5 myths of compulsive and binge eating

Understanding and overcoming binge eating disorder is not about willpower. And here's the thing: most people don't know they have a treatable condition. They think there's something wrong with them. They think they have no control. They think it is about willpower and they are wrong.

Binge and compulsive eating disorder is the most common and prevalent eating disorder. Yet, when we think about eating disorders we often think of anorexia or bulimia. 

Binge eating is defined as recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances, with episodes marked by feelings of lack of control. This happens an average of once a week, over a period of three months.

Several years ago, I got an email from a patient who was in treatment for binge eating. And by the way, she was in her mid-twenties, she was very attractive, very stylish and a normal weight, which is important to note.

She wrote me a list of what she ate one day;

"At four o'clock, a full-size chocolate bar, a tub of ice cream, a small chocolate cake,  a bowl of pasta and veggies with cheese and olive oil. Loads of chocolate chips, about six Kit Kats, the small ones. Yes. I feel ill. That's a binge."

I explained food probably seemed to feel like the problem, but it was actually a solution to the problem. Her way of coping.

Yes, it hurt her, but it also distracted and comforted her, numbed her. It helped her in some way. It was a way of coping. And that is not just true of this patient, this is true of everyone who struggles with binge eating.

People who binge are often deeply ashamed of their behaviour and the resulting guilt or embarrassment and disgust. There is so much self-disgust which really negatively impacts their self-esteem. So, they think the problem is what they are eating. They don't realise the real problem is what's eating at them.

Food is meant to be rewarding. That explains why the reward centres of our brain light up and normal hunger also increases neural activation. Some foods do activate reward neurons and dopamine receptors, and the anticipation of eating activates the same area in the brain as drugs do. 

There is also the behavioural, or conditioning aspect of eating. Have you ever noticed whenever you are on a diet you want to eat all the forbidden foods? But, when people are given permission to eat these forbidden foods, they actually eat less. Clearly, there are psychological factors that have even more impact on behaviour than just what happens in our brains.

5 myths, misconceptions and common assumptions

  1. People who struggle with binge or compulsive eating are overweight or obese. Now they may be overweight. They may be obese, but they may also be within a normal weight range. Some people want to be thinner. For others their weight serves as a protective purpose, and they need to stay overweight for various reasons, depending on whatever is going on with them. If you want to lose weight, you will discover there are hidden unconscious reasons that keep things in place. So many explain that once they reach their goal weight, they discover that they feel exactly the same.

  2. Overeating and binge eating are often used interchangeably, but there is a significant difference. I think it is important to go over that nearly everyone overeats at some time or another since overeating just refers to eating too much. There are lots of causes of overeating and they generally have to do with the food itself, not with feelings. Many people overeat at Christmas because that's the day everybody's supposed to overeat, so excess is celebrated. You're supposed to eat. What differentiates bingeing from overeating is the intensity and scope of the binges themselves, driven by a compulsive quality, usually followed by remorse.

  3. Many people don't eat enough during the day. This is very interesting because lots of people think they're out of control because they lack willpower, but often they're just not eating enough. So they don't take in as many calories as they need to during the day and then come nighttime they are ravenously hungry. And of course, once you're that hungry, it's really hard to stop. 

  4. Food Addiction. They think they lack willpower because of a physical addiction to food. So, there are studies that make the case for food addiction, they say that food shares common drug pathways in the brain. It correlates certain foods that increase the dopamine levels in our brain. Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure and motivation in our brains.
    Sugar and white flour activate the release of dopamine. People eat these sugary, fatty foods and get that dopamine rush. They feel good, and they want to keep eating to get that rush. Sugar does indeed change the brain, but here's the thing: anything involving pleasure, anything that feels good to us like sex, exercise, spending time with friends also affects our brain. In fact, psychotherapy has shown to be as effective, or if not more effective than medication itself. 

  5. Feelings are not facts! And the deeper we dig below the surface, the roots of this compulsion to eat become apparent. We discover that behaviour serves a purpose. It's hidden, usually out of awareness. When we identify what that purpose is, again, we find new ways to respond to those triggers and come to terms with those internal conflicts, you will stop bingeing for good and you begin to realise that your obsession with food distracted you from other deeper concerns.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Marteka Swaby

Marteka has over 15 years experience improving emotional wellbeing. She has worked in many of the UK's largest NHS Mental Health Trusts transforming services. Psychotherapist specialising in compulsive & emotional eating disorders she is currently working in private practice within obesity & bariatric patients.… Read more

Written by Marteka Swaby

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