Eating disorders are more common in women over 40 than once thought—binge eating included. “When we think of ‘eating disorders,’ we erroneously imagine teenagers suffering,” says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and author of Midlife Eating Disorders: Your Journey to Recovery. “In reality, the most common patient is probably a woman over 30 with binge eating disorder.”
Signs and Symptoms
But no matter what your age, the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder (BED) remain the same. They include:
Waiting until you’re alone to eat. “Bingers often eat small amounts in public, and then binge in private,” says Bulik.
Continuing to eat, even when you’re full. “Binge eaters are unable to put on the brakes,” says Bulik. A 2012 study at the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute in Fargo, N.D., found that those with BED ate more calories and felt less control over their eating than obese nonbingers.
Post-gorging guilt. “A binge eater will consume a lot of food, and then start beating up on herself,” says licensed psychoanalyst Carol Munter, co-director of the National Center for Overcoming Overeating in New York and Chicago, and co-author of Overcoming Overeating. “The pattern is uncontrolled eating, recrimination, dieting, binging.”
Eating weird food combinations. A 2012 study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham involving 552 adults found that at least one in four binge eaters gorge on bizarre concoctions like mashed potatoes with Oreo cookies. Most indicated that craving, not hunger, drove them to such snacks.
A conviction that you’re a diet failure. “Ninety eight to 99 percent of people who diet eventually binge, regain the lost weight, and then some, ” says Munter.
Anxiety and depression. Often bingers are unable to endure unsettling feelings like anxiety or depression. “Instead they eat to feel better,” says Munter. According to a 2012 study at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill involving 406 college women, those more anxious tended to both binge and diet—and binge eating increased as anxiety did.
Family members who binge. “Sometimes binge eating is a family pattern for handling stress,” says Munter.
How to Get Help
Binge eaters don’t have to stay locked in a destructive pattern. Below are ways to find help for yourself or someone you love.
Approach a family member with compassion. If you recognize that someone you love is a binge eater, gently let them know you want to help. “Find out first what resources are in your area,” says Bulik. “The more you can do to make it easier for her to find care, the better.”
Find an experienced therapist. “Look for a therapist who knows about eating problems and who has an anti-dieting approach,” says Munter. “Be clear that you don’t want to stay on a diet. You want to sit in the middle of the feelings” that drive you to eat. Her website, Overcomingovereating.com, offers referrals.
The Binge Eating Disorder Association website, www.bedaonline.com, also offers a “Get Help” section.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) remains the treatment of choice for binge eating disorder,” says Bulik. In a 2012 Yale University study of 81 adults with BED, one group was assigned to an antidepressant, a second to CBT plus medication, and a third to CBT plus placebo pills. After a year, 35 percent of those who received CBT had had no binge eating episodes in the previous month compared to only 4 percent of those on an antidepressant.
CBT examines destructive behavior and thought patterns, and tries to replace those with more constructive ones.
“The first thing is to put food back where it belongs: with physiological hunger,” says Munter. “Start feeding yourself only when you’re hungry. Figure out what your body needs and when it has had enough.”