IT’S NO SECRET: WE ALL EAT too much from time to time. Maybe you’ve polished off a whole bag of snacks in one sitting or had a meal so delicious you not only went back for seconds, but also for thirds and even fourths. Chances are you regretted eating so much, but the next day you forgot about it and returned to your regular eating habits.
But what if you couldn’t stop, day after day? That’s what happens to people who suffer from binge-eating disorder. “I would fantasize about food all the time, hide food, steal food and money, and go on huge binges,” remembers Alan, a 19-year-old day care worker in Dartford, England. “Every time I ate, I felt a sense of shame and guilt. This made me feel worse and then eat again.”
The Other Eating Disorder
You’ve probably heard of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia (see “Eating Disorder Lingo”). But until recently, there hasn’t been much research into binge-eating disorder, which is not currently recognized as a distinct mental illness. (Some researchers instead use the term “loss-of-control eating episodes” for teens, who are still forming their eating habits.) Still, it’s a very real condition that causes real suffering.
Unlike other eating disorders, binge eating doesn’t stem from an obsession with weight loss. Instead, it features an overwhelming and irresistible desire to eat large amounts of food, usually in secret, without compensating for the calories by purging or exercising more. “I felt so out of control,” says Marci C., * a 20-year-old student from Los Altos, Calif., about her first binge. “It really freaked me out.”
Everyone has a little too much food from time to time, whether it’s a bucket of popcorn at the movies or make-your-own-sundaes at a sleepover. When you go on such a bender, you might feel bad later and regret it. But that doesn’t mean you have binge-eating disorder, which typically involves bingeing at least twice a week for at least six months.
Such was the case for Sara B., 18, a community college student in Florida. There was a time when bingeing ruled her life. Sometimes, she’d polish off a whole box of cereal as a midnight snack or get home from school and eat until she passed out. “It was like I had a craving and I physically had no control over my body,” Sara recalls.
Behind the Binges
Stories like those represent a silent affliction. Recent studies have shown binge-eating disorder to be the country’s most common eating disorder. Among teens, about 4.3 percent of girls and 2.3 percent of boys say they have binged, and rates are higher among teens being treated for obesity. About half of all cases start during the teen years, according to James Hudson, director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. “It’s a transition time,” he explains.
That was true for Morgan D., a 27-year-old graphic designer living in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. As a kid, she was always “the last one at the table” because she didn’t want to eat. “Then, as an adolescent,” Morgan notes, “I began to hoard food and binge after school to deal with becoming a woman, getting my period, and social anxiety.”
Not much research has looked at the brains of people with binge-eating disorder. But theories suggest that the mind’s reward centers may be involved. Perhaps those circuits are “disregulated,” says Hudson, and the body sends too many signals linking eating and pleasure.
Scientists think there is a genetic basis for eating disorders, including binge eating. “Portion distortion,” or the misunderstanding of healthy food amounts, may also play a role, according to Cynthia Bulik, who directs the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina and recently wrote Crave: Why You Binge Eat and How to Stop. Society’s warped ideas of a normal meal amount, such as supersize meals at fast-food restaurants, can persuade people “to eat more than they really are comfortable with.”
There are emotional factors too. Some people, such as Ioanna G., a 27-year-old art history student who had a bingeing problem as a teenager, binge to cope with stress and other uncomfortable feelings. “I used food when I was not hungry to calm me when I was upset or frightened, to forget my real troubles by creating another one, to punish myself when things were not perfect,” Ioanna says.
Dieting can also be a trigger, points out Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. This pattern, she says, shows up as “starving all day, eating too much at night.” Quite a few of the young people who shared their stories with Current Health spoke about periods of dieting to lose the weight from binges, and some even developed other eating disorders.
Such overlap isn’t uncommon as people struggle to cope with the weight they’ve gained by bingeing. Sufferers can experience other mental and emotional problems as well, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. Sara turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with feeling awful about her weight and binges. In fact, she got help for her eating problem–reluctantly–only when she entered treatment for substance abuse.
There are physical consequences to bingeeating disorder too. Because people with the condition eat a lot of extra food, they tend to become overweight or obese. That brings on its own set of potential health risks, including high blood pressure, heart disease, joint issues, diabetes, and cancer. Indeed, doctors told both Sara and Alan that they were threatened by diabetes.