Binge eating is defined as ‘the consumption of large quantities of food in a short period of time, typically as part of an eating disorder.’
That last part is very important – typically, but not always, binge eating is part of an eating disorder. Unfortunately, overeating has become a massive part of our society, so it is often difficult to tell whether or not someone meets a diagnosis for binge eating disorder.
According to the NHS, the symptoms of a binge eating disorder include;
- Eating very fast during a binge
- Eating until you feel uncomfortably full
- Eating when you’re not hungry
- Eating alone or secretly
- Feeling depressed, guilty, ashamed, or disgusted after binge eating.
Most people will be able to recognise these symptoms in themselves and their loved ones at times. For example, people tend to overeat at times of high stress or in times of celebration. However it is when this behaviour becomes shameful, secretive, and repetitive that it can become a problem.
Where does binge eating come from?
Oftentimes, binge eating doesn’t have much to do with food, but has everything to do with comfort-seeking and void-filling. Simply by the fact that binge eating is often called ‘comfort eating’ shows that it is known to be a psychological activity.
Research by Davis et al. (2012) showed that people who suffer from binge eating disorder have an increased sensitivity to dopamine, which is responsible for the feeling of pleasure – this means that someone with binge eating disorder experiences more pleasure when eating than someone without binge eating disorder might experience.
Brewerton (2008) suggests that traumatic life events might lead to the development of binge eating as a way of coping. For example, those who have experienced abuse, death, family separation, car accidents, and so on have been found to have an increased risk of developing binge eating disorder.
For some people, over eating stems from comforting memories from childhood. There may be certain food that make them feel safe and connected, and therefore provide a great sense of relief in times of high stress.
The impact of emotional regulation
Recently there has been an increase in research into the impact of early childhood experiences on the subsequent relationship with food – specifically surrounding emotional regulation or the lack thereof.
For example, if negative emotions such as anger or upset are not allowed in childhood the child will turn to other ways of coping with such negative emotions, with some children turning to food. When these children grow up and are met with stressful or anger-inducing situations in adulthood, they are likely to still turn to these same behaviours to cope with these negative emotions – hence, comfort eating and binge eating disorder.
One very important part of parenting a child is to give them the vocabulary to be able to verbalise their emotions – “I can see that you’re upset” or “It looks like you’re angry” – so that the child can develop and build their emotional vocabulary. If a child is ignored or punished for expressing negative emotions, they will likely block the processing of important emotional information, and thus use food as a coping mechanism.
A review by Nowakowski et al., (2013) found an association between binge eating disorder and alexithymia (the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self). At a recent training event hosted by Julia Buckroyd, she stated that if you ask people to write down as many emotion words as they can in one minute, most people will be able to write at least 12-15 words, whereas adults with eating disorders will find themselves stuck at around 5 words. It isn’t that they don’t have a good grasp of language, it’s that these words are not easily accessible to them.
How to stop binge eating?
Although there are methods that one can use to curb cravings and comfort eating, it is important to note that when it comes to binge eating disorder, it is often necessary to involve your GP and other healthcare professionals.
The recommended treatments for binge eating disorder are as follows;
- The first port of call is guided self-help, based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), specifically designed for those with binge eating disorders.
- The second step is to become involved in a CBT group focused on eating disorders.
- The third stage is one-to-one CBT focused on binge eating disorder.
It is not necessary to follow through with all three stages of treatment, as it might be that one or two stages are sufficient.
CBT focuses on the thoughts and emotions behind the behaviours involved in binge eating. These are the treatments recommended by NICE (The National Institute for Healthcare and Excellence), however if you feel that there are deeper emotional and/or childhood issues to be worked through, it may be appropriate for you to employ the services of any number of psychotherapists.
Regarding sub-clinical comfort eating or overeating, the following tips might prove helpful in being able to control these behaviours.
- One of the first steps would be to explore what triggers your emotional eating. For example, if it is caused by stress, then developing healthier ways to cope with stress would be important.
- Finding healthier ways to cope with stress could mitigate the need to find comfort in food. Some ways that you might cope with stress might include taking up yoga or sport, learning about mindfulness, talking with an eating disorder therapist, improving your work-life balance, and so on.
- Take a moment to think about whether you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry. It might be that you are craving certain foods that can be classed as comfort foods such as chocolate or a favourite meal from childhood. Check in with yourself throughout the day and be mindful of the sensations in your body.
- Keep a food diary, not necessarily every day, but when you feel like you are about to or have had a binge, write about what was happening in your environment at the time, how were you feeling, who were you with, and so on. After some time, a pattern may begin to emerge revealing some connections between your mood and your eating.
- Let your emotions out. Whether you develop a strong support network of friends or you seek the support of a counsellor, it is important to find a safe space to experience letting go of and processing emotions in a healthy way. Another way of exploring your emotions might be to keep a journal or to get creative with art or music.
- Practice eating mindfully. When you are eating, eliminate distractions – put down your phone. With each mouthful, really notice what you are eating; how does it taste, is it hot or cold, what’s the texture like, and are you starting to get full?
If you need support right now, call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected] and the Front of House team will book an appointment with one of our trained therapists specialising in eating disorders. We have centres in Clapham and Tooting.