Binge eating disorder (BED) is a somewhat common type of eating disorder — affecting middle-aged women more than any other group — that’s different than other well-known eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, although it has some things in common with both. What is “binge eating” (or binging) exactly, and how is binge eating disorder defined?
Information about binge eating disorder has been evolving over the past several decades as researchers learn more about what drives compulsive eating, obesity and abnormal eating behaviors, but for now binge eating disorder is defined by the National Eating Disorder Association as recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory behaviors (like vomiting, excessive exercise or using laxatives).
Many people who have had binge eating disorder describe it as a cycle that feels very out of control: binging (often on unhealthy foods that have been deemed “off-limits” or forbidden), followed by feelings of intense shame and guilt, often followed by self-hatred, intense dieting and restricting, and then more binging. Harboring a strong urge to eat along with night eating are also quite common.
Help for How to Stop Binge Eating: Proven Binge Eating Disorder Treatments
1. Seek Therapy and Professional Help
Several forms of professional therapies have been shown to greatly help people struggling with binge eating and start their recovery. These include family-based treatment, adolescent-focused treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is considered by many experts to be the gold-standard approach to treating and managing eating disorders because of how it addresses underlying thought patterns and beliefs that drive compulsive behaviors, shame and anxiety.
CBT (which is the term often used interchangeably with dialectical behavioral therapy) focuses on impulsive interruption and the importance of thoughts in determining behaviors. This type of therapy can help address underlying emotional issues and deeply held beliefs that have nothing to do with food but still drive the desire to overeat, restrict and continue the cycle.
Studies done by the Centers for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt have found that CBT is effective when done in three stages: cognitive (addressing underlying thoughts), behavioral (stabilizing eating behaviors) and maintenance/relapse-prevention phases (establishes long-term strategies for dealing with stress, compulsions and triggers).
Specifically, there are eating disorder treatment centers that the individual should also consider, if the standard therapies do not seem to work. Serious medical intervention may be required at these treatment centers in order to help reverse this condition.
2. Put Weight Loss on the Back Burner
Because dieting and continuously attempting to lose weight are risks factors for binging, most experts recommend learning to change your entire approach to managing your weight. While it’s important to take good care of yourself, eat healthy foods, and move in the direction of reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, focusing too much on achieving weight loss, obsessing over calorie counting and other restrictive behaviors can actually contribute to anxiety around food. This increases the odds of binging, especially on foods normally viewed as “off-limits.”
A therapist or nutritionist can help you establish an eating plan that seems manageable longterm, meets your calorie and nutrient needs, but still allows room for indulgences and treats. Aiming to eat the “perfect diet,” forbidding or strictly avoiding certain foods, and only focusing on your weight (as opposed to the big picture of your mental and physical health) can actually backfire in the long run. Experts on eating disorders advise that eating for comfort or emotional reasons on occasion is actually normal and not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the food does not become the main source of comfort.
Many therapists and nutrition counselors now use a form of intuitive eating called the “non-diet” method to teach people with BED to recognize and respond to sensations of physical hunger, plus learn to regulate feelings associated with satisfaction, cravings for certain foods and eating for comfort.
3. Reduce Stress
Experts agree that the underlying issues driving eating disorders and binge eating are compulsive behavior and the inability to handle difficult feelings, situations and thoughts. Stress can often trigger the need for people to comfort themselves, and, as we all know, “comfort food” is widely available and often used in this way.
Learning to manage stressful situations or tough emotions without turning to food can feel overwhelming and like a long road if it’s a very ingrained behavior, but it’s essential for recovering from any eating disorder, including BED.
One of the best things you can do for binge eating disorder treatment and boost your odds of recovery long-term is to establish and practice several other ways to soothe yourself and relieve stress during difficult times. Different things work for different people, but studies show that effective stress-reducing techniques include regular exercise, meditation and yoga, listening to music, spending time with other people, reading and writing, being outdoors in nature, and keeping up with fun hobbies.
4. Try Mindfulness Meditation, Deep Breathing & Yoga
Meditation, deep breathing and yoga can all be used as ongoing tools for relaxing, reflecting on tough feelings, boosting creativity, feeling more happiness and gratitude, and even getting better sleep. According to the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, mindfulness meditation, healing prayer and yoga learned through guided six- to eight-week programs can reduce binge eating, kickstart eating disorder recovery, improve self-esteem and even improve many aspects of health related to obesity/overeating, including blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and cortisol levels.
Studies have shown that meditation reduces activity in the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight response and anxiety) and increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for emotional control, feelings of calm and clear decision making). One study found that women who took a six-week course of meditation and mindful yoga experienced significantly fewer binge episodes and a reduction in symptoms related to compulsive behavior, stress and depression. “Mindfulness-based eating awareness training” is one type of meditation program designed to address the core issues of BED — controlling responses to varying emotional states, making conscious food choices, developing an awareness of hunger and satiety cues, and cultivating self-acceptance — which has been shown to decrease binge episodes and increase self-control.
Yoga and deep breathing can also improve confidence in someone’s body by increasing appreciation and gratitude for what the body is capable of, regardless of weight. According to the Eating Disorder Hope Foundation, research has demonstrated that practicing yoga and meditation in conjunction with pharmacological and psychological interventions could be a complementary therapy that creates some of the following benefits for people with eating disorders:Increased attentiveness to one’s body functions and feelings (including appetite and fullness signals)
- Improved mood and decreased irritability, plus greater sense of connection and well-being
- Improved body image and self-confidence
- Healing from physical tension and pain (greater muscular strength, cardiovascular function and flexibility)
- Improved ability to focus, sleep, diminish impulsivity and avoid irrational thoughts/behaviors
5. Get Support
Getting support from others, especially family and close friends, is crucial to overcoming eating disorders. After all, one of the biggest motivating factors for seeking help and working through recovery is wanting to have closer, more honest and intimate relationships with others. It’s certainly hard to admit when you’re struggling with binge eating, but research shows that being honest and opening up, plus connecting with others going through the same thing, can make all the difference.
You can start gathering support by telling just one person who is close to you about what what you’re going through, becoming educated about BED and joining a support group online. Many BED support groups worldwide can be found through the Binge Eating Disorder Association’s website or NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association). It may also help to call an eating disorder helpline.
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