judgmental way. Keep the focus of the conversation on the behaviours you have noticed. Then, ask them if and how you can help.
So, for example, you could say:
‘I have noticed that there are a lot of food wrappers in your car/bag/bed and that you have been eating takeaways every day lately. I’m concerned that you might be struggling. Is there anything I can do to help?’
Or perhaps something like:
‘I see that you’re spending a lot of money on food at the moment and you aren’t eating with us anymore, and you seem a bit unhappy. Is everything ok? Can I help you at all?’
Initially, you may get no reaction, a list of excuses, be told to butt out, or simply told that everything is fine. In this case, it is best to let them know you will be there if they need help at any point. You can always bring it up again at another stage when it feels right.
If and when the person does need your help, show them this article or suggest they make contact with a support group. (See Where to get help, above.)