In today’s image obsessed world, we’ve all at some time wished for a svelte body or defined torso. Size zero is the new size eight and the photos in magazine are flawlessly perfect. It’s therefore little wonder that cases of anorexia and bulimia nervosa are tragically on the rise as people feel compelled to achieve the beautiful but impossible. As familiar as these conditions are, however, another, even bigger, darker problem, is far less recognised and understood: Compulsive Overeating.
It's estimated that around 1 in 4 adults suffer from binge eating problems at some time in their lives. I call it the Cinderella problems because it isn’t as sexy to the media as anorexia or bulimia. These problems are considered illnesses while binge eating is thought of as just being greedy and out of control. But I would guess that it kills more people than anorexia and bulimia combined, yet it still remains widely unacknowledged. Many sufferers do not seek help, either because they feel too embarrassed and ashamed, or because they don’t realise support is available.
I would even go so far as to say that it’s the emperor of eating disorders. It’s a double problem in terms of mental health and weight and, furthermore, it has serious health implications."
Compulsive eating goes under various names, such as “food addiction, binge eating disorder or Ednos (eating disorders not otherwise specified). Now, there’s a mouthful.
Whatever name we give it, there is an uncontrollable urge to eat, in some cases very large quantities of food, usually in a mindless state and in a short space of time. Milder forms of compulsive eating can involve smaller quantities such as going backwards and forwards to the fridge, or picking or nibbling. There are usually cravings for food seen to be forbidden, like chocolate or cereals. Most people say that they aren’t hungry, they just need to eat. Some people just nibble all the time. Night eating is a problem for some people. Many sufferers binge to suppress or distract themselves from difficult feelings such as stress, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and self-loathing.
Indulging on on high fat, high sugar foods has a number of benefits. It can feel like a treat as well as a punishment. These foods at the same time offer comfort as the sugar provides a rush and foods such as chocolate trigger the release of endorphins that lifts mood. When compulsive eaters do not purge after a binge, many are overweight or obese despite the fact that they usually try to control their weight with one slimming diet after another. One person recently expressed her issues with me thus: I am only in control if I am on a diet, but I can’t seem to stick to a diet for long. Every diet, you name it I’ve tried it, but I am fatter than ever.
So – what is compulsive eating? I see it as a skewed relationship with food in which overeating occurs as an unhealthy coping strategy to deal with difficult emotions – TOGETHER WITH a mindset characterised by unhelpful beliefs and attitudes about food, weight, dieting and the self. The last point is important. To say that binge eating is JUST about feelings is not correct.
For one thing, binge eating can be induced by extreme weight-loss plans. Research shows clearly that dieting gives rise to cravings and binge eating in anyone, even if they are emotionally healthy.
Spotting the signs
One of the reasons it has taken so long to recognise binge eating disorders is because it is difficult to define what is a binge. After all, “One man’s binge is another man’s meal.”
What constitutes a ‘binge’ and defines Binge Eating Disorder varies greatly from one person to the next. While some people will be or become overweight, others might not. For many people it stems from an emotional trigger, but again, not always. Jade says, “BED is a troubled relationship with food, but you don’t always have to define it.”
To spot the signs of compulsive eating, ask yourself the following questions, but keep in mind everyone is different:
• Do I eat much faster than normal at times?
• Do I eat until feeling uncomfortably full?
• Do I eat a large amount of food when I’m not hungry?
• Do I eat alone or secretly due to embarrassment about the amount of food I consume?
• Do I feel guilty, shamed or disgusted after overeating?
• Do I feel I eat more than I need?
• Do I feel abnormal?
• Do I feel ‘taken over’ as if by another presence in respect of eating?
• Do I try to compensate for overeating by dieting or restraining food?
• Do I feel in control when surrounded by my favourite food?
• Do I feel insecure if I can’t eat my favourite foods?
• Do I eat mindlessly, in a rush as if I don’t taste it, or erratically
• Does eating interfere with and/or control my life?
It’s really not that difficult to treat. We concentrate on building up the person so they feel in control and strengthened. This can be achieved through some mental flexibility training, nutritional rehab, communication skills and stress training.
But we must have some focus on food. To change a relationship with food we first must look at it closely. We monitor patterns in binging to see what causes them. The binging patterns begin to inform the sufferer about their eating behaviour and help them to understand the emotional and other triggers.
If the triggers are emotional, or about buried emotions which are not being expressed, we must identify these feelings and help someone to deal with them more appropriately. If the triggers are about beliefs, such as feeling as if you have “blown it” if you eat a biscuit, people need to learn how to manage their thoughts. So keeping a log of your thoughts and your feelings is as important as keeping a log about food.
It’s also important to do some nutritional rehab. to beat compulsive eating, and this does not involve staying away from all sugar and white flour as suggested by some addiction programmes. Regular eating small snacks is helpful at first and we can use some new exciting methods for appetite sensitivity training and teaching mindful eating skills which can help people to feel in control surprisingly fast.
Eating control is also a family issue. We all feel that we should crack our problems on our own, but the support of family members can work a treat. It’s helpful not to have temptation in the house like crisps for the children or cake for your partner. Seeing these foods is too much temptation for everyone, not just binge eaters and your family would prefer you to be happy more than they need these treats.
When it comes to weight loss, there is no quick fix. If you don’t treat the eating disorder, you will be less likely to stick to a healthy-eating plan. Or, if you do lose weight, you won’t EVER keep it off. In other words, if left untreated, binge eating will leave a person’s chances at weight loss almost zero. And if they do succeed, in two years it’s almost 100% likely they will have regained.
If you think you might be suffering from compulsive eating, consult an eating disorder specialist. General counselling wont sort you out. Always check they have the relevant qualifications and experience. You can contact me, Deanne Jade on 0845 838 2040 or at www.eating-disorders.org.uk