Dear Dr. Bonnie,
I have a bit of a problem when it comes to food. I tend to binge eat. If there’s no food in front of me, or if I’m crazy busy, I can go for almost an entire day with barely any food. But as soon as I get home, or anywhere where the food is just there, I literally can’t stop eating. I will eat everything and anything in front of me to the point that I sometimes feel physically sick and my stomach feels like it’s about to explode and yet I still can’t stop. I just have no control when it comes to food. I can just sit in the kitchen and polish off the entire contents of my fridge, and then I feel horrible afterwards. Besides the obvious problem of weight gain, the real problem is that I’m not eating because I’m actually hungry; I’m just eating. It’s a terrible habit and I know that, but I just can’t seem to control it. What do I do? Help!
Dear Binge Eater,
Most of us binge now and then, meaning we eat a lot more food than we need and well past the point of hunger. During some holidays binging is almost expected and a social norm. It can be concerning for people when it feels out of control and they feel guilt and shame afterwards. This is most likely to happen when we do it at times that are not socially sanctioned and we are eating for reasons that don’t make sense to us and we feel unable to stop. There are many reasons why a person may binge repeatedly; usually they are complicated and personal.
One way to think about it is from a behavioral perspective. When are you most likely to binge? Are there certain conditions in the day that make it more likely to happen (e.g. after not eating all day)? Can you actively try to avoid creating those conditions, for example, by conscientiously bringing snacks to work etc.…? How do you feel after you binge? Many people feel ashamed but also calm and sedated after bingeing. This happens because food changes our brain chemistry and can lead us to feel more content and calmer. Eating a lot of food can sedate us to a point of numbness. Is this numbness reinforcing your behaviour? Is there another, healthier way to achieve this outcome (e.g. meditation, yoga)? Are there feelings you are trying to numb that you need to address?
Another way to think about it is as a relationship. What kind of relationship do you have with food? Many people, especially women, have dysfunctional ‘relationships’ with food. Food, unlike other drugs that people get into trouble with, is something we must have. Abstinence is not an option. You cannot end your relationship with food no matter how dysfunctional the relationship is. You have to make the relationship work. What does food mean to you?
For example, for many of us, food stopped being about nourishment, pleasure, tradition, enjoying time with family, etc., once we started to diet. Food, and our appetite became the enemy to our or someone else’s goal of the desired body. Eating became about control; self-control, control from our parents, control from other significant people in our life or control from society. As a consequence, bingeing can feel like freedom from all the deprivation and controls and demands placed on us. It can feel like rebellion and self-expression. Unfortunately, if done too often, it can hurt us. It is also not repairing our dysfunctional relationship with food. We should not project this kind of significance onto food. Bingeing by itself is not so bad. We can afford to do it once in a while. But it may be a symptom of something we should look at more closely.
This is just one example of a dysfunctional relationship with food. I think it is a common one, but there are many other ways in which food takes on more psychological significance than it should. Food may represent psychological nourishment, or over-eating might be a way to sabotage yourself etc…or all of the above combined. Like I said, it is very personal and usually complicated.
However, the underlying psychological reasons why someone might binge are further reinforced by our biology in a way that is different than with other substances. Our bodies allow, even encourage consuming significant calories in one sitting. Unlike someone who has an addiction to heroine, binge eating is different. Someone addicted to heroin usually has complex psychological reasons that lead to their addiction, often fueled by an insufficiency in the neuro-chemicals that heroin provides. If they stop taking heroin, their body reacts violently at first. But once they go through the withdrawal, the psychological desire may still be there, but the physical craving is lessened. If they stay clean, years later they usually have minimal cravings for heroin. The body does not need heroin. It does need food.
It is only recently, that our species has had enough food in many populations to easily sustain itself. Our species does not evolve as quickly as our society does. As a consequence, obesity is not something our physical organism has evolved to prevent. Our bodies have evolved to conserve fuel, and to regain weight that has been lost. Feast and famine, are part of our species’ history, and our bodies encourage us to feast when we can. Recent research suggests that even if you dropped 10 kilos five years ago, your body still wants you to gain that weight back. Weight loss triggers alarm in our system, even if you are obese. It drops our metabolism, increases our appetite, and does what it can to bring you back up to weight. Especially if you have lost weight, your body will encourage bingeing.
This does not mean that we are helpless and have no hope of controlling our instinctual impulses. We are actually successful at doing this all the time. For example, we do not have sex with every person we are attracted to, or physically assault or run away from every person who threatens us; even though these are primitive instinctual responses our species has developed to sustain itself. My hope is that by recognising some of the biological mechanisms that reinforce bingeing it may lessen some of the shame in struggling to control this behaviour.
It is probably most helpful to approach this problem from all these different angles. You might start to keep a food diary to monitor what, when and how much you eat and record your feelings before, during, and after bingeing. It may help to develop your insight into the problem and point out patterns and risky situations for you. Getting professional help is also an option and may give you additional emotional support, structure, and increased insight. Writing this has made me hungry…hmmmm…