We’ve received several requests to provide some advice on disordered eating habits, most notably binge easting disorders and comfort eating. One issue in discussing this highly subjective topics is establishing if you have an actual disorder, or just tend to overeat due to a lack of appetite control and cravings. In many way most of the information and guidance offered here supports most disordered eating habits and emotional eating patterns.
To offer some clarity a true binge eating disorder is officially described as a situation whereby a person is unable to prevent themselves from eating large amounts of food in a short space of time, usually mindlessly and out of control. The official UK NHS definition is:
“Binge eating is an eating disorder where a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis through regular binges.”
*Regular is defined as 1-3 times per week.
I battled a Binge Eating Disorder (BED) throughout my twenties. Reading through the definitions and looking back it’s difficult to establish whether I was an emotional overeater or a binge eater, to be honest I think there’s a fine line between the two. I suppose the difference was I planned the occasions to overeat (which would put me in the BED category) and I was clever about it, I’d often pretend to bake cakes and biscuits for work colleagues, friends and family but really intend to munch away on all the ingredients. I’d eat half the raw cake or cookie mixture and then snaffle most of the batch once cooked until I felt stuffed and horrendous. I didn’t consider it emotional eating as I wasn’t responding to a particular crisis or incident, but on reflection there was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and boredom with my life as I was in the wrong job and the wrong relationship. I think some of these binges were also diet fuelled, after a week of salads and daily sixty minute cardio workouts, I would actively plan a sugar feast to give me a much needed high.
During this time I was also diagnosed with PCOS and having dreadful hormonal issues as the GP had swapped my contraceptive pill from Marvelon to Dianette and finally Yasmin. I suffered with nausea, dizziness, low blood sugar and acne. I certainly associate some of my eating issues with the contraceptive pill. It led me to develop an insatiable appetite that made these gorging incidents possible. In fact most of the time I rarely felt full and was constantly drawing on my willpower at mealtimes to eat acceptable amounts, when I really wanted more, much more than everyone else. My obsession with cereal and soya milk wasn’t helping the situation either.
Fixing myself holistically was the key. Finding an alternative to the contraceptive pill, getting my hormones balanced naturally and fixing up my gut played a huge role in reinstalling my natural appetite signalling. Leaving my job, following my passion and finding a partner that wanted to share that journey with me was also massive part of sorting myself out from an emotional perspective so I no longer needed to plan a weekly sugar high.
Understand You’re Not Alone
The most important thing to take away from this blog is that you’re really not alone. Binging is often a reactive response to the degree of stress, anxiety and social pressure we all face on a daily basis, massively enhanced these days by the growth of social media.
It’s believed 1 in 4 adults in the UK (both men and women) trying to control their weight have a binge eating disorder as defined below:
- You eat very large quantities of food over a short space of time.
- You eat past the point of fullness.
- You eat large amounts of food without actually feeling hungry or enjoying the food.
- You often plan to buy select binge foods with a view to overeating them.
- You have no control over these eating episodes.
- You often binge privately due to embarrassment or shame about this behaviour.
- You feel abnormal.
- You feel upset or guilty after overeating.
- You may follow this with periods of restriction and starvation to regain control and attempt to mitigate the damage.
Binging is NOT necessarily:
- Overeating at a mealtime until you’re uncomfortably full.
- Eating a whole pizza on Saturday night.
- Overconsuming calories in a single day.
- Eating a lot of unhealthy food in a single day.
Root Causes Of Binge Eating Episodes
We’re big fans of the functional medicine approach to health and nutrition which always begins by assessing root causes of health issues and establishing what is triggering or driving the symptoms experienced by the patient.
Eating disorders are no different, in order to prevent or reverse the behaviour it’s helpful to dig around and establish what’s going on behind the scenes.
There’s usually a combination of psychological and physiological mechanisms fuelling the problem.
1. A Diet Fuelled Disorder
Most of us know this already but formal studies have also observed that dieting increases cravings, low mood and our sense of deprivation, all of which can then lead to episodes of impulsive eating and binging. These symptoms often persist long after you stop dieting too as you attach greater significance and importance to food itself. Anecdotally people have described this as obsessing, dreaming and thinking about food every minute of the day. I’ve also worked with clients who mention hitting their weight loss goals and celebrating with several binges, justifying them as “earned” yet often placing them back where they started in their fat loss journey. Also, not everyone who diets develops a binge eating disorder so there are likely other triggers driving this unusual relationship with food.
2. Food Addiction And Lack Of Hormone Control
Obsession with food is often compared to addictions like drugs and alcohol, as people have described a preoccupation with food that consumes them, they feel out of control and unable to give it up. Processed and highly refined foods like ice-cream, chocolate, biscuits and crisps are loaded with sugar, fat and salt which all have an ability to act on the same regions of the brain that are stimulated by drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.
However, the situation is confounded by the fact these foods are also driving gut and hormone dysfunction leading the body to believe it is starved and undernourished. The body’s natural response is to upregulate appetite, craving and down regulate satiety hormones. In this case the foods are contributing but are not necessarily 100% to blame for the eating disorder. Think about it for a second, some of us can eat a few crisps and squares of chocolate whilst others find themselves possessed and entranced when faced with these pleasures, so again there’s more likely an interplay of hormones, emotions and hyper palatable foods going on.
3. Emotional Triggers
This is probably the most likely trigger experienced by all of us from time-to-time. We often seek an outlet for chronic stress, depression, anxiety or low self esteem. In binge eaters it is of course food but some people may binge on alcohol, exercise, cigarettes, drugs or just spend lots of money (politely referred to as retail therapy yet still an escape from an emotional state).
The following are some common psychological issues associated with Binge Eating Disorders:
Depression is a complex, multi factorial condition suspected to have a genetic component but also driven immensely by lifestyle choices and nutrient deficiencies. We have covered this in a previous blog here. Binge eating often occurs as a response to a depressive state and worsens with the frequency of depressive episodes as the body and brain demand a bigger binges to get the same high.
(ii) Chronic Stress And Anxiety
Working hard, playing hard, lack of sleep, taking on too much at once and feeling overwhelmed will lead you to naturally crave energy FAST. Not only can this lead to speedy eating and the overconsumption of food, this can become an automated response to stress that’s difficult to break. Furthermore an overambitious lifestyle that places you under constant pressure usually results in too much caffeine, alcohol and a diet of processed foods which is a lethal combination for our brain biochemistry. We’ll naturally seek instant pleasure in the form of sugar and refined foods to act on our dopamine receptors. Every high we experience from an external source is temporary and always followed by a major low. If you’re running your life at 100mph your body will eventually be unable to keep up and soon your digestive and hormone health will suffer leading to more cravings, depression, low moods and fatigue which will trigger more binging episodes.
(iii) Low Self-Esteem And Body Image Issues
People who binge eat generally dislike the way they look and have terrible body image. They are constantly fighting themselves to eat less and less then cave under the pressure and binge. After this they feel instantly fat and the whole process starts again. Furthermore low self esteem and poor body image can be crippling on a social level and sufferers will opt to avoid invitations to social events and instead stay in alone to binge on foods for comfort.
4. Bingeing Buddies
Another component to binge eating is not so much a disorder but the influence of others in our lives. Sometimes friends and family around us might wish to have a junk food feast a couple of times of week. If you can participate, not go too crazy and walk away without feelings guilt or instant fatness that’s cool, however, if you find you participate and then suffer the consequences all week, perhaps you need to reassess who you hang with. This can apply to alcohol too. Your pals may be robust to the effects and outcomes of these binging occasions, but if you find you’re punishing yourself for the rest of the week living on lettuce and hitting the gym twice a day it might make sense to limit time spent with these bingeing buddies.
Key Steps To Regaining Control
To successfully treat an ongoing binge eating disorder there are two pathways: the first involves some nutritional therapy to help restore digestive health, hormonal balance, brain chemistry and nutrient status which will all support a more positive, confident outlook on life. Furthermore some professional counselling to break the vicious cycle of destructive thought patterns that leads to binge episodes.
Step 1 – Get Professional Support
We’ve covered seeking mental and emotional support before in this blog and there are a number of organisations who specialise in disordered eating and have helplines and counselling services available including:
Step 2 – Talk to Friends and Family
The isolation and lonliness experienced by binge eaters exacerbates the negative emotions and low self esteem that is driving and triggering the binges. Talk to trusted friends and family. Loved ones will understand and good friends will never judge, it’s probable that they’ve had a similar experiences. When you feel a binge on the horizon pick up the phone and speak to someone you trust (no Facebooking or Whats Apping either, you need real human interaction). Reach out when you’re feeling down and recruit a friend for a walk (to boost serotonin) where you can talk through the emotions your experiencing. A hug from a friend can make an immense difference to the situation.
Step 3 – Nourish Your Gut And Balance Hormones
From a nutritional perspective the following are all helpful to rebalance hormones and neurotransmitters that drive cravings, influence appetite and mood health.
Restore Gut Function
Bad bugs, infections, candida overgrowth and leaky gut will all impact on neurotransmitter function suppressing feel good chemicals and increasing feelings of depression and fatigue. If you have a history of digestive disorders alongside your disordered eating (they often exacerbate one another of course) a gut healing protocol can transform your energy, vitality and mental outlook. Probiotics and live foods like kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi are a good starting point, plus bone broth or collagen to fix a leaky gut.
Hormone Friendly Nutrition
Much obesity research is directed towards the means by which processed foods like bread, cereal as well as the obvious junk foods are contributing to leptin and insulin resistance. The hormonal mechanisms that are designed to keep us a healthy weight with normal appetite signalling are being screwed as our bodies perceive us to be starving and need to store fat QUICK, when this is not the case. This of course leads to an increase in hunger and cravings that won’t help you conquer any disordered eating patterns. the following are some easy things you can implement to support more optimal hormone health :
- Swap modern carbs for ancestral (potatoes, root vegetables and fruit)
- Steam, boil and slow cook foods rather than fry and bake
- Increase healthy fat intake (avocado, butter, organ meats, oily fish)
- Supplements can also support hormone balance, we cover this here
- Avoid liquid calories – especially sugary drinks
- Avoid artificial sweeteners
Step 4 – Practice Self Love
“Nooo!” I hear you cry “she’s gone super cheesy now, I’m out!!”
So yes this statement may sound naff but the truth is we’re all so bloomin mean to ourselves.
All day long we tell ourselves –
“You’re not slim/pretty/strong/buff/fit/successful/funny <insert appropriate trait here> enough.”
One of the single most important habits you can practice and master is to be kinder to yourself and your body. Perceiving yourself in a positive light is a vital aspect of treating any eating disorder. Heres a few things that have helped us:
- Listen to this song from start to finish – it says everything you need to know (but wear natural sunscreen) –
- Pay yourself a compliment each day
- Spend less time with those who obsess about weight, beauty, six packs and pouting selfies and more time with those whose hug and smile can make your day, you know the ones.
- Treat your body with care, nourish it by investing in a massage, acupuncture or something simple like a nice moisturiser.
- Look at where you got your bits and bobs from in your family (I have my mum’s feet, my dads skin, etc) it all helps develop a sense of belonging, acceptance of your imperfections and in the case of my bunions a sense of shared grief lol!
There’s lots of information and advice to take in here but the important thing is you just do something and no longer suffer alone. Fitter Food is always here if you need a sounding board and of course we can support you on a professional level via our 1-2-1 coaching services.
Have faith, believe in yourself and you will beat binge eating. BOSH!