We all overeat sometimes, but for one in 50 people, including children and teenagers, overeating can turn into the most common but least understood eating problem – binge eating disorder.
Binge eating disorder (BED) is far more than just being greedy – it’s a serious mental illness which, along with other eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, may have got worse for some during the pandemic, because of the uncertainty, stress, and lack of support networks.
This year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which takes place between March 1-7, focuses on binge eating, and while the disorder can affect anyone of any age or gender, it’s known that most eating disorders begin in adolescence – although sometimes, they can start even younger.
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs for the eating disorders charity Beat, says: “Binge eating disorder is a serious mental illness. It’s not about choosing to eat more food than usual, nor are people who suffer from it just ‘overindulging’ – far from being enjoyable, binges are very distressing, and sufferers find it difficult to stop during a binge, even if they want to.”
And Kerrie Jones, who runs the eating disorder day care treatment centre Orri says: “People with binge eating disorder often talk of going into a trance-like state when they binge, and they may engage in drastic and abnormal behaviours to get hold of food, such as stealing or eating food that’s been thrown away.
“There’s no pleasure involved with bingeing – it’s a compulsive act and often a response to emotional distress.”
Here, Jones and Quinn discuss the symptoms of binge eating disorder, and how parents can spot the signs in their child and help them…
What are the symptoms of binge eating disorder?
Signs vary, says Quinn, but often include eating when not hungry or until uncomfortably full, hoarding food, avoiding eating around others, withdrawing socially and isolating, and weight gain.
Unlike people with bulimia, binge eaters don’t try to get rid of the food they’ve eaten by vomiting, although they may fast afterwards.
Feelings of self-disgust and self-harming may also be part of the disorder, says Jones, as well as perfectionism, depression, conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety, low self-esteem and a preoccupation with body image and appearance.
“Typically, people with binge eating disorder will struggle to regulate their eating habits and relationship to food,” she explains.
“They may swing between bingeing and then compensating for a binge by severely restricting their food intake. It’s common for people to feel trapped within a cycle of bingeing and restricting – it can feel extremely out of control, and there can be a lot of shame associated with bingeing, causing people to isolate and become more secretive around food and their emotional state.”
What causes BED?
Quinn says that while the exact cause isn’t known, it’s likely to be caused by a combination of biological and social factors.
“The most common precursor to a binge is low mood, and it’s thought binges may occur in response to challenging emotions and difficult life events,” he says.
What’s the difference between binge eating and being greedy?
Overeating occasionally is normal, says Quinn. “There’s no need to worry if it doesn’t happen very often and it’s done without feeling out of control, distressed or guilty. But if your child is experiencing the symptoms of binge eating disorder regularly, this could be a cause for concern.” In such cases, parents should speak to their GP, he advises.
How can parents help young people with BED?
As soon as you suspect something’s wrong, talk to your child, picking a calm time when they’re receptive, advises Jones.
“Approach the topic gently,” she says, “keeping in mind that despite what it looks like, eating disorders are not about food. Rather, food is a symptom of much more complex, underlying emotional causes, and it’s likely your child will be struggling with co-occurring conditions like depression and anxiety.
“Focusing on food behaviours in isolation may cause them to become defensive or to deny their experience, and it’s very important to ensure lines of communication are kept open.”
Quinn suggests parents ask their child how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. “Try not to assume what they may be going through,” he says.
“Your child might tell you they want to be left alone, or that you can’t do anything to help, so it can be helpful to remind them you can hear they’re upset and how difficult things are, and you’ll be there to help them if they need you.”
Could this be my fault?
It’s nobody’s fault that a child develops an eating disorder, stresses Quinn, who points out: “It can feel overwhelming to have a loved one diagnosed with binge eating disorder, and it’s important to remember that neither they or you are to blame.”
What else can parents do?
Both experts say it’s important for parents to educate themselves about BED – there’s plenty of information on Beat’s website. “Your child may be equally concerned or confused by what they’re going through, so do your research,” advises Jones.
Finding specialist help is also vitally important, she stresses, pointing out that an eating disorder psychotherapist, psychologist or clinic, combined with a specialist dietitian, can help young people and their families take important steps towards recovery.
Is there any point trying to limit their food, or money they might buy food with?
Quinn says parents should only do this if specifically advised to by their child’s treatment team. “Limiting food or money only tries to control their behaviour, rather than helping to address the underlying cause, and your child could feel victimised and struggle more as a result,” he warns.
Is a full recovery possible?
Quinn and Jones both wholeheartedly believe that with the right help, it’s possible to make a full and sustained recovery from binge eating disorder.
Jones says eating disorder experts work to heal the underlying cause of the problem, by giving sufferers the tools they need for long-term, sustainable recovery, and giving them hope.
And Quinn adds: “Recovery will vary from person to person – some recovered people may still experience eating disorder thoughts from time to time, but not allow them to take effect by using the coping techniques they’ve learned.”
Call the Beat Youthline for under 18s on 0808 801 0711.