Binge Eating: The Invisible Eating Disorder

February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We'll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.

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.”

For Gold, overcoming the disorder included avoiding counting every calorie and ultimately relaxing about her eating habits. Now, she says she recognizes excessive dieting as a key contributor to binge eating. “I have never met someone with binge eating disorder who didn’t also diet,” she says.

But aside from the physical aspect, binge eating is often caused by emotional or mental stress. Gold says it’s common for an event or a difficult period, such as her parents’ divorce, to trigger binge eating. But binge eating can be caused by a myriad of factors. Like other eating disorders, societal pressure can cause harmful attitudes toward food that are likely to turn into disordered eating. “I came from a looks-focused family, and thinness was very important,” says Gold. “There was a lot of pressure to look a certain way and eat a certain way.”

For Emily, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who struggles with undiagnosed disordered eating, a binge can be triggered by a number of negative emotions. “[You eat] to feel something, even if it’s feeling extreme discomfort or pain, to fill loneliness, to stay unattractive because you feel undeserving of attention,” she says. But whatever the cause, she associates a binge with feeling unstable and manic, and then afterward—ashamed. “Of course you feel ashamed afterward,” she says. “You feel ashamed before you even begin, but you can push that thought away.” 

Binge eating in college

Unfortunately, a college environment is more likely to worsen binge eating than make it better. From late-night study food to drunk eating to pizza buffets at the cafeteria, college makes healthy eating more difficult in several ways. “College is pretty universally bad for eating habits because there are bad food choice options and cooking takes a lot of time that college students don't always have,” says Lisa, a sophomore at the University of Georgia.

And when you also consider the stress that accompanies college life, it’s not surprising that some statistics estimate that as many as 40% of female college students have eating disorders. “From my own experience, but also from what I hear from girls at healthygirl.org, for a lot of them their eating disorders either started when they got to college or got worse when they went to college,” says Gold.

The college environment, which comes with complete freedom over eating habits and more opportunity to be alone, seems to foster disordered eating. “College is very stressful, and before I came here, I never binged,” says Olivia, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill who has struggled with multiple eating disorders. “After I moved out of the dorm, I started. The security blanket of people around to keep my unhealthy habits in check was gone. It was only me, and it was very easy to escape into a world where I only existed and I only cared.”

Olivia found that food helped her manage the stress and negative emotions of college. “Anxiety, sadness and loneliness are very difficult for me to handle,” she says. “I often turn to food to drown out any emotions and create a numbing effect. In the moment, I feel relieved and assuaged. However, afterward, I feel even more anxious because I now have to deal with and worry about what all that high-calorie food is going to do to my body and my figure on top of whatever I was anxious about to begin with.”  

What to do about it

If you or someone you know is suffering from binge eating disorder, it’s important to realize that it is a real and serious illness that deserves proper treatment—for both mental and physical health. Aside from weight gain and all of the health problems that come with it, binge eating is also associated with acid reflux disease, insulin surges that lead to diabetes, and other long-term effects.

Every person is different, so “what can work for one person may be the complete opposite of what another needs,” says Garceau. But to start, here are a few ideas:

  • Read up on binge eating disorder. Gold advises self-help books as a good place to start recovering. While knowledge alone can’t cure you, the more you know about it, the better chance you’ll have at overcoming the disorder. Pick up a copy of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug, or find a list of recommended self-help books here.
  • In the beginning, if you can’t curb the actual binge eating, try to binge on lower calorie, healthy foods.
  • Stop dieting and focus on eating balanced and filling meals that include protein and healthy fat.
  • If you know you have foods that act as a trigger for your binge eating, don’t keep them in the house. “Everybody is triggered by the environment. It makes a lot of sense not to keep things around you that you’re likely to binge eat,” says Holmberg.
  • Seek out help from others. Both one-on-one therapy and support groups can be invaluable. Garceau advises working in groups and doing programs that are targeted to looking at the whole picture of your physical, mental and spiritual health. Campus mental health services are familiar with eating disorders, so they are a great place to start.

 

Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you're looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.