The pandemic has caused increased anxiety in almost everyone, but why do some people cope by binge eating and others don’t?

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During the long days of isolation, have you found yourself reaching for food more frequently? Do you graze on snacks while you work from home? With nowhere to go, do you often wonder into the kitchen to eat, even when you are not hungry? Do you wonder if this is becoming a problem? 

Reaching for a cookie to feel emotional comfort is relatively normal, but what does it mean when you stop being able to control how, when and how much you eat?

We live in a culture where the word binge is thrown around to describe many excessive behaviors—just think of how many people have binge-watched shows this year to pass the time. This casual labeling of indulgent activities as bingeing can create confusion when it comes to eating.

Binge eating is a clinically defined behavior that is different from snacking when you are bored or eating too much dessert. Binge eating feels much more abnormal and shameful, and it is a central characteristic of two eating disorders: bulimia and binge eating disorder. Although the distinction between bingeing and overindulging is not always perfectly clear, the clinical criteria can help you identify your behavior. 

The authoritative handbook that guides most mental health care professionals—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—lists symptoms and descriptions of eating disorders, and defines binge eating based on the three overarching factors: the quantity of food, the way the food is consumed, and the affect the behavior has on the person’s life.  

Although there is no calorie-based measure of a binge, the DSM describes the amount of food as definitely larger than what most people would eat during a similar period of time and under similar circumstances. The binge eating occurs during a discrete time frame, such as a two-hour period, and the episode is always accompanied by a sense of lack of control over what and how much is eaten. 

Additionally, the DSM describes binge eating episodes as being associated with three or more of the following: eating much more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts when not physically hungry, eating alone because of embarrassment over how much one is eating, and feeling disgusted, depressed, or very guilty afterward. 

Binge eaters may withdraw from activities and people, create schedules to make time for bingeing, or cancel plans because of the behavior. Bingeing usually feels like a painful secret—it is not something that people suffering will joke about on social media, as many have done with the more common forms of quarantine overeating and weight gain. 

In both bulimia and binge eating disorder, binges occur—on average—at least once per week for three months. The difference between the two disorders is that bulimics purge after binges through behaviors like self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise. Bulimia occurs in 1.5 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men during their lifetime, and binge eating disorder occurs in 3.5 percent of women and 2.0 percent of men. However, the rate of binge eating is likely much higher because many hide their symptoms or binge less than the threshold required for diagnosis.

The pandemic has disrupted most people’s normal eating routines, and according to a July survey in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, bulimics and those with binge eating disorder reported more binge urges and episodes. Researchers pointed to anxiety, a lack of daily structure and social support, and the stockpiling of food as some potential factors that negatively impacted binge eaters.   

Because those factors also affected non-binge eaters, it is important to look at why some people binge while others do not. 

The psychological, biological, developmental, and sociocultural underpinnings of eating disorders remain poorly understood, but an undisputed risk factor is dieting—which precedes the vast majority of bulimia cases. Food restriction ignites strong food cravings, intense hunger, and can lead to binge eating as an adaptive response. 

Eating a large amount of highly-palatable food gives relief from calorie deprivation, and activates reward and pleasure pathways in brain’s limbic system. This reinforces the behavior and makes the person feel compelled to repeat it. Binge eating can also develop without dieting as a catalyst, and this may happen when overeating increases over time and activates the same reward pathways.

Binge eating eventually becomes a conditioned, habitual response to environmental, sensory, or food cues. A person’s daily routine, surroundings, and experiences become associated with bingeing, and whenever the person is exposed to those cues, it can trigger automatic and powerful urges to binge.  

Such strong impulses do not accompany the more common desires to indulge when lonely or stressed. This is where a distinction can be made between binge eating and what is often referred to as emotional eating. Emotional eating is turning to food for enjoyment or comfort when facing negative emotions—something most of us have done at one time or another, especially during this challenging year. 

In binge eaters, emotions can indeed become some of the habitual cues that trigger binge urges, but it is an oversimplification to say binge eating is just an extreme form of emotional eating. Binge eaters are well-aware that countless, healthy options for dealing with negative emotions exist, but when faced with incessant binge urges, it can feel too difficult to even try alternate activities. 

The reality is that we have all been through a lot in 2020, and it is only natural that we would want to seek pleasure or comfort—even in some unhealthy ways. We could all benefit from developing healthier coping skills and healthier eating habits during this stressful time, but if you are a binge eater, you will need more help than this.  

A good place to start is talking to your doctor about your symptoms, because eating disorders can have serious health consequences. Your doctor may be able to recommend resources in your area or online. 

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre has a variety of options and a helpline. It is important to find a path to recovery that works for you, and helps you start nourishing your body and overcoming urges to binge, regardless of your emotional state.

You might also enjoy this article on how to act on the goals you set.

Author: Kathryn Hansen recovered from bulimia in 2005; and since then, she had been dedicated to educating and empowering women and men who struggle with all forms of binge eating. She is the author of two books: Brain Over Binge (2011) and The Brain over Binge Eating Recovery Guide (2016) she is also the host of the Brain over Binge podcast.

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