It was her junior year in high school, and Sunny Sea Gold was selling candy bars to raise money for prom. Only instead of selling, Sunny started eating. First just one, then another, then eventually six or seven—all within a couple of hours.
This wasn’t the first time Sunny binged—eating more than she should have, more than she even wanted. It began when she was about 14 or 15, after experiencing the trauma of her parents’ divorce. “I started relying on food to manage my feelings,” she says. “If I was scared or I was lonely or I was angry, I found that food would make me feel better. It would make me feel numb.”
But that comforting, numb feeling came with many others: feelings of shame, disgust, and regret. “I just thought I was crazy,” she says. “I thought I was a pig and freak because I couldn’t control what I was eating.” Only after that candy bar binge did Sunny finally decide to do something about her harmful eating habits. “I was feeling so out of control that I finally realized, okay. It’s not just that I have a willpower problem. This is something else. This is something beyond my control.”
That something is what we now call binge eating disorder—and many would be surprised to find out that it’s the most common eating disorder, affecting more than twice as many people as anorexia and bulimia combined. Yet despite its prevalence, bingeing doesn’t get nearly as much attention as other eating disorders.
But Gold is working to change that. Now a successful magazine editor, she has not only overcome her disorder, but she’s committed to raising awareness of binge eating disorder with her book, Food: The Good Girl’s Drug and her website, HealthyGirl.org.
What is binge eating?
Unlike other eating disorders, it can be hard to draw the line between normal binge eating and binge eating disorder—everyone overeats sometimes, after all. Whether it’s a pint of your favorite Ben & Jerry’s after a rough breakup or a bag of Doritos during finals week, nearly everyone turns to food for comfort occasionally. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to know that they’re even binging,” says Gold.
Susan Holmberg, nutrition specialist and behavior therapist, says it’s impossible to quantify binge eating by the amount of food being consumed, because that can differ so much from person to person. “The thing that is the core of binge eating is the feeling of abandon,” she says. “There’s a bit of a frenzy about it.”
Holmberg knows because she struggled with various eating disorders, including binge eating, from high school into her thirties. She now helps others through the problems she once battled.
On a binge, Holmberg says you eat beyond the level of what’s enjoyable or reasonable, sometimes beyond the level of what you’re even paying attention to anymore. A binge is also accompanied by feelings of shame. “If you find yourself being defensive about it or hiding it,” says Holmberg, “that’s a big warning sign that something isn’t right.”
Although binge eating is classified as an eating disorder, it has also been viewed as a type of addiction. While some people turn to alcohol or drugs to relax or to find a numbing sensation, others turn to food. And because food is legal and readily available, it’s a very common choice. “It’s not like drinking, where you can drive your car into a tree and kill yourself,” says Holmberg. “They can eat that way and it doesn’t get labeled as anything.”
But Gold says binge eating is more closely related to eating disorders than addictions. In fact, many people who struggle with binge eating will also struggle with other eating disorders at some point. “Bulimia is mostly binge eating; it’s just followed by getting rid of what you’re doing,” says Holmberg. “Most of the bulimics I’ve worked with are over-eaters who don’t want to be fat.”
So why don’t we hear about binge eating as much as we do about anorexia or bulimia? It’s hard to say exactly, but there’s something about binge eating that hints at gluttony and sounds more like a self-control issue and less like a diagnosed illness such as anorexia. And that creates more shame around the idea of binge eating. “In our society, fat is seen as ugly and it is also seen as a lack of control—and so is eating too much,” says Sea Gold. “People don’t want to be associated with that kind of behavior, so they don’t talk about it.”
Why binge eat?
More and more, people like Gold and Catherine Garceau, a former Olympic athlete who battled eating disorders (including anorexia and binge eating) for years, are working to educate people about the reality of binge eating. Garceau calls being caught up in an eating disorder “a cycle of self-sabotage.”
While it’s typical to think of an eating disorder as a mostly mental or emotional illness, Garceau says eating is also physiologically relaxing when we’re stressed out. “Because you haven’t figured out other ways to relax yourself in the world, you’re going to use the food to sedate yourself,” she says. The real problems begin when your brain develops pathways and gets wired to turn to food as a response to stress or negative emotions. “What starts as one afternoon can end up being a mechanism that your body recognizes as being a relaxing state,” says Garceau.
Holmberg also says that a culture of dieting sets people up physically for bingeing—especially women, who face more societal pressure to look and eat a certain way. (While it’s the most common eating disorder for both men and women, there are more women than men who suffer from binge eating disorder.) “People constantly diet and starve all day long, and that will bio-chemically set you up to binge,” says Holmberg. In particular, eating a diet that is very low in fat will cause your body to crave the nutrients that it’s not receiving. “Not being nourished properly is a huge contribution to binge eating. Your body just won’t be satisfied.”