NEDAwareness Week: Binge Eating Has No Easy Cure

Posted by on Feb 23, 2015

Diversity & Marginalized Voices

By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, Founder and Director of The Body Image Therapy Center

When I was struggling, I mean really at my rock bottom in my life, I blamed my body’s large size for all my sadness and anxiety. If I only had the flat stomach, defined muscles, and V-shaped torso then all would be right with my life. So I starved myself, compulsively exercised, and used every diet aid available to me to reach it. The end result, every single time, was I returned to binge eating.

This weight cycling and eating disorder rollercoaster, now officially diagnosable as Binge Eating Disorder (BED), is the most common form of all eating disorders. It affects men and women alike in near equal numbers and is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. The estimation is that tens of millions of Americans struggle with this disease, but only a minute percentage of sufferers seek treatment due to shame and guilt. Like me, they don’t see the issue of binge eating as anything but an issue of weight. Give up fats, sugars, carbs, and meat. Work out every day and push your body, counting every step on your FitBit. Then see the results!

You might be smaller, but you’ve also set your body into a state of starvation it’s not meant to continue in. In fact, the body rebels hardcore. Leptin, grehlin, polypeptide-YY, dopamine, serotonin, and countless other chemicals our body works hard to regulate are now desperately out of balance. The body sends signals to reverse the trend, cravings get louder, fatigue gets heavier, and finally the tipping point is upon you. Hello Frosted Flakes! What’s up Buffalo Wild Wings? Where you been Ben & Jerry? The binge leads to regret, then to self-loathing, perhaps then to a renewed fervor to try dieting again, and a return of the cycle.

Binge Eating Has No Easy CureAnd it’s not just about restricting food intake that can lead to binge eating. For many, restriction comes in the form of avoiding life, emotions, relationships, and more. That restriction leads to loneliness, isolation, emotional pain, and requires a salve to numb it all out. For those with a lifetime of this behavior stemming from early childhood neglect and abuse, it’s an ingrained tool that becomes nearly impossible to let go of.

The Complexity Behind Binge Eating

What seems to be coming down the pipeline in the treatment of binge eating disorder is the hope for a magic pill. Suboxone was supposed to make kicking heroin easier. Antabuse was meant to make not drinking easier. What those in the chemical dependency world have learned is medication, as well intentioned as it is, cannot be a treatment for a disease as complex as addiction. Addicts return to their drugs despite having no cravings due to the world they live in, the people they are around, the psychological issues they’re fraught with, and the physical and emotional pain they’re trying to drown out.

Eating disorders are every bit as complex in their origins as well. They come from a combination of genetics, psychological make-up, and environment. If you’re in a home where life is great, there’s no trauma or loss, people express love and tenderness unconditionally, body image is not commented on, and food is just food, then there’s a pretty good chance you won’t develop an eating disorder even if you are genetically predisposed to be a binge eater. But it’s not a given as there is still that genetic component. Realistically, who among us can say we have that perfect family experience? And that doesn’t even begin to touch on society’s expectation for thinness and beauty which leads many down the path of the restriction-binge cycle.

Treating binge eating disorder is a long process, often taking years. It means learning to eat all meals so restriction doesn’t lead to more binge eating. It means learning how to sit through emotional and physical discomfort, and even pain, and feeling everything acutely. It means learning to live in the body you have and not the one you wish you had. And it means asking for help, something that so few binge eaters are willing do. It’s not a cure, but it’s a start.

Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, is Founder and Executive Director of The Body Image Therapy Center in Columbia, MD, and Washington, DC. He authored the book Man Up to Eating Disorders, available on Amazon in paperback and eBook. He also serves the as Vice President of the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders. Follow BITC on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.