It’s 5:00 p.m. and Dave has just got off work. As he is driving home all he can think of is buying fast food. He argues with himself as he thinks of the promise he made this morning. “Today will be a good day and I will stick to my diet”. He tells himself that maybe he should take a different route home to avoid seeing the restaurants. But the urges are getting stronger and he is feeling more and more powerless. He says to himself “Just one meal deal, and then I’ll head home.” Instead, Dave finds himself pulling into three drive-thrus. He buys a couple of super sized meal deals, an extra large shake, a pizza and some wings. At this point he is feeling as if he has spun out of control and someone else has taken over. He drives to a private area and scoffs down every piece of food. He doesn’t notice how it tastes or smells and, in fact, he really isn’t even enjoying it. But Dave keeps eating and doesn’t stop until he feels painfully full. Afterwards, Dave is exhausted, dizzy and disgusted with himself. He drives home and goes straight to bed swearing, “I’ll start over tomorrow and get back on track with my diet.”
Deb is waiting for her husband to go out with the kids. She feels like she lives such a double life with all of this sneaking around. She has it all planned out. Her husband will be gone for two hours and this will give her just enough time to binge. The minute she hears the car pull out of the driveway she makes a run for the kitchen pantry. Stuffed way in the back she has two large bags of chips, a box of cookies, cereal and peanut butter. She pulls it all out and in a mad fury quickly consumes it all, swearing she’ll start the diet tomorrow. Like Dave, she feels like “wild horses” couldn’t stop her. In fact, Deb feels so disconnected from the experience that she feels likes she is watching herself. Once the binge is done, Deb is exhausted and painfully full. She cleans up the mess and takes her garbage outside so her husband and kids don’t find the evidence. Feeling confused and worn out, she drags her body downstairs and lies on the couch waiting to hear her husband come through the door.
Both Dave and Deb have what is called a Binge Eating Disorder. Binge eating is when you experience an overwhelming urge to eat and you consume a large amount of food in a short period of time. The amount consumed is very large in comparison to what others would normally eat. Binge eaters find themselves eating when they are not hungry and unable to stop when they are painfully full. After a binge, a person often feels guilty, ashamed, depressed and disgusted with him or herself. These strong feelings of self-reproach typically lead to further binges.
Overeating from time to time is not the same as binge eating. We all overeat at times, whether it is on holidays or at a buffet. We tend to take too much and then feel overly full, briefly regret it and then generally forget about it. We also all use food at times to comfort, soothe or reward ourselves. All of these things are all normal. They become a problem when food is habitually used as a way to cope with stressors or feelings.
The causes of Binge Eating Disorder are complex and still being researched. The reasons for why it started may now be different than from what is currently maintaining it. Clients often find it helpful to first gain some control over the behaviours before addressing the deeper reasons maintaining it. Three main factors that feed the binge cycle are restrictive eating, certain ways of thinking and poor emotion/needs management.
Many binge eaters in an attempt to control their weight will restrict their eating during the day. What they don’t realize is that restricting will physiologically set them up for overeating later in the day. Our bodies need to be adequately refuelled every 3-4 hours, otherwise blood sugar levels drop. If you ignore the signs of hunger and let your blood sugar continue to plummet, you will be vulnerable to overeat or binge. This is your body’s way of trying to make up for depriving it. In this state, your body will drive you towards simple carbohydrates (sugary calorie-dense foods) because they quickly convert to glucose for immediate energy. This is why binge eaters tend to binge on the very foods that they try to avoid. Binges rarely occur on lettuce and celery.
Right after a binge, the glucose levels peak and then quickly drop. The body will notice the infusion of simple carbohydrate and the pancreas will respond by releasing increased amounts of insulin. The body will then attempt to convert as much of the free floating glucose into stored energy. As a result, a vast amount of the fuel is stored as fat in fat cells and the person is left with low glucose levels and feeling poorly (exhausted, dizzy and confused).
My clients are often surprised to learn that their attempt at dieting and restricting to loose weight actually sets them up to over-eat and subsequently gain weight. I encourage clients to fuel their bodies on a regular basis (every 4 hours or less). This helps ward off binges and allows their bodies to effectively burn calories for energy rather than storing them. Regular eating is one of the best anti-binge medicines that we have.
Binging is also maintained because people psychologically set themselves up to feel deprived. Think about it. How many times have you said that you are not allowed a food because its “bad”? Setting food up as “good or bad” gives food the power and leaves you feeling deprived. This mentality will lead you to setting up rules and restrictive beliefs that will dictate what, when, where, why and how much you should eat. These personal rules will control your life and trap you into an “all or none attitude” that will perpetuate the binge eating cycle. Ask yourself if the following statement sounds familiar. “I’ve blown it now, so I may as well just keep eating and start over tomorrow.”
Emotional triggers and stressors also have a key role in maintaining the binge cycle. It is not uncommon for people to turn to substances (food or other) for comfort or to avoid feelings or situations. Clients commonly report that during binges they experience a pleasant sensation and short term relief from their distressing feelings. It is likely that the highly palatable foods provide a soothing effect and temporary distraction from concerns. As well, the person has consumed significant amounts of carbohydrate that will increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin a neurotransmitter, impacts our mood, sensitivity to pain and alertness. This is why people often fall asleep after having a binge. Once the binge is over, clients report strong feelings of self-reproach and distress with the same problems and feelings that precipitated the binge.
A Little Perspective: Recovery from binge eating is possible. Treatment will involve making certain changes and understanding how the binge eating serves a purpose in your life. For many, this statement is odd and they think, “I want this monkey off my back. How can it be serving me a purpose”? To put this into perspective, ask yourself if this behaviour is helping you avoid or fulfil something? Understanding this and finding healthy ways to meet your needs will free you from this chaos.