Do you feel out of control around food? Does a bad day at work end with a trip through the drive-thru, burying your anger and frustration in fries and a shake? After skipping breakfast and lunch, do you find yourself unable to stop eating once you start, at least until you feel stuffed and miserable?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be a binge eater. Or not.
What you don’t know about binge eating—who has it, how serious it is and how to get control—can hurt you, both physically and emotionally. Find out the truth about some of the most common misconceptions about binge eating, and how to get help if you’re struggling with the issue.
True or False? Binge eating means that you eat a huge amount of food at one time.
False. Binge eating is officially defined as eating an amount of food that would be considered more than most people would eat, in a discrete period of time (two hours or so), accompanied by feeling out of control or distressed about the eating. But there is such a thing as a subjective binge. People who follow very restrictive diets can experience a subjective binge when they eat something that’s not on their “allowed” food list, even if they don’t eat a particularly large amount.
True or False? All binge eaters are overweight.
False. “Not all people who binge eat are overweight or feel they struggle with their weight,” says Chevese Turner, founder and CEO of the Binge Eating Disorder Association and recovered binge eater herself. “Many people binge eat at different times throughout their lives: some in response to emotional cues and some who are perhaps enjoying a meal at a gathering and not mindful of the amount of food they are eating or how quickly.” Bottom line: What a person weighs isn’t considered. It’s the behavior, not the outcome, that identifies it.
True or False? Binge eating is always emotional.
True—and False. Getting too hungry is one of the most common triggers for a binge. It’s natural to head for rich food – and lots of it – when we feel starved. That’s not emotional. It becomes emotional, however, when guilt, anxiety and depression move in. The key here is to avoid getting too hungry by making it a priority to eat when we’re hungry. That means eating at regular intervals, not when we can find the time.
True or False? If you don’t let yourself ever have high-sugar, high-fat foods, you’ll be much less likely to binge.
False. Actually, the opposite is true. Deprivation often triggers binge eating. We avoid a food as long as we can, then give in at vulnerable moments either because we’re hungry or using food to cope. Because we believe, however, that we shouldn’t eat the food we give in to, or shouldn’t use food to cope, we feel guilty or defeated. We often adopt a “tomorrow I’ll go back on my diet” attitude, and then really overdo. Most people fare much better learning how to eat rich foods in a way that’s reasonable, not completely eliminating them, but not overdoing either.
True or False? Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are much worse than binge eating.
False. All eating disorders have severe health and quality of life consequences. Most people don’t realize, however, that binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder. It’s estimated to afflict over 15 million Americans, more women than men. Medical complications of BED include, in rare cases, stomach rupture. People who are obese and have BED are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis and gastrointestinal problems. Emotional consequences include depression and anxiety.
True or False? Giving yourself permission to binge may help you stop binge eating.
True. It seems contradictory, but giving yourself permission to binge can actually help stop you from doing it. Here’s how it works: When you feel a binge coming on and don’t think any other option will work to calm you, tell yourself it’s OK to binge. This recognizes how binge eating has helped you deal with difficult emotions in the past. Then, pick out what you want to eat and find a comfortable spot to enjoy your food. Finally, eat—staying tuned into how you feel—until you feel like you’ve had enough. In reality, this isn’t a binge; it’s called mindful eating. You may still overeat, but if you avoid the emotional fallout attached to the binge, this can be an important step in healing binge eating.
Marsha Hudnall, RD, MS, CD, is a nationally known nutritionist with more than 25 years experience as a weight management specialist. She is the owner and program director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a weight-loss camp for adult women, that has helped thousands of women manage binge eating. She serves on several boards and has authored seven books on health and healthy weight loss.