Are you addicted to food?

When you hear “eating disorder,” does your brain flash to an image of an emaciated ballerina hiding uneaten food in her closet? This is the picture that society has put in our heads — skeletal girls dancing around. However, did you know that anorexia and bulimia are not the only types of eating disorders? Compulsive overeating, often referred to as the binge eating disorder, is just as dangerous as these other conditions. In fact, compulsive overeating may even be a larger health threat to the greater population. It is much more common than anorexia and bulimia, and unlike these two disorders, compulsive overeating is almost as common in men as it is in women.

Compulsive overeating is often aligned with bulimia because sufferers of both disorders usually participate in binge eating. However, compulsive overeaters differ in that they do not participate in purging behaviours — such as fasting, laxative use, vomiting or excessive exercise — to keep from gaining weight. Because compulsive overeaters do not purge after a binge, they usually gain a significant amount of weight, often resulting in obesity. It is important to note that not all compulsive overeaters binge, some eat continually throughout the day. Although the portions may be small, this causes them to consume more calories in a given day then necessary and therefore they usually gain weight as well.

Theories explaining why people overeat are many and none of the answers have to do with how much delicious food is available. As many as half the people suffering from compulsive overeating are depressed or have been depressed in the past. The question is: does depression cause compulsive overeating or does compulsive overeating cause depression?

Another correlation that is unclear concerns binge eating and dieting. Many people diet to lose weight. However, there is an increased prevalence of binge eating while dieing. This diet-related binging can then cause people to gain more weight. Researchers are also looking into how brain chemicals and metabolism affect this disorder. Furthermore, some believe that genetics may be involved due to the prevalence of multiple people from a single family suffering from this disorder.

One of the most accepted reasons why someone eats compulsively is emotional turmoil. Binge eaters often express feelings of anger, sadness, boredom, worry and stress before a bingeing episode. Have you ever reached for a chocolate bar when you were feeling upset about something? I can think of several occasions when I have!

Compulsive overeating usually begins in a person’s youth, during the formation of their eating patterns. Binge eaters never learned the proper way to deal with their feelings and so they use food as a way to repress their emotions and cope with any stresses they may have in their life. In some cases, the fat put on one’s body by the compulsive overeating actually acts as a kind of protection. This is especially seen in victims of sexual abuse who may believe that their extra weight will make them unattractive and, consequently, keep people away from them.

There are various signs and symptoms that become apparent when someone suffers from compulsive overeating. Most of these result from the onset of obesity caused by the binge eating. There are many mental side effects that can then result from the obesity. When feelings of self-worth are contingent upon weight, people attribute social and professional failures to their weight and believe that they would be a better person if they were thin. Feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment and powerlessness are all experienced as a result of eating alone, eating rapidly and eating too much. Mood swings and depression are other mental complications associated with obesity as a result of compulsive overeating.

Physical complications related to obesity are also found in binge eaters. These include shortness of breath, mobility problems and Type 2 diabetes. High blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels also occur, which can cause heart disease, cardiac arrest and even death. Additional long-term side effects of compulsive overeating include sleep deprivation, kidney and gallbladder disease, bone deterioration, stroke, arthritis, sciatica, varicose veins, hiatal hernia, embolism, certain kinds of cancer and toxaemia during pregnancy.

There are many stereotypes regarding compulsive overeaters. It is easy to look at an overweight person and think that they have simply made poor eating choices and never exercise. We all must try to be more mindful about this serious condition and realize that there are often deeply painful emotions that cause a person to overeat. Most compulsive overeaters recognize that they have a problem. They are aware that their eating patterns are abnormal but feel out of control and don’t know how to stop.

Because of the large emotional aspect of this disorder, the most effective way to stop bingeing is through therapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapy has been effective in teaching people how to keep track of their eating in order to help change their unhealthy eating habits. It also helps them to change the way they act in stressful situations and to feel better about their body. With this better understanding and new skill set, sufferers can then seek nutritional counselling. This will send binge eaters on a path to a healthy body and more importantly, a healthy mind.