Diets and Binge Eating DisorderAre you someone with binge eating disorder who is considering (or already took part in) weight loss programs? If so, you might not be aware of the adverse impact they can have on your personal goals and quality of life, many of which may come as a surprise.

Millions of Americans turn to these types of programs, drawn in by marketing campaigns built on the promise of positive change for those seeking to lose weight. “It’s easy!” some say. “I lost X pounds in 30 days!” They sell visions of a ‘new life’ where weight loss is guaranteed and accompanied by happiness, acceptance and vitality.

It sure sounds appealing on the surface, especially for someone with binge eating disorder, an eating disorder marked by depression, shame and loss of control around food. One might think the structured meal plans of these programs will help you better control your food intake – and voila – problem solved, right?

Alas, it’s too good to be true.

In fact, programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig not only fail to result in sustained weight loss for most people, they can make you more prone to binge eat. And it has nothing to do with your commitment to the program.

Here are several reasons why investing time, money and energy into weight loss programs likely won’t work for you:

They activate your hunger cues: Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig are structured to “allow” for a certain number of points or calories per day, likely well below what someone normally consumes. Eating less can elevate one’s hunger levels which in turn, increases the likelihood of overeating or binge eating. Rigid point systems also mean you’re likely to choose or eliminate certain food groups from your diet, which over time, increase your thoughts and cravings around that particular food – making you more prone to binge eat.
They instill black-and-white thinking: Individuals with binge eating disorder often have “black-and-white” or “all-or-nothing” thinking styles. Breaking a dietary rule (most people do it) or going over your allotted points for the day (not unusual) could lead you to ‘give up’ and give in to urges to binge eat. This pattern can reinforce beliefs about control – that either you have it or you don’t. Loss of control while eating is one of the symptoms of binge eating disorder, not a measure of your willpower.

In most cases, weight loss programs fail to result in actual weight loss: Here’s the sobering reality: diets lead to weight loss in only a small fraction of people. Genes and metabolism play a significant role in the way your body gains and loses weight. Programs like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig may not work like they promise to, even if you’re following all the rules. The sheer disappointment and devastation of trying so hard – without the desired results – can invoke feelings of depression and low self-esteem. Binge eating is often a coping mechanism to manage those feelings.

They’re hard to maintain: No one stays on these weight loss programs forever, nor can most people afford to do so. There is a reason that Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers are successful businesses – most people don’t go on these programs just one time. It’s inevitable that at some point you’ll be back on your own without the support or supervision that was provided by the program. We know that maintenance of the weight loss associated with these programs is unlikely for the average person. Furthermore, if you have binge eating disorder and you start engaging in binge eating, you may regain the weight you lost.

These programs may work for some people, but for those with binge eating disorder, attempting weight loss with programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers is not the answer. (Side note: Fad Diets aren’t either).

If you have binge eating disorder, weight loss programs can trigger downward spirals or cycles of binge eating behavior that look something like this: Feel bad about self – Decide to lose weight – Start a diet – Feel hopeful – Break the Diet – Binge Eat – Feel bad about Self – Binge eat – Feel worse about self, and so on. Weight loss programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers will not control your urges to binge eat, or lead you to stop using binge eating as a means to cope with underlying feelings.

If you – or someone you know – might have binge eating disorder, the best course of action is to seek help from a professional with an expertise in binge eating disorder.

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Dr. Kate Craigen is the clinical director of binge eating and bariatric support services. She is responsible for the clinical development and consistent implementation of binge eating disorder programming across Walden’s inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and outpatient levels. Additionally, Dr. Craigen collaborates with various bariatric providers and partners throughout New England, ensuring both pre- and post-bariatric surgery patients gain the proper behavioral skills to enhance long-term outcomes. Previously, she was a clinician in Walden’s partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs in Waltham. She also served as a postdoctoral fellow and clinical instructor at the Eating and Weight Disorders Program in the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Craigen received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include the role of supervision and training in the field of eating disorders and the role of gender in the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders.