Can’t only obese people have binge eating disorder?

I ate a lot of snacks with friends at movie night and felt overly full. Was that a binge?

Binges are like 5000+ calories, right? My 1000-calorie raid-the-pantry fest doesn’t count?

As a non-expert, but someone with first-hand experience with this disorder, speaking with other women with it, and having done a lot of research on it, I feel compelled to address some of the honest questions and blatant stigma that surround this particular eating disorder.

For me, binge eating disorder started when I was about 11, almost 12. The first binge I experienced was in the middle of the night. I woke up at around 3:30AM, and just had this overwhelming inner urge to eat. So I tiptoed to the kitchen… and eat I did. I ate and ate and ate (pasta, bread, mayo, crackers, chips, anything I could get my hands on) until my insides ached and I was completely stuffed.

And then I cried myself to sleep.

I didn’t tell a soul, and I vowed this would never happen again…until it did.

I felt totally out of control.

Now, my experience is, of course, not everyone’s experience, the same way that two anorexia sufferers’ food rules could look completely different. However, when it comes to BED, there are some hard truths and some hard lies.

True or False: Only obese people can have binge eating disorder.

FALSE.

It is a common misconception that only obese, or even overweight, people can have BED. This simply isn’t the case. Binge Eating Disorder is classified by “recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating” (NEDA).

While most people with BED do not regularly restrict food, there may be a very unhealthy mindset around food, ie. “diet culture,” causing them to mentally restrict. ie. I’m not going to have that piece of cake even though I want it.

Better spread this peanut butter reeeeally thin – too many calories.

I’m going to make sure I don’t eat much before dinner since I’m going out tonight.

These kind of thoughts can lead to a binge, because there is a constant feeling of being restricted/deprived, causing one to think more about food.

14 years old – I had just recovered from BED and was in the best place I had been in years, before anorexia took over my life two months later.

This is all to say that not all sufferers end up overeating to the point of becoming obese. In addition to this, varying metabolisms have a huge effect. One woman with a very high metabolism may have a normal weight because her body doesn’t hold onto weight easily, yet still be struggling with BED, while another woman who consumes the same calories as a BED sufferer every day has a slower metabolism and is “obese.”

I ate a lot of snacks with friends at movie night and felt overly full. Was that a binge?

Another factor is that binges are not classified by the number of calories within them moreso than they are by the feelings/circumstances associated with them.

For example: Tina is out with her friends. She has a cheeseburger (800 calories) with fries (600 calories), a few drinks (400 calories) and some of the appetizer nachos (400 calories). She consumes a total of 2200 calories in this one meal. Was this a binge? Of course not! She was not focused on the food, but on her time with her friends. She was casually enjoying and savouring the meal that she chose to have.

Tina’s friend Amy was invited out to dinner with the group, but she declined. Feeling insecure about her body, she grabbed some food from the kitchen (chips, brownies, a tub of ice cream, some leftover mac and cheese) and consumes about 2200 calories of it within 5 minutes on her bedroom floor. She’s sick to her stomach, having just eaten dinner with her family. She was numb for all of those 5 minutes, but is now depressed, self-loathing, and even more insecure.

Amy did binge. Do you see the difference?

So bingeing is not about how much food is consumed, but rather the circumstance and feelings associated with it. Thus, frequent binges might not cause an individual to become overweight, depending on many other factors (total consumed calories, activity level, genetics, metabolism, etc.). We all become overly full from eating lots of snacks with friends from time to time. That’s totally normal! But if you’re out with friends and all you can think about is the food; you feel out of control and like you can’t stop eating even when you’re quite full/don’t even want more food; this may be more of a binge. However, true “binges” are usually done in secret.

Binges are like 5000+ calories, right? My 1000-calorie raid-the-pantry fest doesn’t count?

Again – the feelings and circumstance define BED much more than the number of calories consumed.

So you raided the pantry. Cookies, crackers, handfuls of cereal.

Had you missed lunch? Just gotten home from the gym? Hadn’t eaten in several hours?

Well, this probably wasn’t a binge. If we’re starving, most of us will want to “raid the pantry”: and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with creating a meal to enjoy more slowly though, either.

Or, were you bored and not hungry at all, but wanted to numb yourself, and ended up just eating and eating and eating until you felt like you were going to throw up? Lunch was an hour ago, but you just wanted comfort. This is most likely a binge.

Do you understand the difference?

My main purpose for writing this post is that we have to be careful with using the word “binge.” We need to understand that it may be triggering, and we need to understand what it actually means. You did not “binge” last night with your girlfriends by having a cheeseburger for dinner, so don’t call it that. You did not “binge” at the movies by having popcorn and candy. These are normal, fun, and social behaviours.

Binges are mortifying, terrifying, and horrible experiences that are not light-hearted or anything we should take lightly. I hope this de-stigmatization series helps you to understand the reality of different eating disorders, and how you can help anyone you know who might be struggling.

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