Binge eating disorder can affect all types of individuals, infiltrating all aspects of life – relationships, self-esteem, body image and even one’s overall functioning. Despite common misconceptions, it is not an eating disorder that you can “see.” Individuals in smaller shapes and sizes may struggle with severe and recurrent binging episodes, while individuals in larger bodies might not engage in these types of behaviors. Nevertheless, binge eating can be associated with substantial weight gain which can become an area of concern for those who place high importance on body weight, appearance or shape.
Is Weight Really The Issue?
Weight stigma is prevalent in our culture and is often mentioned as a strong trigger to binge eating. But what is weight stigma, really? It is a cultural perspective that one’s body shape and size reflects important information about a person, such as character, lifestyle and/or ethics. There is great value placed on thinness in our society, which places a lot of blame on a person when the individual does not meet society’s ideals. Weight loss goals may have come about as a result of long histories of weight-based humiliation and discrimination. Consistent belief that one’s appearance is “wrong” in some way can negatively impact the way that person feels in and about their body. Poor body image may manifest itself via feelings of shame and self-consciousness about one’s body, likely increasing the desire to try and change it. For people with binge eating disorder, attempts at changing their shape can increase vulnerability to binge eating. The reasoning behind a desire for weight loss may be unique from person to person, yet many believe that dieting is the only solution.
In reality, dieting is not the answer.
Restricting food intake, delaying eating and avoiding certain kinds of foods can really make the binge eating cycle stronger and more intense. These dieting efforts may lead to some weight loss, but it is often short lived as diets are not effective or sustainable ways of managing weight.
Eating feels good for a reason. As human beings, we have a biological need to fuel our bodies. As a result, there are internal mechanisms that support a relationship with food. Deprivation may increase desire or focus on specific types of foods that we, as a society, have labeled as “bad” or “unhealthy.” Pair this hyper focus with ravenous hunger (a common result of dieting) and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a binge eating episode. People with binge eating disorder often believe that straying slightly from their diet means that it is immediately ruined, opening the door to binge eating. This all-or-nothing thinking can have a significant impact. This “dieting tornado” can take a vast toll on an individual’s sense of efficacy and may negatively impact mood. More often than not, individuals who diet have tried other diets before without long term success. This can wreak havoc on a person’s sense of self and confidence, and can confirm beliefs about weight stigma and negative body image.
Body weight may vacillate significantly due to dieting and binge eating episodes. Not only is yo-yo dieting ineffective, but repeated cycles of weight loss and gain can affect the body in ways that make it more difficult to lose weight in the future (Fairburn, 2013). This may compound feelings of frustration and failure within individuals who struggle with binge eating, and may even be a component in maintaining (or intensifying) the disorder.
Repeated weight loss and weight gain is a roller coaster ride of emotions. When it becomes even more difficult to lose weight upon the onset of a new diet, many blame ourselves. I often hear the phrases, “I don’t have enough willpower to see a diet through” or “I can’t lose weight because I’m so lazy.” In reality, many times, the real issue is actually one’s relationship with food.
Won’t I gain Weight If I Stop Dieting?
For many, changing binging and dieting behaviors ignites a spark of fear about increasing weight. However, studies have found that the most common pattern that occurs after a reduction in binge eating is weight maintenance (Fairburn, 2013). As one client put it, “Wait! You’re telling me I have to get comfortable with this weight right now because it might not change?!” Understandably, this is not the information that most individuals with binge eating disorder are hoping to hear. Yet, it is especially important for people to know.
With time and hard work, individuals may challenge their beliefs around the importance of weight and shape, and the negative thoughts and comparisons one makes about their body. Adopting this mindset is an important component of feeling better in one’s skin.
Is There Hope?
Though not impossible, it is likely to be extremely difficult to maintain weight loss without decreasing binge eating first. If someone is looking to address binge eating behaviors, their first and goal should be stability in eating patterns–putting weight loss goals to the side (at first). This is especially important for individuals who identify weight loss as a goal due to medical complications and physical pain or limitations. Outcomes suggest that a small, maintainable amount of weight loss (usually 5-10%; CDC) can dramatically alleviate medical complications. This is typically a much smaller amount than many clients are looking for, but it can become a manageable and sustainable goal once binge eating behavior has been reduced.
In the clients that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, those who have used skills to decrease binge eating and worked to understand their eating patterns and relationships with food have found improvements in various aspects of life. Binge eating does impact self-esteem, mood and relationships and as the behavior decreases, some of these issues may alleviate on their own or provide space for the individual to work on the problem at hand. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are especially effective interventions in identifying and exploring beliefs about shape and weight. Delving further into these beliefs may also foster increased body acceptance, better mood and improved relationships.
It is a truly incredible experience when a client is able to increase their feelings of acceptance and understanding toward their bodies. Appreciation for oneself and one’s body can foster positive thoughts and behaviors. More recently, a client told me, “I am ok with my body, not every day, but today I am. I never thought that would happen.” For this client, learning to be ok with her body resulted in less urges to diet, less negative self-talk and allowed for her to care for herself in ways she never thought she could before. For many, reducing the frequency of binge eating revealed struggles that were masked by the behavior. Bringing these issues to light allowed for these individuals to make changes to improve their overall well-being.
These examples prove that individuals can have agency over their lives and the way they see their bodies and the bodies of others. Through this acceptance, many are able awaken their feelings of gratitude for the vessel that supports turning their dreams into realities.
If you are looking for support around binge eating or emotional eating, we’re here to help.
Sarah-Eve Hamel, MA is an adult clinician in the PHP and IOP programs in Worcester and the Binge Eating Disorder Coordinator in Milford. She provides individual, family, and group counseling to adults with eating disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Concordia University and her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Assumption College. Sarah-Eve incorporates Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) in her work with patients. She is also passionate about research and education around the topics of mental health and eating disorders. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with family, rock climbing, and running outdoors.