(Trigger Warning: Description of eating disorder. Reader discretion advised.)
When Mahak*, a working professional in Delhi, faces even the slightest inconvenience, it makes her indulge in eating more and more food as a coping mechanism.
Some days, she’ll eat to the point that she feels like she’s about to explode, only to puke later.
Later, she feels like “sense of a new beginning is unlocked which makes me better,” says Mahak.
While she is still making her peace with the fact that she struggles with an eating disorder, and is working towards having a healthy relationship with food, she knows eating disorders, let alone binge eating disorder (BED), can be taxing on your health in many ways.
Binge eating disorder is when an individual starts eating large quantities of food that is more than what someone their age requires, and when they’re unable to control this need to indulge in food, explains Kritika Zutshi, a clinical psychologist at Maharashtra’s Fortis Hospital.
While binge eating, people usually eat very large portions rapidly, within a short time span of 2-3 hours, until they’re uncomfortably full.
It’s not that the person is abnormally hungry or loves/was craving for whatever they’re eating, but it’s their impulse to just eat in the moment, Mahak agrees.
During a binge eating episode, Mahak says that she’ll eat things that she normally doesn’t even like.
Ahna, a media professional who was diagnosed with bulimia when she was in high school, agrees with Zutshi. She’d stay up till 2-3 am every night to eat, which impacted her health so drastically that doing anything became physically and mentally exhausting for her.
But what makes it hard for people who suffer from the disorder to control their urge to binge eat?
Zutshi says her patients have been vocal about feeling helpless and not in control during these episodes. It’s their frustration, boredom, ill-well being, or often stress that drives them towards food.
How Is Binge Eating Disorder Different?
What distinguishes BED from other eating disorders is that people who suffer from binge eating disorder don’t indulge in any compensatory behaviour, Zutshi points out.
She says that while people suffering from bulimia might try to lose whatever weight they’ve gained by exercising, BED patients don’t do so.
They won’t go to the gym, exercise, or even try to diet.
But Zutshi adds that they’ll also likely not eat in the presence of other people because of an inherent guilt about their eating habits.
What Triggers Binge Eating Episodes?
People usually indulge in binge eating to numb certain emotions that they don’t want to feel. These episodes can be triggered by mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, or body image issues.
Payal*, an assistant professor at a government college in Uttar Pradesh, who binge eats often but has never been formally diagnosed, says that her triggers can be anything from exam stress to work frustration to emotional turmoil, body-related issues, or even an India-Pakistan cricket match.
Zutshi says that any kind of insecurity might also trigger such episodes, which, in the long run, could lead to an extremely unhealthy relationship with food.
There is a hidden irony in all of this. People indulge in binge eating food with a lot of carbohydrates, which releases pleasurable and happy chemicals in their body, and gives them an instant sense of gratification. But the very same episode, a little while later, makes them feel guilty for having eaten so much. This causes more insecurity, more indulging in food for comfort, and becomes a problematic cycle, explains the psychologist.
Payal agrees. She shares, “I get frustrated. I eat. I gain weight. I can’t lose weight because I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). I get frustrated. I stay up nights binge eating.”
Deepti Khatuja, the head clinical nutritionist at Gurugram’s Fortis Hospital, adds that hormonal changes, watching others binge eat, and improper sleep patterns can also lead to BED. However, she feels that lifestyle changes can also lead to eating disorders.
“When we work long work schedules, there are huge gaps between our meals that cause binge eating. Having small healthy snacks or meals at regular intervals helps in that way.”Deepti Khatuja
Does Everyone Who Indulges in Binge Eating Suffer From BED?
No, not at all. A lot of people occasionally indulge in binge eating, but that does not mean they have an eating disorder.
For instance, with the festive season coming up, many will cook elaborate meals and have loads of sweets. “Gaining festive weight is normal,” says Zutshi.
But on the other hand, BED is diagnosed when someone has been experiencing binge eating episodes weekly for over three months. Distress and weight gain (that might turn into obesity) are the foremost signs of this disorder.
While eating disorders like BED definitely take a toll on a person’s mental health, they can damage other aspects of your health too:
Metabolism goes down lowering the body’s immunity
How Is BED Treated?
While Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is a treatment method used for people with impulsive and erratic personalities, in her medical experience, Zutshi has found it effective for people suffering from binge eating disorder as well. That and medication (that is generally used for impulse control and depression) also help.
But, Zutshi maintains, therapy is the long-term treatment.
Zutshi points out that women are also more prone to BED because they usually do have an impulsive personality type, and psycho-social factors, such as body-image issues, too play a part in it.
Khatuja feels that making smaller everyday changes can help too. Her funda?
"Follow three big meals with healthy snacking in between. Take care of your stress levels. Give time to your hobbies. Ensure healthy eating habits in the family, so that the children too have a healthy relationship with food."Deepti Khatuja
However, this approach hasn’t worked for Mahak, who feels that her BED is severely linked to “my body-image issues, dysphoria, and dysmorphia.” Right now, therapy is the only thing that is helping, she says.
(*names changed on request)