Ravenous appetites, devouring foods, wolfing your meal.. these phrases conjure an image of an out of control eater who just can’t get enough. We’ve all had moments in our life where we eat our food without awareness or even knowledge of what we’re ingesting. It’s like driving home from the store, and forgetting how you got there. You temporarily lost yourself and consumed food in an altered state.
But what are the differences between binge eating, compulsive eating and overeating? How is binge eating different from other eating challenges that cause us to over-consume foods, and when is it harmful? Let’s take a look at binge eating using the guidance of Dynamic Eating Psychology.
Binge Eating Defined
Compulsive eating is any eating that is not in relation to physiological hunger and satiation. This means that anytime we eat for reasons other than satisfying true hunger, we say that the eating was compulsive in nature. We all have times where we eat compulsively and consume foods even though we aren’t in a state of physiological hunger. Closely related is overeating, where we may initially eat because of true hunger, but we continue to consume food beyond our satiation point.
Binge eating is a supercharged form of overeating. This occurs when our eating is so out of touch with true hunger, that binge eating patterns have no connection at all to our hunger or to normal eating rhythms. Eating becomes an unconscious act, and food is consumed from an other-worldly place where a devouring creature takes control. The binge eater may think this is a behavior problem or a bad habit, or that they lack willpower. But in the field of Mind Body Nutrition, binge eating is understood to be a symptom of a problem whose source lurks below the surface.
Out of Control
Binge eating can show up when someone is tightly controlling parts of their life, relationships or eating habits. Often, in an effort to lose or control body weight or shape, restrictions are placed on food types, amounts, and frequency. We limit food choices to those options that we believe are good for our bodies, or we follow the latest nutritional advice and eat less carbs or fats, or we increase exercise. We follow different meal timing rules that have us eating small amounts every few hours, or fasting for whole days in an effort to achieve or maintain the perfect body.
This tight control over food and eating usually eliminates pleasure from the food equation. And at the Institute we teach that experiencing pleasure from our meals is at the core of achieving optimal health and relaxation around food. Binge eating is fast, mindless and overpowering. It’s literally the opposite of what our bodies require from the eating process. Eating slowly and consuming nutrient rich foods that we enjoy turns on the cephalic phase digestion response, which means your brain, mouth, stomach, intestines and metabolism are all working in harmony to process your food and deliver nutrients for optimum biological functioning.
Continuous binging is an eating challenge that is dangerous and can have serious health consequences. But perhaps binge eating is not the problem, but a manifestation of something else that needs attention. If you are indeed placing tight controls around food and eating, your body could be revolting and telling you ENOUGH. It’s your inner food rebel breaking all the rules in a big way. You may be nutritionally deficient and your body is compensating by demanding food, lots of it, and now! Eating is primal, we need food to survive, and you cannot trick your body into not needing food. Your inner eater will always win.
But binging isn’t always about food. There are many other parts of our life that can be out of balance or over-controlled. Perhaps we are suppressing emotions and not truly expressing our inner feelings. Or we are in an unhappy relationship or working at a job we hate. In a culture where perfection is the goal, you can be labeled as overly “emotional” or a “complainer” for having a bad day or being upset. Food can be a safe way to moderate emotions and avoid feeling pain, sadness, anger or frustration. It has a chemical numbing effect on the brain and allows us to bypass uncomfortable emotional experiences.
If binge eating is an occasional occurrence, then it’s likely not harming you. But if binge eating is becoming more and more frequent, and you are feeling less in control, then it’s time to really explore the root cause and take back your power.
Binge eating is a powerful act that feels like your eating process has been hijacked by another creature. In our Eating Psychology Coach Training we teach that power is a good thing. “The Law of Energy” states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. If someone is having strong binge eating episodes, then that person has a lot of power and energy to explore. The goal is to find ways to transform that energy into personal growth, wisdom and nourishment.
The binge eater will need to find doorways to open up that which has been over-controlled. If pleasure in food has been eliminated, then it’s time to discover joy in eating again. We often find that foods containing carbohydrates or fats are overly restricted. It may be time to add in high quality, pleasure foods that contain these nutrients, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oils, fresh fruits, eggs, cheeses, etc. Even planning a special treat or savoring a piece of chocolate can stave off a binge. Adding pleasurable foods into your diet tells your body that eating is good, that everything’s okay, and allows your digestion to be in a parasympathetic state while eating.
It’s clear that binge eating places stress on the body. Continued binging can create adrenal fatigue, which occurs when the adrenal gland, the organ that governs the regulation of stress hormones, is overworked and begins to dis-regulate. Symptoms include brain fog, fatigue and sleep problems. It can take time to heal, so we recommend consuming miso or bone broths, green juices, and herbal teas throughout the day to help calm the adrenals, and give your digestive system a rest.
If emotions are being tightly controlled, then it may be time to speak your truth and express what needs to be said in your personal or professional relationships. If powerful feelings such as anger, loss, betrayal, and even elation are not expressed, they will find other ways to make themselves known. While some may indulge in drinking, gambling or shopping to avoid feeling, binge eating can be more socially acceptable. You can do it on your own terms and maybe the only person you are hurting is yourself.
Being honest with oneself and others is no easy path, but there’s freedom on the other side. In our work at the Institute we find that when a binge eater confronts the challenges, relationships, and emotions they’ve been avoiding, there is a sense of release and life energy starts to shift. The eater becomes more authentic and empowered, and usually the binges subside because the energy has moved on to serve a greater good.
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