As you can probably guess, I’m fairly open about my mental health issues; it’s not something that I’m ashamed of and I talk about it when I can. However, there’s another facet to my mental health that I’ve never really spoken about, but which has been in my life for much longer. I’ve only recently come to grips with something I’ve really know all along: my problem eating is not just a symptom of my depression, it’s something much more than that.
I saw a different psychiatrist a couple of months ago (back in the in-between), and along with suggesting new medications and treatment options, he was also very validating and frank about my eating. When I mentioned that I struggled with my eating, he asked for more details and we talked about my feelings surrounding my disordered eating. He diagnosed me with Binge Eating Disorder.
About Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Though I’ve found it to be one of the least discussed eating disorders, it is the most common. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website has a great information page on BED and they describe it pretty well:
Binge eating disorder is a severe, life-threatening and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating.
The NEDA website also references a 2007 study published in Biological Psychology that found that 3.5% of women and 2.0% of men had BED over the course of their lifetimes, making BED three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. BED typically begins when people are their late teens or early twenties, though it may not be diagnosed right away (or ever). Unfortunately, it’s estimated that only 28.4% of those currently suffering are being treated for their BED NEDA; it’s not known if that’s due to lack of help, stigma, or non-diagnosis.
BED is associated with many things, including a history of mental illness, rapid changes in weight (usually weight gain), and obesity (though the 1993 study found that fewer than one-third of those in weight control programs met the BED criteria). I know that for me, at least, a good part of my weight gain can be contributed to binging; it’s especially difficult because restricting my diet is a huge binge trigger for me. That said, those with BED can have any body shape — just like every other eating disorder.
It’s important to mention that a key characteristic of BED is hiding the action itself by binging only when the sufferer can be alone. Those with BED tend to hoard and hide food, avoid eating in front of others, or sometimes even avoid talking about food at all. Symptoms of BED can be very similar to those of other eating disorders, including low self-esteem, general disordered eating or a negative relationship with food, feelings of disgust or embarrassment, frequent dieting, poor body image, or withdrawal from social situations.
Binge Eating Disorder Stigma & Perception
While researching this post, I came across a wonderful article from 2010 published by the University of California about body weight and eating disorders in society (mainly as seen in the media). The article gave me some great (and science-y) support on something that I’ve sort of already known and experienced: in general, the world seems to view “anorexics as victims of a terrible illness beyond their and their parents’ control, while obesity is caused by bad individual [behaviour.]”
In my experience, weight loss is assumed to take dedication and strength, where gaining weight is a sign of weakness and lack of control. On its surface, I can see where that comes from: most of us like food and don’t want to have to ‘miss out’ on more of the good stuff. But when it comes to eating disorders, it’s just not fair to see it as anything other than a disorder. It’s not strength, but it’s not weakness either; it’s a disorder.
This is the same sort of mindset that dismisses those who are struggling with eating disorders because they don’t have the ‘right’ body type to be considered in need of help. I’ve been occasionally treated like I’m trying to make excuses for what is supposedly a fault of my own making: my weight. It’s really the reason that I didn’t acknowledge my BED or seek help for so long.
My Binge Eating Disorder & Me
I was diagnosed with BED back in the fall of 2017, but it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t around for longer than that. I rarely binged when I was in high school. Though I did emotionally eat and struggle with my weight, it was not severe enough to be really classified as disordered. (If you’re curious, the diagnostic criteria are on the NEDA website.) I remember sitting down with boxes of cookies and continuously cooking food, but it didn’t feel compulsive — plus, I wasn’t really ashamed or hiding it.
Things shifted when I moved off to university, though. I’m not positive what it was that started it; was it the sudden freedom or hints of my depression to come? Either way, it was a problem. When my roommate was out, my head was immediately filled with thoughts of how I could sneak piles of food into my room.
Some days, I’d try to take staggered trips down to the cafeteria, hoping to hide what I was eating. Other days, I’d wait until most of my floor settled down (or went out) and I’d order food from anywhere that accepted our meal plan as payment. Three or four meals’ worth of pizza, pasta, or Chinese food would come to the front door, and I’d carry it back to my room pretending that I had friends inside to indulge with me. I’d try to hide the boxes before my roommate came back, but I didn’t always succeed.
In a miserable, gruelling, lonely first year, food was a little pleasure and escape from it all. Even if I did feel terrible right after as I fell into an uncomfortable food coma. The next day, I’d wake up, still feeling full (and greasy) — even worse than the day before. I’d skip breakfast, sometimes lunch, but dinner would come around and more likely than not — I’d be so hungry that I would eat way too much yet again.
At the end of my first year, I had gained over 50 pounds and moved into my own apartment. There it got worse. I had no floormates, no roommates, no one to see how much I was eating but the delivery guy. Less than a year later, I got my own car. Binges became cheaper now that I could swing by a drive-through on my way home, but they also got more common. Bingeing helped me feel something.
Food was really little bits of joy and freedom at a time of my life where I felt either numb or sad all of the time; when my depression and anxiety were taking away increasing amounts of my independence.
Now that I’ve moved to my dad’s house, binges have been reduced to take out in my car. I usually take my dog with me now, though, and sometimes seeing his little face can be enough to interrupt the obsessive eating.
I’m bingeing less now, and I’m making an effort to get some help (though it is really, really tough to find). I haven’t stopped, though, and it’s thoroughly embarrassing; I hate seeing how heavy I’ve gotten and how out of control I can get. Just like with my mental health, I have trouble separating my BED from myself and not just lumping it in with my personality as some serious flaw of mine.
But I am on my way there.
Do you have any issues with binge or emotional overeating? How have you found success in recovery?