I’m guessing that most of us have been there. Those days when everything’s a bit much and what starts with a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat morphs into a packet of chocolate digestives and a tub of Haagen-Daas. But at what stage does ‘comfort’ cross over into ‘binge’ eating? When does a normal desire to indulge, tip over into hunger so vast that nothing can satisfy it? And how can we understand and challenge such behaviour?
This’ll be the first of a series of posts on the issue of binge-eating. As you probably already know, it’s not just a problem for bulimics or those struggling with their weight – it affects up to 50 per cent of recovering anorexics as well. It’s only recently been classed as an eating disorder so hasn’t yet been comprehensively researched, but estimates are that it affects around 2 per cent of the population. 60 per cent of sufferers are thought to be women, 40 per cent men.
There’s a difference between say an enormous Christmas dinner and systematic binge-eating. For starters (no pun intended), the discomfort of too many mince pies is a world away from the abject misery, guilt and shame of someone who feels driven to consume up to 15 times the normal daily intake of food. For this reason it is almost always done in secret. What stamps binge-eating as a disorder is its frequency and persistence, as well as the distress that it causes. The eating is usually associated with an extreme loss of control and may involve compensatory behaviours, such as vomiting or laxative abuse. These can provide a temporary feeling of relief, a cleansing, not just of excess calories, but for the self-hatred which both triggers and sustains bingeing.
The food consumed during binges, tends to be quick, high-fat and high-sugar, setting up additional problems such as sugar or caffeine addiction and accompanying mood swings. Add to this a cultural bias towards thinness and self-control and we start to see just how frightening and debilitating such a disorder can be. As a result, sufferers often adopt complex strategies for concealing and managing the issue. Some will binge and purge – making themselves sick or over-exercising to reverse their feelings of guilt and shame. Others may try to block out what has happened – perhaps by eating mainly at night, (see also Night Eating Syndrome) and going to bed afterwards, or by hiding the evidence, restocking the fridge and promising it won’t happen again. To compensate, they may fast for long periods which exacerbates the problem by making them hungrier, leaving them at the mercy of low blood sugar and much more likely to binge again. Large quantities of food can have a sedative affect, so one theory is that it is a way of self-medicating painful feelings. The sufferer can both look forward to and dread these binges, eating almost as if on auto-pilot or as if watching themselves from across the room. Not only is such behaviour distressing and time-consuming for the sufferer (and sometimes those close to them), it is exorbitantly expensive – some people cat eat the equivalent of a day’s food within minutes, before starting again just a few hours later.