Binge eating can be beaten with care, support

Special to The TribuneMay 27, 2013 


We all overeat now and again. We polish off a box of Little Debbies while watching a movie. Or we gorge ourselves on pie and stuffing at the holidays.

But for some, binge eating is a troubling, repetitive behavior. It’s an eating disorder characterized by the consumption of unusually large amounts of food at one sitting followed by feelings of guilt and being out of control. Binge eating is more common in people who are overweight or obese. It was previously identified by such names as compulsive overeating, emotional eating and food addiction.

Unlike those with bulimia or anorexia nervosa, binge eaters do not throw up their food, exercise excessively or pick endlessly at their meals. They are keenly aware that their behavior is abnormal and try to hide it from their families and friends. As a result, the disorder can go undetected for years.

Other symptoms of binge eating include:

  • Eating when you’re full or not hungry.
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes.
  • Frequently eating alone.
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control.
  • Feeling disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about your eating behavior.
  • Experiencing depression and anxiety.
  • Feeling isolated and having difficulty talking about your feelings.
  • Frequently dieting, often without weight loss.
  • Repeatedly losing and gaining weight.
    • After a bingeing episode, bingers may try to diet or eat normal meals. But restricting eating often leads to more bingeing, creating a vicious cycle.

      The Academy for Eating Disorders reports that binge eating typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood. However, sufferers typically don’t seek treatment until they’ve reached middle age. It affects 2 percent to 3 percent of adults in the United States, with women outnumbering men 3 to 2.

      Various factors are responsible for binge eating. Research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that certain rats were more likely to binge when they reached puberty than others, indicating a predisposition toward overeating. Also, having a parent or sibling who binges increases the likelihood that a person will develop the problem.

      Certain mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, commonly co-exist with bingeing. Other people have trouble managing their impulses, low self-esteem, or body dissatisfaction.

      Social pressures to be thin elicit shame that leads to further emotional eating. Boys and girls subjected to critical comments about their weight are also vulnerable, as are those who were sexually abused.

      Fortunately, binge eating is treatable. Statistics show that 70 percent to 80 percent recover with the proper diagnosis and care. Those with fewer interpersonal problems appear to have a better chance of reclaiming normal eating. Treatments include a multi-pronged approach. Cognitive behavioral therapy explores the emotional causes of bingeing and the maladaptive thoughts that foster it. Behavioral weight-loss programs help sufferers learn appropriate eating strategies.

      Anti-depressant medication diminishes anxiety and depression and lays the groundwork for sustained mental health.

      How to help loved ones cope

      • Encourage them to seek help. Eating disorders seldom get better by themselves. And the longer they go untreated, the more difficult they are to cure. If necessary, participate in locating the proper therapist or program.
      • Be supportive. Your loved ones need an advocate. Let them know you’ll help in any way that you can.
      • Avoid insults, lectures or guilt trips. They already feel terrible. They don’t need to be blamed or scolded for what they do. Listen to their concerns and feelings. It’s important they feel heard.
      • Decrease stress. Bingers eat more when pressured or anxious. Help them manage their calendars. Allow them to cut back on activities that create undue angst.
      • Be patient. The road to recovery isn’t linear. It’s apt to have false starts and dead ends. Don’t worry. A setback needn’t be viewed as a failure but merely one more step along the journey.
      • Set a good example. Demonstrate healthy eating and exercise habits. Avoid complaining about your body or your weight.
      • Love unconditionally. Bingers are far more than their maladaptive habit. They have unique strengths and gifts they can share. Let them know you think they’re terrific. They’ll thrive in your presence and warmth.

      Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

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