Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious mental health condition that is frequently overlooked and poorly understood. It is a chronic pattern of eating objectively large amounts of food at one time, often in a rushed and secretive way followed by a deep sense of shame. It is estimated to affect about 70 million people worldwide (Keski-Rahkonen, 2021). Although it is not a new phenomenon, there’s a lack of awareness and discussion about BED, leading to stigmatization and barriers to seeking help.
To be clear, two cookies is not a binge. Sometimes guilt can arise from eating a small amount of food, especially if you consider it to be a “bad” food. Volume is the key to distinguishing between a subjective binge and objective binge. As a general guideline, an objective binge is an amount of food that the general population would agree is a lot to consume in one sitting. Binge eating is different from occasional overeating such as feasting during the holidays or celebrating important events. To qualify as BED, binging must occur at least once a week over a period of at least three months and includes a feeling of being out of control.
BED can make you feel very alone because you think you are the only one in the world to have this out-of-control problem with food. A standard reaction would be to hide what and how much you eat out of shame and embarrassment. BED often leads to eating only small portions of food around others, skipping meals or going for long periods of time without eating to then binge when you are alone. During a binge, which can happen once a week or more than once a day, you will eat quickly until uncomfortably full. Binging can be triggered by either negative or positive emotions and is frequently followed by emotional numbness.
Research shows there is a genetic component to eating disorders including BED. If a family member struggled with food or body image, or other mental health issues like anxiety or depression, there is a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Environmental factors such as social media, fashion, beauty, and the health and fitness industry place great emphasis on body image, which increases vulnerability to BED. Psychological factors such as perfectionism (pressure to achieve) and social comparison (comparing what you eat and how you look to others) also play a big role, as does the pressure to conform to cis-gendered body types.
BED alienates you from vital sources of support like loved ones or healthcare professionals because it can be distressing to share the details of your relationship with food. Depression and misuse of substance or alcohol are often found concurrently with BED. Onset of BED can begin in adolescence or adulthood. While some people can talk about it, most go for years without telling anyone in the hope that they will be able to solve the problem on their own by increasing their willpower. Typical self-help strategies to get over binging include different forms of food restriction which only exacerbates the problem. Finding someone you trust is a key place to start. Talk to your doctor and seek out other mental health professionals like a counsellor, registered dietitian, or eating disorder support groups like Body Brave or CMHA-WW.
If you are looking for treatment for BED, there are a variety of therapeutic interventions shown to be effective like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and interpersonal therapy (IPT) (Iacovino,et al. 2012). CBT addresses negative thought patterns and feelings that result in coping with binging eating. DBT promotes emotional self-regulation, stronger interpersonal skills, mindful self-awareness, and stress management to reduce likelihood of binging. Interpersonal therapy improves interpersonal functioning by addressing relational challenges.
While BED is marked by feelings of helplessness and frustration, there are things you can do that help. Engaging in daily self-care is a primary strategy that reduces vulnerability to binging. Self-care is different for everyone, but it starts with the basics like taking care of your physical needs by showering, eating regularly and getting enough sleep. Self-care also involves building interpersonal skills like setting boundaries and being more assertive. When you feel the urge to binge, try different coping skills such as self-soothing with smelling essential oils, applying a scented lotion, or lighting a scented candle. Resting, stretching, reading, calling a friend, or doing a hobby are other ways of quelling the urge to eat. Of all these tools, doing a hobby can feel the most difficult because hobbies and interests are often the first thing to go with eating disorders. To get back into your hobbies, spend some time remembering what you once loved to do in your free time. If you can’t recall, develop new leisure time activities altogether. If you have been putting your life on hold because of your body image concerns or your relationship with food, start with small steps to built confidence. Some realistic goals for yourself might be going to a movie with a friend or joining a book club. Ultimately, becoming involved in your interests will give you more ways to deal with the feelings that trigger binge eating.
Binge eating disorder can be overcome, and breaking the silence is an important factor in helping yourself and others. By fostering open conversations, reducing stigma, and encouraging those affected to seek help, we can create a supportive environment for healing and recovery.
Remember, seeking help is a courageous step towards regaining control and improving mental and physical well-being. Remember BED flourishes in silence. The first step is to reach out to someone you trust. Connect with your primary care provider or an eating disorder specialist for guidance and support.
Keski-Rahkonen, A., (2021), Epidemiology of binge eating disorder: prevalence, course,
comorbidity, and risk factors, Current Opinions in Psychiatry, 34(6), 525-531. Retrieved on
December 10, 2023 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34494972/
Iqbal, A. & Rehman, A., (2022), National Library of Medicine: National Center for Biotechnology Information. Binge Eating Disorder. Retrieved on 2023, December 17 from
National Eating Disorders Information Centre. Affirming Care for Every Body. Retrieved on 2023, December 10 from https://nedic.ca/2slgbtq/