4 of the Biggest Myths About Binge Eating
Desperate to know how to stop binge eating? First you need to know what a binge and what it isn't.
Binge eating is troubling at the least and can completely take over your life at its worst.
We tend to make light of other ways we partake in binging (i.e. a Netflix binge is accepted and even invited into our cultural vernacular). Bingeing with food is at once common and yet elicits feelings of extreme shame, guilt, worry and remorse. A few weeks ago, I wrote about several different types of binges that I have seen and what causes them. In my 3-part video series on Binge, Emotional, Stress and Overeating, I discuss the 3 D’s that are often the cause of binge eating: Distraction, Dissociation and Dieting Culture. Watch the video series here.
Today I want to talk a little bit about some myths surrounding binges and to demystify them somewhat as well. To the average person who has not struggled with binge-eating, it can be easy to make up assumptions about what a binge is or isn’t or what type of person binges and who doesn’t.
Once we can fully understand the nuances of binges, why they happen and how to mitigate them, we will continue to be driven by our fear and faulty perceptions rather than by curiosity and inquiry.
Only large people binge:
The truth is that people of all weights and sizes binge-eat. You cannot determine whether or not someone binges by their appearance. Remember that often times binging is something that is done in private and at times very few people even know that the behavior occurs. Someone can be thin and still struggle with bingeing. Others can be in a larger body and never binge eat at all.
Bingeing is all about the type and amount of food eaten:
In my experience, bingeing has less to do with the type or even the amount of food eaten but rather the feeling of being out of control and not feeling grounded or able to make rational choices. Someone can binge on carrots…or cake. Another person can eat a relatively small amount of food and still perceive it as a binge due to the experience of feeling out of control. The problem is only compounded, in my opinion, by the promulgation of specific and “normal” portions of food that are recommended by some experts in the field of nutrition. When we are told that arbitrary portions of food are considered socially acceptable but our appetites say otherwise, it sets up both a cascade of shame and feeling like one is abnormal or has a problem when one wants to eat more than the suggested portion sizes. This fear and shame can set up instances where one feels they have to eat secretly, quickly and in large amounts out of fear that the food might be taken away or that they will feel empty, unsatisfied or hungry.
Binging means you lack willpower or discipline:
Bingeing is often a manifestation of being in some sort of stress response. Remember, when we are in a fight-or-flight mode caused by our nervous system, we operate from our reptilian brains with instinct for survival rather than using our prefrontal cortex, which is the rational part of our brain. One doesn’t even have to be in a full on stress response for us to behave in this way. The day in and day out low-level stress that we experience can create the same secretion of stress hormones which activate processes in our bodies that are designed to protect us. But those same processes may also have us practice behaviors that feel safe, comfortable and familiar even if they are detrimental to us as a whole, long term. Finally, a stress response can occur by any real or imagined threat. So the very negative thoughts and perceptions about ourselves, the food and who we are as eaters can elicit the same primitive behaviors as though a bear were chasing us. If you’ve been told your whole life that a certain food is “bad” and even poison and yet you love that food and derive pleasure from it, one can understand how difficult it is to reconcile this in our minds. It’s part of what causes the frenetic, fast-paced, out-of-control, secretive behaviors of bingeing in the first place. You do not lack willpower or discipline. Dieting culture is literally complicit, in part, in our fast- eating, guilt-eating, binge-eating and overeating. It is not your moral failing. It is the culture’s moral failing.
People who binge always have BED (binge eating disorder):
While Binge Eating Disorder is a real diagnosis in the DSM-5 which is a comprehensive manual of mental health disorders, one can be a binge-eater and not reach the level of a BED. Just like everything else, there is always a spectrum and I fear that because BED is a real disorder rooted in anxiety, that everyone who occasionally binges or who struggles with the behavior feels the weight, sting, fear and stigma of having a diagnosable disorder. In the same way that your child can have some symptoms of ADHD, yet not have it be at a diagnosable level, the same is true of disordered eating, including bingeing. But, this also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek help. There are many ways to mitigate binge-eating that do not include medication or professional psychological treatment. In my practice, for instance, I specialize in supporting people experiencing bingeing and help them to understand the causal effects as well as how to stay embodied before, during and after an episode to learn about it. I also use mindful and intuitive eating practices to help someone feel more in control, safe and calm around food in general.
If you struggle with bingeing that has become problematic for you or has caused you health concerns like GI distress or extreme feelings of fear and dread around food, seek the help of a professional be it a HAES dietician, Eating Disorder specialist, psychotherapist or coach specializing in Binge Eating. There are also some wonderful resources all over the country such as NEDA and Walden Behavioral.