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A young woman opens up about binge-eating disorder

As the obesity epidemic worsens, we must start talking about food bingeing, writes a successful young Kiwi woman with first-hand experience of the disorder.

As a teenager walking home from school, I would already be opening the fridge door in my head. My surreal afternoon tea might include five tablespoons of raspberry jam straight from the jar, a salty hailstorm of roasted peanuts, three croissants, lamb curry and half a packet of cooking chocolate. During this flurry of consumption, I was on a kind of crazed autopilot.

If someone came home, I would rush like a thief caught in the act to shove things back in the fridge and smuggle empty food packages into my room. I tried to hide the extent of my gluttonous forays. If there were three kinds of leftovers in the fridge, I would eat a third of each so it wasn’t obvious what was missing. If I was stopped mid-binge, I would still buzz with the desire to eat. I used stealth, sneaking food into my room, going for a “walk to the park” via the supermarket or waiting until everyone had gone to bed when I had free rein in the kitchen.

I favoured bingeing on “bad foods”. However, it was not about enjoying their flavour. The combinations of things I ate in succession were often revolting. Carbonara pasta with white chocolate and baked beans, anyone? Volume of consumption was all-important. The frantic impulse to eat would pass only when my stomach was jam-packed and queasy. Then I would flop on the couch like a beached whale, temporarily anaesthetised and filled with self-hate. Victorious in my quest to binge-eat, yet utterly defeated by it.

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It’s surprising that there is not more talk about binge-eating disorder. It is, after all, the most common of eating disorders. Australia’s National Eating Disorders Collaboration estimates that 47% of Australians suffering from an eating disorder have this one, and the number is likely to be similar in New Zealand. They define it as eating a very large amount of food within a relatively short period of time – within two hours, say –  and feeling unable to stop yourself while eating.

Yet, it’s as if the world turns its head away in disgust from this disorder. Maybe that’s because the gluttony of “stuffing your face” or “pigging out” has negative connotations in our culture. Such descriptions imply both an element of pleasure and choice, but, in my experience, binge eating has neither. It is an addiction. And although you might not be admitted to hospital for bingeing, prolonged overeating leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

Not all obese people have a binge-eating disorder but up to 15% do, according to Katherine Halmi, a researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. This equates to millions of binge eaters worldwide. Given the statistics, it is strange that the disorder is not part of the widespread discussion about the obesity epidemic.

For non-binge eaters, the compulsion to stuff yourself with half a dozen sausages and a tub of chocolate ice cream must be hard to understand. The psychology of binge eating is complex and contradictory. Ostensibly, you are seeking pleasure and reward through food, yet the act of bingeing is chaotic, shame-inducing and can leave you feeling sick for hours afterwards.

Maybe the roots of the problem are in our culture’s relationship with food, which is similarly complex and contradictory. As children, we are rewarded with sweet treats, celebratory birthday cakes and Christmas cookies. When we are good we are called sweetie-pie, honey or cupcake. Then, in our teens, we get different messages about food. The treats of childhood, we learn, are actually evil and must be forbidden so we don’t commit the sin of getting fat.

Another layer of ambiguity is added by food fads: those considered unhealthy can change wildly depending on the decade or which diet is in vogue. In recent times, bread, butter, potatoes, grains, bacon and eggs have been cast as both heroes and villains. No wonder many people have a confused relationship with food.

Jolly genes again

The National Eating Disorders Collaboration says known causes of binge-eating disorder also include genetic predispositions and a combination of environmental, social and cultural factors. The disorder occurs in people of all ages, genders, socio-economic status and cultural backgrounds. Large population studies suggest equal numbers of males and females experience the disorder.

Research into the eating habits of rats sheds light on why some of us are hard-wired to binge. In one experiment, rats were given a third less food than usual and, when the diet ended, they compensated by eating 42% more than a control group. Rats with a history of dieting were shown to overeat in response to stress, consuming two to three times more than the control group. Crucially, like humans, the rats chose to binge on “palatable, preferred foods” – sugary treats rather than chaff. Who turns to lettuce leaves or boiled barley after an argument with a boyfriend? No, we want chocolate  or cheeseburgers.

For humans, too, a history of dieting and the presence of stress are antecedents to binge eating. It’s not a completely irrational act, either. Consuming high-fat and high-sugar foods helps alleviate some of the symptoms of stress. These foods activate the reward pathways in the brain and trigger the release of dopamine and endogenous opioid peptides within the central nervous system. A similar neurochemical response is triggered by addictive behaviours such as gambling and substance abuse. All of this helps explain why some people feel compelled to binge. The relief certain foods provide is subtly acknowledged in the Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream marketing slogan, “Get your fix”.

The first time I binged, aged 14, I was shocked at myself. I’d broken my diet and reached for a gingernut biscuit after school. I ate one, then another, then another. I felt so wretched I ate the whole packet. I was consumed by the urge to eat, and thought “what a total pig you are”, vowing to never do it again. But it was just the beginning.

Susie Orbach. Photo/Getty Images

When I was 16, I found a slim white volume called Fat is a Feminist Issue, Susie Orbach’s book from the 1970s. Orbach wrote about the damaging effect of society’s worship of the stereotypical “perfect body”, possessed by just a fraction of women. Her advice for stopping the diet-binge cycle was to remove the labels of good and bad from foods, eschew the quest to look like a supermodel and allow yourself to eat whatever you liked. The idea was that, by fostering a positive relationship with food, you would not only choose cream doughnuts but also begin to crave the full spectrum of foods your body needed for nutrition. Weight loss might result as you stopped bingeing, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to break your addictive relationship with food and start accepting your body.

I inhaled this book deeply and decided to follow its advice. My bingeing did stop for a while, but I discovered that understanding a problem intellectually does not always result in a change in behaviour. I had a new consciousness around my eating disorder, but I still had an eating disorder.

The French way

In France, les boulangeries are like culinary art galleries with their yo-yo-shaped macarons, gleaming fruit tarts and religieuse pastry puffs filled with vanilla cream and glazed with chocolate icing. There are more official types of French cheeses than there are days of the year. When I was a 17-year-old on student exchange, the French family I lived with would often embark on six-course eat-a-thons.

You’d think all of this would have played into the hands of my eating disorder, that the abundance of fine food would’ve triggered more bingeing. But it wasn’t so. Following the example of those around me, I began to eat with less fear and more enjoyment. Incredibly, in my version of the French paradox, while I was eating big meals, I began to lose weight. Quite a lot of Orbach’s advice was acted out in everyday life by the French. The question was not: should I be bad and eat the éclair or good and resist it? The question was: I feel like an éclair; which boulangerie makes the most delicious ones?

Counselling was also part of my road to recovery. I realised that binge eating was a sort of escape from the pressure of trying to be perfect. And trying to be perfect was about replacing the love that I no longer felt within my family. My parents had remarried and in my teens I’d acquired a stepbrother and five younger half-siblings in the space of a few years. It was never my parents’ intention, but I didn’t feel like I belonged any more.

In my early twenties, I got thin. Not dangerously so, but enough for my best friend to tell me I was like a character from the film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I hadn’t learnt that eating just enough to not feel ravenous wasn’t the same as eating enough to meet your nutritional requirements. Chivvied on by the attention, I was briefly underweight. In photos from the time, my head looks too big on my body, like a toffee apple that might wobble off its stick.

But by age 23, I was bingeing again and had piled on all the weight I’d lost. I was utterly humiliated. I dreaded going out and bumping into people, noting the reaction in their eyes as they clocked my new size. I wanted to rant and rave at the stupidity of my eating disorder. I’d proved to myself time and again that the aspiration to be thin got me nowhere. It was part of the binge cycle; part of the pathology.

I came to the point where I decided that if stopping binge eating meant accepting my body as it was, even as a size L, then, dammit, I would. Like the angry red squiggly stretch marks that sprang up in protest on my skin when I’d first put on a lot of weight, my eating disorder would take years to fade. But, eventually, it did. I haven’t binged now in 15 years. I doubt I would have had the courage to write this piece if I was still bingeing. The shame of it would’ve kept me silent.

And what has this finally meant for my weight? I wear a size 12 but I couldn’t tell you what I weigh because I don’t know. When I see a pair of scales in someone’s bathroom, I’m reminded of a sticker I once saw – “Scales are for fish, not women.”

It saddens and angers me that so many people battle internal wars around eating. Binge-eating disorders need to be part of the conversation about obesity. I know from personal experience it’s possible to reconfigure your relationship with food and remove the compulsion to overeat. But it takes time and support and the answer is certainly not another diet. It’s time to bring binge eating out of the pantry and give the problem the attention it deserves.

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.