Updated: May 25
This post was adapted from episode 5 of the Nourished & Free podcast.
Click here to listen to the full episode.
Admitting you struggle with binge eating is hard, and even knowing if you struggle with binge eating can be equally as hard. I’m going to break down all the top questions surrounding the topic of binge eating and explore how to know if you’re binge eating.
What is Binge Eating?
The experience of binge eating varies with each person, and what some consider a binge is really not a true binge at all. However, if they chose to use that word to describe what happened, it is an indication that there is an underlying problem with their relationship with food.
I like to think of binge eating in two different categories: clinical (or objective) binge eating, and casual (or subjective) binge eating. Exploring these two categories can help you figure out how to know if you’re binge eating.
Clinical Binge Eating
A clinical binge means:
An individual is eating an amount of food within a 2-hour period that is definitely more than would be expected in that same circumstance i.e. Thanksgiving dinner does not count. However, an entire pizza, carton of ice cream, and package of Oreos on a Tuesday evening in January is not typical and would be considered binge-eligible.
One of the binge eating symptoms in the clinical sense also includes a lack of control. The person may feel like they don’t remember eating, they cannot control what they eat, or they cannot stop once it starts.
Casual Binge Eating
An individual may not be eating a vast amount of food within 2-hours or feel out of control, but still feel like they are ‘binging’. If this is the case, they could be experiencing one of the following symptoms of binge eating, which leads them to casually saying they are a binge eater:
Eating faster than normal
Eating until feeling uncomfortable, even sick
Eating when not physically hungry
Eating alone out of guilt/shame/embarrassment
Feeling disgusted or guilty about eating
Going ‘off plan’ and eating what is not allowed on their diet or meal plan
Eating at a time of day one is not ‘supposed’ to be eating
Feeling addicted to food or sugar
Generally feeling like one overeats
These symptoms do not necessarily mean someone clinically suffers from binge eating or has binge eating disorder (BED), but it does indicate that there are issues with how one is experiencing their relationship with food.
What is Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?
If you’re wondering how to know if you’re binge eating, then it’s worth looking into Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Binge Eating Disorder is a life-altering and even life-threatening mental illness that requires clinical help and support. It cannot be diagnosed without meeting the follow criteria as outlined in the DSM-5:
Criterion 1: Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
Eating in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
Criterion 2: The binge eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
Eating much more rapidly than normal.
Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward.
Criterion 3: Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
Criterion 4: The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for 3 months.
Criterion 5: The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging) as in bulimia nervosa and does not occur exclusively during the course of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.
BED is also given a severity ranking depending on the frequency:
· Mild: 1 to 3 episodes per week
· Moderate: 4 to 7 episodes per week
· Severe: 8 to 13 episodes per week
· Extreme: 14 or more episodes per week
What Does Binge Eating Feel Like?
When it comes to exploring how to know if you’re binge eating, it’s important to focus on how you feel. Binge eating has a variety of feelings associated with it.
Physically, one may feel overfull, uncomfortable, weighed down, sick to their stomach, pain/cramping in their stomach, fatigued, unable to concentrate, and/or have noticeable fluctuations in weight.
Mentally, binge eating can create feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, defeat, distress, fear, and extreme concern over body weight/shape.
One of the most common things I hear from women in my line of work is, “I feel addicted to food”. They say things like, “I want to be able to eat for fuel, not just for pleasure or to cope with emotions.”
Is Binge Eating Normal?
Extremely. In the casual sense, many dieters (which is about ½ of the U.S. population) experience feeling like they binge eat at some point in time. In fact, dieting is a predictor of binge eating.
So how common is binge eating? In the clinical sense, BED is actually 3x more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. It is also more common than breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia.
Binge Eating Disorder is more common than
breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia.
Is Binge Eating an Addiction?
Kind of. Binge eating is a learned behavior that can function as a coping mechanism, similar to the function of an addiction.
Does that mean it is as difficult to break as an addiction to cigarettes? Not necessarily. With the right binge eater help, the ‘addiction’ to food does not have to be a lifelong battle.
Why Binge Eating Happens
In my professional experience and studies, there is 1 common thing that binge eating always seems to boil down to: restriction.
Restriction is probably the last thing that comes to mind when you think of binge eating. However, when I dig deep into the ‘why’ behind a binge, I can always tie it back to restricting in 1 of 2 ways: physical restriction or psychological restriction.
If you’re wondering how to know if you’re binge eating, it’s a good idea to explore whether you’ve been participating in any restricting behaviors.
When our body receives the message that we aren’t getting enough food (like in the case of dieting or restricting) there are multiple systems that turn on and push us towards food.
An example of this is Neuropeptide Y (NPY), aka the answer to “why do I crave bread all the time?”
NPY is a chemical produced in the brain that triggers our drive to eat carbohydrates (our main source of energy). Under-eating drives NPY into action, causing the body to seek more carbs. This means that we can easily be driven into a binge. This isn’t for lack of self-control, rather, it is your biology working correctly.
Another example is the basic sensation of hunger. The longer we go without eating, the worse it gets. It might turn off for a little while, but eventually it comes back with a vengeance. This is prime time for binging.
Oftentimes, dieters will find themselves stuck in a rollercoaster of dieting/restricting and then binging. They are either all in or all out, and it is because of the restrictive nature of dieting.
This is a lot harder to identify than physical restriction. Psychological restriction is when there are foods we think we shouldn’t have. We have rules about what’s good, bad, okay, off limits, clean, sinful, etc. When we do this, we are creating a psychological restriction around a specific food.
Have you ever told a toddler they can’t have something (a toy, dessert, game, etc)? How did that go? Did their desire for that thing just go away? I’m going to guess it didn’t.
Just like toddlers, we want what we can’t have. Therefore, when we decide there are specific foods we ‘cannot’ eat, we want them 100x more.
This is an example of why giving oneself unconditional permission to eat any foods (that are medically safe) is so important.
Is Binge Eating Bad?
While some overeating can be normal, binge eating is a problem if you find yourself distressed and/or preoccupied with your patterns and behaviors around food. If you’re experiencing symptoms of binge eating, you should not wait until you meet criteria for BED to reach out for help. The sooner binge eating is addressed, the quicker it can be resolved.
Can Binge Eating Disorder be Cured?
Absolutely, 1,000% yes.
The problem with binge eating and/or BED is that not everyone seeks help, or they give up too early. Or, they may even be unsure of how to know if you’re binge eating. It is estimated that less than ½ of people with diagnosed BED will receive treatment for their disorder.
With the proper support system, tools, and resources, there is no reason that binge eating cannot be overcome. There are so many resources available for binge eater help, including coaching programs, binge eating support groups and one-on-one dietitian support.
If you are ready to walk away from binge eating, apply to work with me so we can get started on your journey to a binge-free life right away!