Binge eating disorder, also known as BED or compulsive overeating, is a serious disorder, characterized by a recurrent, irresistible urge to overindulge or binge on food, even when you are painfully full.
It is normal to overeat from time to time, but when it comes to binge eating, the urge is persistent and seemingly uncontrollable and is usually accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt. Binge eating disorder, just like other mental disorders, is strongly linked to depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and stress. Persistent overeating also leads to obesity and other serious health conditions.
According to the World Health Organization’s latest statistics, Qatar’s population now ranks among the top 8 fattest in the world, with 77.8 percent of men and 78.9 percent of women being overweight (Body Mass Index over 25), and 40 percent of men and 49.7 of women being obese (Body Mass Index over 30).
Unlike what many people think, the US is nowhere near the top 10 fattest nations. In fact, it holds the 22nd position, with 67.3 percent of its population being overweight (Body Mass Index over 25), and 33.7 percent being obese(Body Mass Index over 30).
What Makes People Binge Eat?
The causes of binge eating vary, and involve multiple factors:
Psychological Issues — Depression, anxiety and stress lead people to comfort-eat to suppress uncomfortable or unmanageable emotions, while using food to stimulate the release of specific chemicals in the brain.
Addictive Foods — The majority of processed foods contain ingredients that are highly addictive, such as mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) and refined sugars. Conflicting signals from the brain and body then make it difficult to stop eating when full, especially when people do not realize that the food they are eating is addictive.
Biological Disorders — The hormones Ghrelin and Leptin are responsible for the biological signals that tell the body to stop eating. Certain individuals have a lack of sensitivity to these signals, sometimes due to down regulation of the specific genes or damage to regions of the brain involved in appetite control.
Habits and TV — When certain behaviors are linked together, such as watching a film and eating a tub of ice-cream, we learn to associate the two and develop habits which are not related to the real nutritional needs of the body. Boredom often triggers a desire to eat, and television and food advertising increases an individual’s likelihood of eating when not actually hungry.
Pleasure and Reward — When we eat, we stimulate the brain’s reward system, making eating pleasurable. Over time, we become desensitized to such stimuli and require increasing amounts of the food to get the same sense of satisfaction. Our own production of pleasurable neurotransmitters decreases when food is regularly used to create feelings of happiness and contentment.
Genetic and Environmental — There are genetic pre-dispositions to BED that sometimes come into play. We also naturally copy the behavior of those closest to us. Children who grow up in a family where overeating is common, are often influenced by this and experience binge eating disorder in adulthood.
Behavioral and Emotional Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder
Overeating affects a high number of people, especially with the increasing use of food additives to create ‘repeat appeal’ (also known as addiction). However, there are specific criteria that characterize binge eating disorder:
- Inability to stop bingeing or thinking about food all the time.
- Bingeing episodes that last more than 2 hours.
- Continuing to binge, even after becoming uncomfortably full.
- Feelings of self-loathing, depression, shame and guilt, during and after a bingeing episode.
- Hiding while bingeing.
- Eating so fast that you don’t even feel or taste the food.
The Effects of Binge Eating
However, not all binge eaters are obese or overweight. A good number manage to maintain a lean body structure by using purging techniques such as laxatives.
Other Side Effects Include:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal problems
Psychological Effects of Binge Eating Disorder
- In addition to physical stress on the body, binge eating has a negative impact on mental and emotional health, with effects including:
- Low self-esteem/self-hate
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
Treatment and Recovery
There are several treatment and recovery paths that individuals can pursue to overcome the disorder and eliminate these dangerous patterns of behavior. However, people typically ignore the signs and symptoms and “pretend” they are fine. This is in part due to social stigma about being severely overweight, as well as the addictive nature of certain foods. The addicted brain is typically unwilling to even consider giving up the “drug” being consumed, which in this case is sugar.
Many binge eaters simply are not aware of their addiction to food. Food labeling does NOT convey the nature of these ingredients in food.
The first step is to eliminate the addictive substances found in processed foods, like refined sugar, refined flour and additives, to allow the brain and taste buds a chance to detox from the addiction.
This can be a tough time, physically and emotionally, while the body adjusts to naturally producing rewarding neurotransmitters, but in just a few weeks the brain has time to recover and up-regulate natural happy chemicals.
Therapy and Counseling
As is common with other eating disorders, binge eating treatment involves talking therapy and nutritional counseling. Talking therapy addresses the dysfunctional behaviors and thoughts involved in the disorder, while nutritional counseling focuses on building strong healthy eating habits.
Some clinicians prescribe medicines to promote weight loss and deal with psychological symptoms and effects, such as depression and anxiety. However, dietary and behavioral changes are much more effective in the long run for making lasting changes to promote healthy eating and natural happiness.
There are plenty of other ways individuals can reduce their dependence on food and generate feelings of wellbeing that do not rely on the brain mechanisms linked to eating. For example:
- Employing stress management strategies, such as meditation, breathing exercises and engaging in hobbies.
- Investigating eating habits and choosing healthier foods; avoiding missing meals and getting rid of junk food to avoid temptation.
- Taking regular exercise to increase the production of happy chemicals in the brain and improve body image.
- Getting enough sleep to regulate neurotransmitters.
- Fighting boredom with activities that do not involve food.
- Obtaining support from family and friends.
It is possible to recover from binge eating disorder, and it all starts with accepting that you have a problem and seeking professional help. Dietary changes can really quickly make an enormous difference in how you feel about food — specifically cutting out the immensely addictive substances added to processed food.