“So, we diagnose overeating now?”
Well, yes. Sort of.
In a time when over-indulgence is, for all intents and purposes, a pillar of society, it can be difficult to distinguish where “enjoyment” ends and “gluttony” begins. But an even harder task is to understand and conquer your uncontrollable compulsion toward gluttony.
This is the task I faced when I was diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
Binge Eating Disorder is marked by episodes of binge eating (eating a huge amount in a short time period), feeling out of control during binges, and feeling distressed, guilty, or depressed about binge eating.
The diagnostic criteria summarized above are, admittedly, a bit ambiguous. So, here are a few things you need to know about BED:
1) Binge Eating Disorder is Real
Let’s get this out there right off the bat.
As a relatively new diagnosis, first appearing as its own category in the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual of mental disorders in 2013, BED is often unknown and misunderstood. As a result, it can be a confusing diagnosis.
I had struggled with Binge Eating Disorder for five years before I knew it was even a diagnosis. Since then, I’ve had trouble validating it as a true struggle to others and, more importantly, to myself. It was easy to feel like my eating disorder wasn’t enough of an eating disorder.
It’s important, however, for those who struggle with BED to remember that everyone has his or her “cross” to bear. That cross is just as valid as anyone else’s, even if it’s misunderstood. (And even if “BED” is a funny acronym.)
2) Binge Eating Disorder is Not Normal
Let’s face it, our society is much too possessed by food, and everyone overdoes it at times. But all-consuming guilt, lack of control, eating in secret, and obsession with food and/or dieting is not normal.
I used to have all sorts of excuses to rationalize my overeating—birthdays, holidays, it being an extra special treat, and, everyone’s favorite, “my diet starts tomorrow.” What I’ve realized is that when you have Binge Eating Disorder, overeating is different for you. It’s the difference between an average person getting drunk and an alcoholic getting drunk. For us, binge eating always spells disaster, sparking another frustrating, seemingly inescapable, yet unacceptable cycle.
We all deserve more than to assume this as a permanent reality.
3) Binge Eating Disorder is Not (Just) About Self-Control
As we’ve discussed, Binge Eating Disorder is often misunderstood. When I talk to family and friends about my struggles, they often give me tips on how to develop more willpower. In fact, most people’s advice about binge eating is, “Just be moderate.”
(Why, if only I had thought of that!)
Of course, they’re only trying to help, but this is one of the most vexing things for me to hear. If simply having a will of steel cured BED, I’d be better in a heartbeat. (My poor mother can attest to that fact.)
I find it useful to compare BED with alcoholism. (Though, with food we can’t very well quit completely.) As someone with BED, when people tell me, “Just have a small treat,” or, “Just use temperance,” I feel like an alcoholic who people keep telling, “Just have two.” It can be frustrating when people don’t understand the realness of your situation.
BED is truly a mental illness, most often centered around depression and anxiety. An attempt to stop the binge eating without healing the underlying issues would be fruitless.
From my experience, there are both mental and physical elements to BED. At times, I’m so deep in depression that eating feels like the only source of “happiness.” I realize that it’s only pleasure, not true joy; but joy seems unattainable, and pleasure is much quicker. Times when emotions like stress, loneliness, and depression bring me to binge, I give up and give in to pleasure.
Other times, binges feel more like physical compulsions. They cause a sort of daze, and I feel as if eating is out of my control. Even my vision becomes a bit glazed. As I scarf cookie after cookie, I ask myself, “Why are you doing this?” And, at the moment, I honestly don’t know. It seems my body is driving and I’m along for the ride.
Only recently am I able to separate the emotional and physical elements. Previously, one would perpetuate the other, but they existed only in conjunction with one another indistinguishably. But when we can recognize these two elements, we can better determine how to proceed.
There’s a balance between realizing our struggles and that everything is not in our control, and realizing that God gave us free will and we are called to use it sensibly. Through our wills and through the help of Christ, we can overcome the physical compulsions to binge.
4) Weight Loss is Not the Cure
One possible misconception about Binge Eating Disorder is that those affected are always overweight. There is no weight requirement for BED. On average, those affected are normal to overweight. So, being overweight doesn’t constitute BED; and at the same time, many people with BED have a completely normal body type. Therefore, it may not be apparent to the outside observer that disordered eating is an issue.
With that said, one of the most distressing parts of BED is weight gain or being unable to lose weight. In all honesty, I wouldn’t have sought help for BED if it weren’t for my frustration about my appearance. It’s hard to let go of the fixation on weight loss as a benchmark for progress.
As is the case with many others, my BED began with frequent, extreme (and unnecessary) dieting. Often, people with BED are the people who are obsessed with clean eating, are always dieting, or have intense workout plans, but never seem to lose weight. It doesn’t make sense until you know about the secret binging that they’re hiding from the world.
Clearly, this dieting obsession hinders progress toward healing from BED, as well as actually causing weight gain through this “yo-yo” cycle. But dieting is hard for many people to let go of. This is my biggest struggle. My pride and vanity make me desperate for the perfect body, and my dieting failures cause depression, self-hate, and—you guessed it—more eating.
5) You’re Not Alone (and You Can’t Do It Alone)
Binge Eating Disorder is by far the most prevalent eating disorder, affecting over three times as many as anorexia and bulimia combined. It’s easy to find someone who knows what you’re going through. And, praise be to God, it’s easy to find people who have overcome the struggle.
Also, explaining my situation to friends and family was huge for me. Even if they sometimes have a hard time understanding what I’m going through, it’s amazing to no longer keep it a secret, and their support makes me feel less alone. Certain family members are great about checking in on me and doing their best to empathize.
As far as finding professional assistance, everyone’s situation is different.
Counseling, both as an individual and in a group, has been useful for me. A good counselor will help you balance the issue—recognizing both spiritual and psychological aspects to healing.
I would also suggest that everyone find a spiritual director. My spiritual director helped me to change my focus off myself and onto God’s love. I must choose to push aside this thing, which seems huge but is infinitely smaller than God, and put God in the favored place—the center of my life. Whenever I feel myself being overcome, I remember his immeasurable love for me, and I consider how I can more actively participate in that love.