Far more than just occasional over-indulging, binge eating can be a serious eating disorder for many people. Liz Connor finds out more.
Ever had days where you’ve struggled to resist that second helping of dinner or extra slice of moreish cake?
Most of us have, and that’s very normal. Diet culture can often mislabel this sort of thing as ‘bingeing’ but binge eating disorder (BED) is much more than just enjoying your food or indulging in a few too many treats every now and then.
It can be a serious eating disorder that requires appropriate treatment from a medical professional.
Eating disorders are believed to affect between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK, and they’re often a lot more damaging and complex than many people realise. The Priory Group (priorygroup.com) highlights that conditions like anorexia, bulimia and BED are responsible for more loss of life than any other mental health condition.
TV and films often portray people developing eating disorders during early adolescent years, and while this is generally true, the charity BEAT (beateatingdisorders.org.uk) says it’s not unusual to experience eating disorders later in life too.
A report from the charity reveals cases have been known to develop in children as young as six, and in adults as late as their 70s. Eating disorders can also potentially affect anyone, of any gender or background.
We spoke to experts to find out more about BED, its causes, and some tips for managing and overcoming it…
What is binge eating disorder?
Alexia Dempsey, specialist eating disorder dietitian at Priory Roehampton Hospital says: “Daily life can often lead to negative emotions like stress, anger, sadness, fear and loneliness.
“Often these negative emotions can trigger emotional eating.”
However, for some people, emotional ‘binge eating’ can be a regular demon that dictates a person’s day and their self-worth.
“Emotional eating often comes on suddenly and feels like it needs to be satisfied immediately, as it happens as a way of suppressing or distracting negative thoughts and feelings.
“It’s a form of self-soothing that, in the short-term, can feel functional, but in the long-term can support a cycle of difficult and distressing feelings followed by low self-worth.”
“In emotional overeating, an individual will use food as a distraction from the negative. Common foods include chocolate, crisps, sweets, and other foods that are considered to be a ‘treat’ or ‘naughty’.”
Dempsey says people with the disorder often report carbohydrate- based binges, too. One reason for this could be that the ingestion of carbohydrates increases the plasma ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids, leading to increased serotonin.
Serotonin is a chemical that has been found to alleviate low mood and anxiety, so it makes sense that in times of stress, we crave foods that can boost these ‘happy’ hormones.
Also, as these types of food are often considered ‘naughty’, the person binge eating can then feel guilty about their bingeing. ‘Treat’ foods are usually high in calories too, so if a person engages in stress eating regularly, their weight can increase and this can take a further knock on their self-esteem.
What causes it?
Charity BEAT says causes occur when a person is experiencing negative emotions, like anger, sadness or loneliness.
These emotional or psychological factors may ‘trigger’ the binge eating pattern, which becomes a coping strategy.
The causes of binge-eating disorder are unknown but a few factors can increase the risk of developing it, such as a family history of eating disorders, or a history of dieting.
How can people help themselves to overcome binge eating?
Fortunately, experts say there are plenty of strategies people can try to help reduce and manage episodes of binge eating. However, while self-care tips can be helpful, it’s important to remember that seeking an accurate diagnosis from a healthcare professional is important for all eating disorders.
If you are concerned about your own eating patterns and binge eating, speak to your GP. Getting appropriate treatment as soon as possible can make a big difference to recovery and if necessary, your doctor can refer you for specialist help. It may be that you could benefit from addressing any underlying mental health issues, for example, plus counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy could help you with developing new healthier coping strategies.