Mental health Netdoctor & Patient Info

What it’s like to suffer from binge eating disorder

Two former sufferers discuss their path to recovery from the illness.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is less well known than anorexia or bulimia, but it can be just as serious. The condition is characterised by bingeing (eating vast amounts of food in one sitting), without the purging associated with other eating disorders like bulimia.

Although weight gain is a common symptom, BED should not be confused with simple overeating. Typically, sufferers eat quickly and past the point of satiety, accompanied by a sense of losing control. This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, fuelling a vicious circle of low self-esteem and bingeing behaviours.

As Tom Quinn, a spokesperson for eating disorders charity BEAT, explains: “Sufferers may use bingeing as a means of coping with negative emotions – as with other eating disorders, they are not really about food but about the underlying thoughts and feelings causing their behaviour.”

Lily, 25, from London, suffered from binge eating disorder throughout her teens, beginning when she started high school.

“I was in a not very nice group of friends, who didn’t hesitate to point out that I wasn’t as skinny as them and couldn’t wear the clothes they could wear,” she says. “I turned to food as a form of comfort, because when you overeat it takes away all other emotions. I would turn to sugar for a quick endorphin rush, in an attempt to numb out everything else.”

While Lily ultimately developed bulimia too – and sought help for it – she feels that her binge eating disorder was overlooked.

“When I finally confided in my parents and was sent to a counsellor, no one was really interested in my binge eating, just my bulimia. It was quite hard for me, because it made me feel weak, as though my binge eating was something I should have been able to control and wasn’t actually an illness. Only now that I’m recovered do I see how wrong that was.’

“The thing that spurred my recovery was that my little sister started copying my eating habits. I didn’t want her ever to be in the situation I was, and I thought the only way to get her out of it was to get myself out of it.’

“It was a very long process and my recovery definitely had its ups and downs. There were days when I had no issues at all, and I felt so happy, but then there’d be a massive crash. What people don’t really pay attention to in binge eating disorder is that food isn’t like a drug where you can just give it up. You have to find that balance every day between eating to sustain and eating as an emotional blanket.”

Men can be affected too

According to the World Health Organisation, around 2% of people will develop BED at some point in their lifetime. It predominantly affects adults, with the typical age of onset being over 30, and men are just as likely to be affected as women.

Andy, 35, from Liverpool, points out that BED can be hard to deal within a world where unhelpful stereotypes abound.

“People assume eating disorders mean you’re always five stone and female, but you can be twenty stone and male. You can be any weight, any gender, any size, it doesn’t matter,” he says.

Andy became self-conscious around food following a throwaway insult at school. Over time, this spiraled into an eating disorder, which endured well into his 30s.

“I got into a cycle of restricting to try and lose weight even though I was actually thin at the time. Once I started restricting I became physically hungry, so I’d start to binge, and those binges grew bigger and bigger. It became a source of comfort and habit.”

“Eventually I got to the point where my health was at risk – I could barely walk and was very ill. I sought treatment for my weight privately, but I also looked at what I wanted out of life and realised that I didn’t want to give up – no binge was worth giving up the rest of my life for.”

“The thing that helped me, more than counselling or weight loss surgery, was being honest with people about what I was going through. Just making that first step is terrifying but it is like pulling off a plaster – you end up in this world of positivity where you don’t need to hide anymore.”

Breaking the shame

Today, both Andy and Lily live lives free of BED, although Andy points out that, since his urges to binge still recur, he doesn’t consider himself ‘cured’. They both stress that nobody with BED needs to suffer in silence.

Lily says: “I would definitely say be open with it, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I know a lot of people are currently in the position I was in, and I want to help make it known that what they are feeling and experiencing is real. They are not weak, and they are not alone.”

In a bid to overturn the stigma, Andy has written an e-book focusing on his experiences overcoming BED. He says that, since he started sharing his story, the feedback from others has been overwhelming, and he has become friends with many people who are going through the same thing.

Tom Quinn points out that, since eating disorders thrive on secrecy, breaking the silence is important.

“BEAT’s helpline staff are always there to listen anyone who is concerned about themselves or someone they know and isn’t sure who to turn to, and we have more information about the illness and its treatment on our website. We would also always encourage anyone who is worried about their eating habits to see a healthcare professional as soon as possible, because the earlier they can get into treatment, the better.”

This article appears on Netdoctor

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