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.
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
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.