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Is 'Comfort Eating' An Eating Disorder?

Published : Thursday January 21, 2016 | Posted in : Weight Loss

Comfort eating is something we all do. If it's a bad day we might eat something sweet to cheer ourselves up, and although we describe this behaviour as a binge, binges are actually something much more severe.

The U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has classed binge eating as a 'disorder' along with bulimia and anorexia, and it's expected that NICE will soon follow suit.

So let's take a look at what binge-eating actually is.

What Is Binge Eating?

According to the NHS binge-eating is when 'a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis'. This means an individual who consumes a large amount of food in one sitting, even if they are not hungry.

Who Binge Eats?

Studies estimate that 1.3 million Brits turn their sweet treats into binges, which suggests an even larger number of people may suffer from it.

Men and women are equally affected, and that's a challenge to established eating disorder statistics because it's usually women who are treated for bulimia and anorexia.

Why Do People Binge Eat?

Some researchers believe it's a reaction to stress and emotional upset, others think it may be a genetic issue, whilst some believe it's due to how easily available food has become.

Binge-eaters may suffer from the following triggers.

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of stress, anger, boredom or loneliness
  • A past history of stressful or traumatic events
  • A family history of eating disorders
  • Dissatisfaction with their body

Isn't It Just Greediness?

Well no. It's easy to judge, but hold back because research shows that binges are often triggered by mood changes.

Sugary and fat-filled foods release dopamine and endorphins, which temporarily make us feel good and boost our mood, but binges often leave people appalled with themselves. Professor Fairbum, director of the Centre for Research on Eating Disorders at Oxford, says this sets it apart from greed, which is about 'letting your hair down, going for it, and enjoying it.'

Why It's Not Healthy

  • A food binge turns into a vicious cycle where blood sugar runs amok and bingers try to use more food to counteract the lows.
  • The extra calories lead to excess weight and potentially type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, heart disease, and high cholesterol problems.
  • If you are binge eating as a reaction to distress or upset, you are not addressing the issue. This can lead to stress, lack of sleep and depression.

Is There A Cure?

Julia Bickroyd, Emeritus Professor of Counselling at Hertfordshire University believes that overeating is an attempt to 'control an overwhelming internal anxiety state', and that focussing on food could cause more problems that good. A strict diet is unlikely to help because the underlying problem is emotional.

Binge-eaters were prescribed anti-depressants in the past, but this is not currently a recommended method of treatment. Instead, addressing the underlying cause is the way forward.

Do You Binge Eat?

Just because you ate three Kit-Kats at lunchtime, it doesn't make you a binge-eater. We all go for it sometimes, donning a gravy-proof top and stuffing ourselves with Sunday roast.

If you do it occasionally that's not a problem, but if you find yourself using food as a prop, you're binging regularly or excessively or it's affecting your health then speak to your GP. Treatment is usually a form of counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

Eating disorders are not 'one size fits all'. They don't just affect tiny, thin people, they cover all sizes. Seek out some help if food is making your life a misery.

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