There’s hardly a person out there who hasn’t heard of eating disorders – and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re only about people starving themselves to death, with names like anorexia and bulimia stamped all over the news. But that’s not all eating disorders are about. An eating disorder can simply be described as an abnormal attitude towards food and eating. It can just as easily be seen in somebody who eats too much as one who doesn’t eat enough. Eating disorders are bad, physically and psychologically, and, like a wrecking ball swinging through a derelict building, they create havoc wherever they go. And the worst part about them is, they usually start in childhood.
What is Normal?
Too much of what we see in the media about obesity is focused on what we’re eating. While it’s true that we do need to know about proper nutrition, it’s just as important to understand that an eating disorder is entirely wrapped up in your attitude towards that food, how you behave around food, and how you eat it.
Normal eating is seen in people who can eat without feeling guilty, eat when they are hungry and stop when they’re full. They have a positive attitude around food and experience no anxiety when eating it.
What a Binge Eating Disorder Looks Like
Everybody overeats now and then. It’s perfectly normal to do so, especially on special occasions. Pigging out now and then on pizza or chocolate doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder – it just makes you human :-).
But for somebody with an eating disorder, normal looks completely different:
- binge eating more than twice a week for six months or more
- eat much more rapidly than normal
- eat way too much food across the space of two hours – and we’re not talking big plates of vegies here
- eat large amounts of food, even when not hungry
- feel out of control when eating, feel anxiety if you can’t eat when you need to
- eat alone because you don’t want people to see how much you eat
- feel disgusted, embarrassed and ashamed of your eating
- feel guilty and angry with yourself after the binge, hating yourself for being weak
- gain large amounts of weight
To compensate, sufferers often go on deeply restrictive diets, convinced that cutting right back on calories will give them the control they so desperately need. Unfortunately, that kind of dieting only serves to fuel the anxiety underlying the disorder. When the body is starved of food, the metabolism slows down, meaning any subsequent food eaten is stored as fat and instead, the body burns muscle to survive, including the heart muscle (this is what kills anorexics). The deprivation of such strict diets then drives the brain to overcompensate – so after a few days, the body demands huge amounts of calories. With the metabolism slowed down, these calories are automatically stored as fat.
This is the great vicious cycle of the binge eating disorder. The more weight you put on, the more you diet, and the more you diet, the more weight you put on.
People with a binge eating disorder don’t want to be overweight. They want to be in control, and they’re not. And unlike other addictive or obsessive behaviours such as drug or alcohol abuse which can be dealt with by removing the object of abuse – sufferers of binge eating disorders still have to eat, still have to be around food all the time – while those around them condemn them for being weak willed and lazy.
What Causes a Binge Eating Disorder?
Experts agree that it takes a combination of different things things for a person to develop an eating disorder. A lot of these occur during childhood and while some kids put on weight early, for others, some event in adulthood will trigger the behaviour. Serotonin, the brain chemical that affects mood and some compulsive behaviours, has been shown to be closely related to eating disorders. Low levels of Serotonin – which can cause depression – can also cause overeating in some people. The direct cause and effect relationship is still being examined in current studies.
Generally however, over eating habits that develop into binge eating begin during childhood. We all associate eating good food with celebrations, and with love, nurturing and family. For some families, that association is overused as a form of comfort and soothing (sometimes a replacement for affection or love), or even as a form of punishment. An abnormal focus on eating food, or being denied food over a period of time can change the place food normally plays in the mind of a child. So can a parental obsession with a child’s weight influence how the child sees themselves. Self-esteem and self-worth are intricately bound up in the development of binge eating disorders.
Children learn these negative behaviours and can use food to soothe themselves when they’re feeling down or stressed, or binge eat in secret in case they’re denied a special treat later. Kids also learn to suppress unhappy emotions and use food to bury those feelings. The worse they feel about eating, the more bad feelings they need to suppress. These behaviours aren’t caused by the occassional event, but are the result of long-term practices within the family and over a number of years.
But make no mistake – a binge eating disorder is hell. A secret little hell that nobody but the sufferer understands. One of the worst things about it is that, for the sufferer, all their failures are visible to everyone around them, in the fat on their body. Self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence all plummet. The person may look confident and in control on the outside – which is how the disorder is often ignored and hidden for decades – but the pain and misery are never far away. Worse still, the more that people point out their weight problems, the worse they feel about themselves and their failure.
Until just a few years ago, all research into eating disorders centred around anorexia and bulimia. The good news is that there are now excellent treatments available for people with a binge eating disorder. Treatment usually requires a combined approach through therapy, education and support. The earlier this is begun, the better the chances for a good recovery and a return to a normal body weight and attitude towards food.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The first step towards it is to talk to your doctor.
In Part 4 of this series, we’ll talk about the role genetics plays in causing obesity.
Read the rest of the Causes of Obesity series:
Part 6 – Clinical Issues
Further reading into Binge Eating Disorders (BED) can be found here:
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