What is Binge Eating?

Plus Sized Debate

In this week’s article I am going to define binging and ensure that you have a good, clear answer to the question: What is binge eating?

What is Binge Eating?

First off, it’s natural to wonder what the word binging actually means because, in our culture, binging essentially could be seen to have three distinct definitions. One is the definition that the medical and psychiatric/mental health community have given to binging; the other is the definition that family, friends, passers-by, and restaurant servers (to name a few) might give to binging; and the last is our own personal definition.

Just for your own interest, take a moment now to ask yourself: “If I had to, how would I define binging? What is binge eating?” (And don’t just say overeating! That’s a synonym not a definition.) If you’re judging yourself as having binged or maybe hearing someone else saying they binged, what images does that conjure up and what verbal definition would you apply to that?

Simply put, when the definition of a problem is unclear it’s very difficult to solve it. And, it is highly unlikely that the definition your doctor, partner or parent have for binging is the same as your own. This is a huge part of why it can be so hard to trust that what you’re doing with food is reasonable (or not) and why, among other reasons, you may struggle to feel comfortable in your relationship with food. So let’s explore what binging is and what it isn’t. 

First, let’s explore a few scenarios that may have played out in some similar fashion in your own life:

1. Let’s say you’re really hungry at 2 pm and so you do a great thing for your body and you go and get some food. You’re sitting at your desk at work and someone walks by and makes a comment, something like: “Woah! Who got the munchies?” or “Somebody needed an afternoon snack” or “Giving up on the diet already?” etc.

There you were, innocently feeding your hungry body and someone else who knows nothing of your hunger level or what kinds of things you’ve eaten already that day, makes a comment that implies that there is something wrong with you eating at that time or with what you’ve chosen to have.

If you’re feeling sensitive about your relationship with food or about your weight or just unsure of whether you can trust your own perspective, you will be negatively impacted by this and start to judge yourself for eating at that time, regardless of the reality that you were hungry. Is that binging?

2. How about this one?: What if it’s 2 pm and you’re not really hungry but you can’t stop yourself from grabbing a sugary or carby snack. Whether someone says something or not, the truth is, if you struggle with binging you’re going to feel guilty and shameful because in your own mind you know you weren’t hungry, you know you had something that wasn’t in alignment with your goals for health or weight loss and so you feel out of integrity. And if that same person happens to walk by and say the same thing…“Woah! Who got the munchies?”? Well, that just clinches it and serves to further reinforce your ‘badness.’  Is that binging? What if it was a small chocolate bar? What if it was a small bag of chips? What if it was doughnut or Danish or an Iced Capp? Is that binging?

(For the record, folks who don’t struggle with binging or aren’t stuck in that diet-binge-guilt cycle can have a sugary or carby treat that they aren’t hungry for and not feel guilty or ashamed. They just don’t do it all the time and they naturally adjust their eating for the next meal and wait until they’re hungry to eat and stop when they’re comfortably full. No big deal.)

3. And how about this scenario:  You are out for dinner with a friend. You are famished! You order exactly what you’d like to have (now, I know that if you struggle with dieting and binging you’re not likely to have what you really want, you’ll order what you think others will judge the least, but for the sake of this illustration, go with me on this) and dig in with appropriate gusto given your extreme hunger level. Your ‘friend’ makes a comment about how much you’re eating and how you’d better be careful or you’ll ‘pack on the pounds.’  Are you binging? Are you doing something ‘wrong’?

4. And last, you muster up your courage and go to the doctor to talk about your frustrations with your weight and failed attempts to lose weight or eat a healthier diet.  Your doctor responds with:

  • A lecture about the health risks and your likelihood of developing type II diabetes and/or high cholesterol, and how you really need to stop eating those sugary, carby foods and get more exercise.
  • A suggestion about a diet he or she tried recently or someone they know had success with.
  • A referral to a psychiatrist for medication, or a prescription that they write for you themselves for an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication that is supposed to help you control your appetite and stop you from binging. 

If you struggle with your weight and your doctor is lecturing you or prescribing medication does that mean you binge?

In the first example, if you’re at all self-conscious about your weight or food you will feel bad for eating simply because someone else is judging you or because no one else is eating and you are.

In the second example, you’re already feeling guilty and bad for eating when and what you’re eating and the comment of your colleague only adds to your shame and judgement.

In the 3rd example, as with the first, someone outside of your body, who has no idea what you’ve eaten that day already and how hungry you are is judging how much you’re eating based on what they are hungry for and what they think is reasonable. How’s that for narcissism?

And then there’s the doctor, well intended but lacking a true understanding of the bigger picture of why we have extra weight on our body and what really helps to take and keep it off, and therefore offering symptom management techniques and ineffective warnings that land more as threats and criticisms than well-meaning education.

How often have you gone and had something to eat that you weren’t at all hungry for after a meeting like that? If you’re like most folks the answer is: Often.

Most of you reading this article have experienced one or all of those examples I listed above. Is it any wonder we feel anxious and self-conscious when eating in public or even to tell someone what we ate? Where is the line between normal response to hunger cues, or a little snack here and there and binging? And who gets to decide where the line is anyway?

Is it any wonder we don’t know what to do to get a grip on food and to feel more confident in our relationship with it?

So, What is Binge Eating, Really? What do the Professionals Say?

Essentially, the medical profession defines binging as: Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat during a similar period of time under similar circumstances. (Definitions for this section taken from DSM-IV)

Just a little on the vague side here people…

And Binge Eating Disorder is defined as: Recurrent episodes of binge eating in the absence of the regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviours characteristic of Bulmia Nervosa. (By ‘inappropriate compensatory behaviours’ they mean vomiting, laxatives, diuretics and excessive exercise.)

This definition of Binge Eating Disorder, interestingly enough, is essentially the same psychiatric definition as Nonpurging Type Bulimia Nervosa. In this form of eating disorder it is said that rather than vomiting or using laxatives after a binge, the individual will engage in fasting or excessive exercise.

And even the Anorexia Nervosa subtype, Binge-eating/Purging Type, has an almost identical definition with the exception that those with a diagnosis of Anorexia have gone at least 3 months without a period.

As you can see from these definitions and in my experience professionally there is an extremely, extremely thin line between the various forms of eating disorder and it is highly unusual for a person to stay in one exclusively, hence the psychiatric descriptions of these disorders really bleed into each other and it is left up to the professional to decide which are the paramount issues.

Interestingly (though not surprisingly), common to each of the eating disorders I mentioned above is ‘binging’ (though based on the above definitions it still isn’t clear what that means exactly) and restriction in some form.

In reality, whether they admit it freely or not, everyone who diets also binges.

And everyone who binges also engages in some form of compensatory restriction, or tries to (they just may not be able to stick with it for very long, like myself at the end of my binge eating days).

The question of what to call our way of relating to food is answered in part by identifying, overall, how large and frequent are the amounts of food going in and how long and restrictive are the patterns of restriction or in what way do we ‘compensate’ for the binging:

  • Loooong periods of restriction = A form of anorexia;
  • Intense periods of restriction (6-8 daytime hours) and/or excessive exercise and/or use of laxatives, vomiting or diuretics = Bulimia;
  • Lots of food in a 2 hour period of time (not clear on how much is lots) with none of those compensatory behaviours = Binge Eating Disorder

That seems to be the way that the medical community delineates one eating disorder from another, overall.

Based on this definition I’d say, if you want to put labels on things (which I’ve never found to be helpful truly), that the majority of people who diet actually have Nonpurging Type Bulimia:

Long periods of fairly intense restriction (the diet) followed by a binge (our cheat day of fully falling off the wagon) followed by more intense restriction (back on the diet or some new one) and around and around we go.

There may be, and often is, some attempt at exercise there too, whether full-on boot camp or running clinics or back to the gym, yoga studio or zumba classes. But those too are often done in binge/restrict fashion where we engage while we’re ‘on’ our program and then stop when we ‘fall off.’

These are indicators that we’re not eating as we are or exercising as we are for our health – something else is driving us and when that something gets trumped by something else (like stress or a trip back home): Out come the cheezies! (And the shame and self-loathing.)

 If this sounds familiar you’re in good company. In truth, the pattern of dieting/restricting and then binging and then compensating for that binge with more restriction is so common as to almost be the norm for most Women (check out some current eating disorder / binging/ dieting statistics), and, increasingly, many men, in North America and beyond.

So…what have we learned about binging? Well…so far we’ve learned that the medical definition of binging is fairly loose and that every form of eating disorder can be seen to have some form of binging

Okay, so. We have the medical community saying it’s uncontrolled or excessive self-indulgence; a large amount of food in a short period of time.

What is Binge Eating?: The Lay-person’s Definition

‘Their’ Definition:

From the little illustrative examples I offered above we can see that sometimes members of the general population will be implying, or stating outright, that for us to eat when they aren’t hungry, or when it isn’t a ‘normal’ mealtime, is somehow suspect, indicative of wrong doing and gluttony. The message from some people will also clearly be that if we eat more than they do at a certain meal it means we’re binging.

To be fair, while many folks out there have their own preoccupations with food and weight, most truly don’t care what you eat at all. But if you’re sensitive to the comments of others and you notice that you adjust your eating (what you have or how much or when you eat) depending on who’s around you, you’ve likely run into a few people who feel free to comment and have done so with you.

Maybe you were even raised by one of those folks who are so confused in their own thinking that they believe that if they aren’t hungry you shouldn’t be either.

Or they believe that if they think you’re eating too much then you must be, regardless of how hungry you truly are or how active you’ve been and regardless of the fact that your body is different from theirs and is not obliged to match their hunger and fullness rates and times. That’s what I call narrow minded.

So essentially, the definition that others place on the word binging, as it pertains to us seems to be:

  • Eating more than they think you should;
  • Eating when they think you shouldn’t be;
  • Eating things they think you shouldn’t.

My rule of thumb in regards to this side of the ‘What is binge eating’ debate is this:

My job with food is to eat naturally which means to eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full, make the choices that will help me to be as healthy and energized after my meal and the next day, and allow everything I’d like to have in moderation.

When I do this, as I have for over 20 years, my weight is a nice, stable, attractive weight for my body and I don’t have the slightest stress or concern about what others think about what I’m eating. They can comment (and some family members freely do because of their own diet focus and weight frustrations) on how much I’m eating, how fast or slow, the kinds of things I’m choosing and it really doesn’t phase or hook me.

That’s because I know that I’m listening to my body and that there isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with my choice or when I’m eating. It’s right for me.

So, the external definitions and judgements of binging really can only hook us when we are feeling out of integrity with our choices; when we are eating and we know we aren’t hungry or conversely, not allowing enough food even though we are hungry; and when we are having more than we need to eat and we know it.

And when we believe we need that person’s approval. Maybe we don’t trust our body and the messages of hunger it sends, or to let us know when we’re really full and so we get hooked listening to others.

Maybe we doubt our worth; questioning whether we are truly good enough or okay as we are and we are looking outside ourselves to others to give us the thumbs up so we can rest and finally feel okay. That’s a vulnerable place to be and will only lead us to more anxiety and insecurity and more of a need for food to cope with our stress.

Our Definition:

And then, finally, we have ourselves. What is our own definition of binge eating?

Essentially, it’s a very personal definition. I could eat the exact same thing as you at the same time and I wouldn’t call it binging or binge eating, but you might. This is because if you aren’t approaching food as I mentioned above (eating when hungry, stopping when full etc.), you are stuck in the diet mentality.

This means that you believe certain foods are not okay for you to have and that makes you bad, or means you had a ‘bad day’ if you had them. It means that believe you should only eat a certain amount regardless of what time it is or how hungry you are. And I means that you believe you should only eat at certain times of day, again, regardless of how hungry you are.

If you’re stuck in the diet mentality it means you have lost your way with food due to a perfect storm of insecurity and dieting leading you to mistrust and ignore your body’s natural signals of hunger and fullness and instead to impose rules about when you can eat, what you can eat, and how much regardless of when you are actually hungry or how much you are actually hungry for.

This naturally sets you up to have no confidence in your choices about what is truly reasonable for you to have at any time and to feel guilty eating anything at all unless you have finally ‘arrived’ at that magic number on the scale or that magic pant size, and even then, if we’re honest, we still don’t feel at peace and we still don’t trust ourselves not to blow it!

And that’s what the diet industry calls success! Well, I call that hell frankly! 24/7 preoccupation with what we’re eating and when we are eating and what others think about what we are eating is not living, it’s existing.

So, call it what you want: Binging, binge eating, emotional eating, stress eating, compulsive eating; they are one in the same: You’re eating when you’re not hungry and/or having foods that you have judgement about and aren’t entirely on side with you having. You are likely having more than you said you were going to or more than you are hungry for. That, to you, will be binging.

Whether we’re talking a few crackers or a few boxes of Kraft Dinner (a personal ‘fave’ of mine back in the day) if you’re not comfortable with your choices you’re going to see it as binging. And in my mind, that is the only definition that matters.

Love Michelle

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