Eating Disorder Awareness Week: The Misunderstood Reality of Binge Eating

Disclaimer: this post discusses Binge Eating Disorder, binge eating behaviour, the binge-purge cycle, the binge-restrict cycle, and other eating disorder behaviour. I do not, nor did I have Binge Eating Disorder, therefore I don’t claim to know what the disorder is like other than research made for this post. This post is to deliver some insight into what I experienced when I binged.

When asked to think of an eating disorder, many peoples’ go to answer would be anorexia nervosa; maybe even bulimia. In fact, the former is often falsely believed to be the most common eating disorder out there, when, in actuality, it accounts for around 8-10% of cases. Really, one of the more common eating disorders is Binge Eating Disorder, with 1 in 50 people in the UK struggling with it. Yet, it is highly misunderstood, stigmatised, and dismissed.

The reality is: Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is an overwhelming and distressing disorder. Just like the others.

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This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is You Might Know Me, with the focus being on BED. The aim is to bring further attention to the disorder, and reduce the stigma and uninformed opinions surrounding it.

It is characterised by the consumption of large quantities of food over a short period of time, often to the point of the individual being uncomfortably full. You might have heard of the concept of binge eating, as it is a feature within disorders such as bulimia. However, this isn’t the case in Binge Eating Disorder. In fact, the person can often experiences a cycle with binging, in which they eat less/restrict, binge, and then return to trying to eat less, or eating at some level of normality.

While it is suggested that BED’s risk factors are low self-esteem and body image, certain adverse childhood experiences, parental mental illness, and substance abuse whether parental or the self etc., there isn’t a great deal of evidence out there about the causes and risk factors compared to other eating disorders. Additionally, it wasn’t fully included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual until it’s fifth edition in 2013 and in the International Classification of Disease manual until it’s eleventh edition in 2019. So, often, people have their symptoms dismissed due to the lack of research and appropriate clinical practice. Moreover, when they receive treatment, it isn’t always the most appropriate and effective treatment. There is a great deal of misplaced focus on weight restoration and management, leaving the person without entirely positive and long-term outcomes. And, then to add insult to injury, the public perception of BED is one of it being less severe and a lack of self-discipline.

With the combination of poor public perception and the limited knowledge by healthcare professionals, people do not recognise their symptoms or believe they are deserving of help, so they don’t often seek it. This leads to poorer prognoses and increased distress. So much so, one in three with BED consider suicide, and one in six attempt it.

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People with BED are so easily dismissed. It may not seem like it to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but it can sometimes be the only way a person feels they can cope. The person is unwell, and trying to deal with their environment and the consequences of such an environment, which can be overwhelming, distressing, and potentially traumatic.

My eating disorders lay more on the restrictive side (orthorexia and atypical anorexia), so I’ve never experienced BED. As I mentioned in the disclaimer, I don’t want to speak for people with BED, due to my lack of experience. However, I have experienced binge eating episodes in my binge-purge and binge-restrict cycle, so I have some understanding of how consuming they can be. Each episode was never a case of being greedy and overindulging. It was overwhelming. It was horrendous. It was often at moments where I felt out of control in my surroundings, and as though my restrictive eating patterns were not offering the solace I needed. I would feel useless; like I was not coping as well as I had hoped. Maybe, I was doing something wrong? I would be so incredibly exhausted from the starvation and restrictions, that my body and mind would be out of focus. It wasn’t the fact that I was carrying out an eating disorder incorrectly that was the issue. It was the eating disorder itself. So, when faced with something that distressed and upset me; hungry and exhausted, my body and brain would disconnect from one another, and I would binge.

Sometimes, my binges were planned in advance. But, more often than not, they weren’t, and it was more about whatever food I could get my hands on within my vicinity. My binges occurred in secret, usually when I knew I couldn’t be disturbed. And, when I binged, it was almost as if I had blinders on. It was complete tunnel vision. Everything disappeared around me. I had one focus and one focus only. Eating as much as I could.

I just wanted to cope, and my disordered relationship with food and lack of coping strategies meant that I believe the only way to deal with my poor mental health and wellbeing was to binge. Once the binge started, it was about how quickly I could cover up the distress and the feeling and fear of failing. It was like a way to fill a gap inside me, and because I was also so hungry because I wasn’t eating enough, I was unable to determine my hunger levels and unable to allow myself any level of comfort and appropriate connection with food. It was as if I had no understanding of my body, and wasn’t entirely present. My stomach would be aching as the binge reached an end. I was passed the stage of being full. I felt just as exhausted as I had been when I was restricting.

But, once the binge finished, and my body and brain began to reconnect, it was almost like the eating disorder was waiting there to punish me for what I did.

Because, that’s the thing with eating disorders; regardless of what they are, it will bully you for what you eat and don’t eat. It will try to teach you to have a toxic relationship with food where you don’t understand fully what is a ‘normal and healthy’ way of eating. So, regardless of whether I restricted, purged, or binged, there was always a negative reaction from my eating disorder. It would continually toy with my need for control, my need to have a way to cope.

The minute I snapped back to my reality, I was crushed with guilt and shame for what I had done. Eating so much so quickly made me feel like I had failed myself. As though, I were out of control and completely useless. However, I’ll postface this with the fact my eating disorder was a restrictive one at the heart of it, so any eating at all built up thoughts and feelings of being a let down to the eating disorder as a whole. The aftermath of my binges made me feel dirty and disgusting. I was constantly experiencing disgust within my skin. But, what was interesting is I didn’t always remember the binges. I did remember the feelings after. And, I didn’t want to repeat them, even though it would happen repeatedly throughout my eating disorders. So, I would purge one way or another, and I would also restrict, falling into the binge-restrict cycle, as is mentioned above. And, so the binge-purge and binge-restrict cycle would go.

My binging episodes would sometimes not occur for days or weeks, but I always knew they were there. And, each one was just as overwhelming as the previous and the next. It felt like I was in a complete spiral.

There is so much misinterpreted and blatantly dismissed and ignored, and consequently BED, and binging to an extent, doesn’t get the proper treatment it needs. Its characteristics and psychology is not understood fully, and, this results in so many people suffering for longer than necessary. We know that early intervention is key to restrictive eating disorder recovery, so BED should be treated the same. It isn’t easier to treat. It’s more than weight management. It is a mental illness, and therefore would greatly benefit from therapeutic practice. Like the other disorders. We’ve learned that weight restoration is not the only way to treat anorexia nervosa, so why should it be one of the only ways to deal with BED.

BED needs consistent research and awareness. It is not greed. It is not a reflection of today’s society and all the fat phobia that encompasses it. It is a way for the person to cope with their internal and external environment. It is a real and serious disorder.

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This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, please take the time to learn more about Binge Eating Disorder, because You Might Know someone who has it.

If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder and needs advice, information and support, please check out Beat and Eating Disorders Association NI.

Please consider donating to eating disorder charities like Beat and EDA NI, and show your support this Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

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