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Archive for February 5th, 2009

What is Binge Eating?

Many people are not even aware that there are more than two types of eating disorders. When they hear the word eating disorder, most people think about anorexia nervosa. Many people are also aware of the eating disorder of bulimia nervosa. Not as many people would identify binge eating as an eating disorder.

Binge eating has a lot in common with bulimia except that the person does not purge after the binge. People who struggle with binge eating tend to wrestle with their weight because they eat very large quantities of food in a single sitting. Many people who struggle with binge eating also struggle with compulsive overeating, which is a “cousin” of binge eating but not necessarily the same thing.

A person who struggles with binge eating feels a very strong urge to consume large quantities of food in a single sitting. The person might go through multiple “courses” of food, such as eating a big bowl of popcorn, following by a candy bar, and then another “snack.” If a binge is particularly strong, the person might not be able to get the food into her body fast enough, shoving the food into her mouth with intensity.

Compulsive overeating is a little different. A compulsive overeater might still consume a large amount of food in a single sitting, but the intensity is different. The person might have already eaten dinner but still feels a strong pull toward eating a large dessert, even though he has had plenty to eat already. He eats the dessert because it will make him “feel better,” even though he is not still hungry.

The intensity of the binge eating is the big difference between the two eating disorders. For example, I went on a diet (very bad idea for anyone with an eating disorder) and removed all junk food from the house. I had such an intense compulsion to binge that I dug out the cocoa from the cabinet and made a cake from scratch, just so I would have junk food to binge on. When the cake was ready, I could not get large pieces of cake into my mouth fast enough.

People who struggle with binge eating try to hide the quantity of food that they are eating from their family and friends. They will binge when nobody else is around. They hide the wrappers so nobody will see a whole bunch of them in the garbage.

In the short term, the binge eating is quite successful in short-circuiting the deep emotional pain. However, the person winds up feelings guilty and ashamed, which adds to the bad feelings that are fueling the behavior in the first place. This creates a vicious cycle that is very difficult to break.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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