Binge eating is when a person consumes excessive amounts of food within a short period of time, even to the point of making themselves sick or uncomfortable. So for example, a binge eater might sit in their room and consume two boxes of Hostess cupcakes all in one sitting, or raid the pantry for whatever they can find and then sit down and eat until they can’t eat anymore. Or they may hit a fast food restaurant late at night, purchasing an unusually large amount of food, and then find someplace to park their car so they can eat in private.
Binge eating is something typically done in secrecy, and it leaves a person feeling guilty and ashamed afterwards, creating a vicious cycle wherein a person binges to feel better or because they are stressed only to wind up more psychologically distressed than they were before they started. Most binging occurs late at night, often after others have gone to bed, but it can also occur at any time of the day or night.
The Harmful Consequences of Binge Eating
Binge eating may not seem as directly violent towards the body as anorexia or bulimia, but it does plenty of damage in its own right. Binge eating leads to things like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. Of course, excessive eating also contributes to obesity, with the laundry list of problems that come along with being overweight.
Binging is especially rough on the body when it’s preceded by a period of food deprivation. Which is precisely what happens in the quite common scenario where a person is limiting their food intake to diet and then breaks down and binges. This creates a pattern where a person is swinging from a state of extremely low blood sugar levels to a sudden and dramatic spike in blood sugar that occurs within a short period of time. It’s the cardiovascular equivalent of whiplash, and it’s a recipe for diabetes and other health problems.
Ironically, this pattern is also counterproductive when it comes to weight loss. These wild swings between starvation and abundance throw a person’s metabolism out of whack. The period of starvation puts their body into calorie preservation mode, slowing their metabolism and causing them to burn fewer calories. When this is followed by an overindulgence (or any food intake for that matter), their body burns less of these calories and stores more of the remaining energy as fat.
Treatment for Binge Eating
The standard treatment for binge eating is some type of psychological or behavioral therapy. Occasionally a physician may recommend some sort of medication to reduce food cravings, but these are unproven methods that usually produce lackluster results.
Signs & Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Here are some potential warning signs that you or someone you love has BED:
- Eating in secrecy or being secretive about eating habits
- Excessive amounts of food items go mysteriously missing from the fridge or pantry
- Stashing, stockpiling, or hoarding food in unusual places like a backpack, closet, or under the bed
- Disappearing behind closed doors or staying up late at night
- Finding empty food containers or packaging lying abound the house
- You discover food wrappers in the trash that have been intentionally buried underneath the other trash to try and conceal them
- Wearing baggy clothing (to conceal weight gain).
Diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder
In order to meet the diagnosis for binge eating disorder, a person must fit these two criteria:
A) Eat a large amount of food (more than people would typically eat) within a short amount of time (2 hours or less) at least one day a week over a period of at least 3 months.
B) The absence of purging behavior (throwing up afterwards, taking laxatives, etc.), which would change the diagnosis to bulimia.