As someone who struggles with binge eating, I can tell you that it’s something you live with every day.
Research reveals differences in the brain of girls and women with binge eating disorder. One new treatment stimulates the affected area of the brain with little bursts of electric current. Science confirms what I’ve known from living with the disorder: You can’t will yourself to get over it, and a real cure involves brain rewiring.
Nearly everyone can relate to eating for comfort occasionally, or even binge eating when stressed. You eat a bowl of your grandma’s chicken soup when sick or have a giant ice cream sundae when you're anxious about a work presentation. But, binge eating disorder is a more recurrent problem with emotional aspects.
It’s challenging to live with, but I can assure you, there are positive ways to cope. You can learn to live with binge eating and redirect the urge to eat excessively. And if you do binge eat on occasion, you can also learn how to show yourself grace. Learning how to forgive rather than punish myself was key for me. I’ll show you.
What Is Binge Eating Disorder?
An estimated 6% of females (14.4 million) and 4% of males (6.6 million) have experienced an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and about 2.2% of these adults have binge eating disorder. Almost half also have a mood disorder, and more than half have an anxiety disorder.
The diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder (BED) has three parts:
Binge eating episodes not associated with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa
Distress from binge eating
At least four binge eating events per month over the prior consecutive three months
Binging is eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time. Binge eating is often associated with eating too fast, eating until uncomfortably full, and eating a lot when not hungry. People with binge eating disorder frequently eat alone because they feel ashamed, and they feel extreme guilt, depression, or disgust because they binge.
“Those who binge eat may do this daily, a few times a week, or a few times a month. Sometimes, it may be a response to a trigger, such as stress, or it might be intentionally planned and prepared for beforehand,” explains Karen Reyes, board certified nutritionist who has a bachelor’s degree in clinical and bariatric nutrition.
Binge eating disorder has similar neurobiology to addiction disorder, affecting the brain's reward center and inhibitory control.
Grey matter is the outermost portion of the brain and plays a role in memory, emotions, and mental functions. During childhood and young adulthood, gray matter decreases in some areas while gray matter density (GMD) increases in others. The lessening of gray matter in certain parts of the brain, along with increased GMD, is associated with more efficient functioning and higher processing.
One study found that children with binge eating disorders showed abnormalities in gray matter; they had more gray matter in areas that were often decreased or "pruned" between ages two and 10. Abnormal synaptic pruning is often linked to various psychiatric disorders.
My Experience With Binge Eating
My relationship with food was never really healthy. I thought about food from the second I woke up to the second I went to sleep. But, I often ate very little to remain thin. That all changed when I was diagnosed with agoraphobia with panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (a social anxiety disorder diagnosis came later).
After explaining that I had trouble falling and staying asleep, my psychiatrist prescribed medication to help. My doctor warned that I might get the “munchies,” a common side effect. I shrugged it off but knew exactly what he was talking about after taking the pill. I have never experienced anything like it before.
I felt ravenous (I had the munchies!), and food tasted 100 times better than it usually does. But, I only got the urge to eat junk food, and that combination was a disaster. I ate chips, donuts, other baked goods, and deli meats. It was uncontrollable. I even fell asleep while eating, which is highly dangerous. I’d binge every night.
After a few years, I realized I had gained over 50 pounds. I tried preparing nutritious food, but I would binge anyway. I tried not keeping junk food in the house, but… hello delivery! I tried not eating during the day, which was more of a punishment for binging. Nothing worked.
I had to stop taking the pills. That was several years ago, and I still get the urge to binge. Sometimes that urge wins, but I’ve come a long way. Here’s what I’ve learned.
5 Ways to Stop Binge Eating
There are some tools you can use to help stop binge eating, none of which are dieting.
Mindfulness means focusing your attention on your thoughts, emotions, and sensations experienced during the present moment. In the case of mindful eating, attention is given to the sensation of eating food and the feelings it elicits.
Here’s how to practice mindful eating:
Only eat at the kitchen table or other designated spot
Avoid distractions (no TV, phone, or other devices)
Go slow. Take your time when eating. Chew small bites slowly and thoroughly
Focus on the flavors. How does it smell, feel, and taste?
Pay attention to how full you start to feel and stop when you are
I’ve found that I’m more satisfied with my meals when I chew thoroughly while paying attention to the flavors and texture of the food. Food quality is important, too. Instead of binging on junk foods, it’s more satisfying to have fresh, quality ingredients with a well-rounded meal.
For example, if I want eggs for breakfast, I think about what I can add to that meal. How about a fruit cup with plain yogurt and some whole wheat toast? Adding nutritious foods with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein will keep me satiated. I want to enjoy the ingredients and savor my meals.
Reyes explains that people with binge eating disorder: “often suffer from depression, addiction issues, as well as childhood trauma.” There can be a long list of triggers, and identifying them can help.
Trista Best, registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements, says triggers can vary from person to person, but some common ones are:
Emotional distress: anxiety, stress, depression, and other emotional issues
Dieting or restricting: restricting calories or following a strict diet
Social situations: being around food and other people who are eating
Hormonal changes: women may experience an increase in binge eating behavior during certain phases of the menstrual cycle
Reducing stress, anxiety, and depression can help. Maybe you want to avoid being around people when they’re eating; try making plans to attend an event after everyone has eaten.
Keeping yourself busy can help since boredom is a common trigger. For me, the best distraction is exercise. I find daily walks helpful in distracting me from wanting to binge. I go to the gym Monday through Friday and enjoy an hour-long workout, which includes warm-up, exercise, and cooldown stretches.
Best recommends distractions like reading, listening to music, or taking a walk. Here are some other distractions:
Watch a movie
Talk to a friend
Draw, paint, or journal
Self-care (shower, bathe, give yourself a mani/pedi, etc.)
Play a video game
Take a nap
Distractions are all about keeping yourself busy, so if you decide to watch a movie, for example, do something with your hands. Doodle, draw, knit — anything to keep your hands busy.
“Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and engaging in activities you enjoy,” notes Best. I’ve personally found that regular exercise helps me, and since anxiety is one of my main triggers, cardio helps me burn off that anxious energy.
“Attending self-help programs or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions can be especially helpful if you’re battling this disorder,” adds Reyes.
Feeling extreme guilt and shame is part of binge eating disorder. I know when I was binge eating, I felt this way, and it only made it worse. I would think, why should I even bother trying to get better? I fail every time I try. I eat way too much; it’s disgusting.
These thoughts and feelings never helped. They just made me feel awful and contributed to my nightly binge eating episodes until I learned to forgive myself. Yes, sometimes I eat too much in a short time period. So what? I tell myself it’s okay to binge occasionally and start new tomorrow. I focus on eating well the next day instead of trying to punish myself with no food. I forgive myself.
Deep Brain Stimulation
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) aims to reset the electrical pulses firing from neuron to neuron believed to have gone awry in individuals with psychiatric disorders. Electrical pulses delivered from implanted electrodes help to stabilize brain activity, potentially reducing the severity of conditions such as binge eating disorder.
In one pilot study, two severely obese individuals with binge eating disorder were given DBS. For the first six months, the electrodes recorded impulses in the brain associated with pleasure and reward processing.
Next, they used what the electrodes identified as a "slow wave" brain pattern to alter behavior when binge eating occurred. The electrode stimulation only occurred when the slow wave was present. As a result, the participants reported fewer binge eating episodes over a period of six months.
The study illustrates that DBS may be able to decrease the craving sensation and reduce binge eating episodes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the same team to try DBS with more participants in a larger-scale clinical trial. It’ll be interesting to see what the larger study finds.
It’s important to note that deep brain stimulation involves creating small holes in the skull to implant the electrodes into the brain tissue as well as performing surgery to implant the device that contains the batteries under the skin in the chest. It’s an invasive procedure that comes with potential side effects, such as headache, seizure, confusion, and stroke, among others.
While I still struggle with binge eating, I’ve gotten better with mindfulness, exercise, and distractions. Incorporating these three things in my life has even helped my overall mental wellness. You don’t (and shouldn’t) have to go it alone.
If you think you might have an eating disorder, talk to your doctor. It’s vital that you don’t self-diagnose. If you meet the criteria for an eating disorder, your doctor can recommend treatment options and steer you on a path to healing.