When I explain my issues to people close to me, they find it difficult to believe that I suffer from Binge Eating Disorder, mostly because they don’t see me do it. It would be easy to say that I know better what’s going on with my body but then I remember this is a situation completely new for them, as it was for me some time ago. I’ve had this problem for many years, at different degrees (nobody wakes up one morning and is suddenly in the midst of an eating disorder), but I’ve only become aware of it in the past five years. But how did I realize? I don’t pretend to give here a scientific guide, but only a list of symptoms or behaviours that, in my personal experience, were the red flags of my problem.
Ever since I remember, I’ve been either on a diet or concerned for my weight. Easily, since I was 14 years old, I’ve had some concern regarding my size and shape. This is partly due to teenage insecurities, but also to comments made by other people around me. Either way, it was around my late teens that I noticed a connection between my eating habits and my feelings. I was an only child, my parents both working full time jobs, meaning I was a bit lonely and largely bored, one of the triggers of comfort eating.
Now, there is nothing wrong with comfort eating. Everybody does it. Whether it’s chocolate cake or a glass of wine, or a large portion of chips, everybody uses food to cheer themselves up. There is no inherent vice in it and it’s absolutely normal. But when you have BED, you don’t really understand that, which is where the next sign comes up.
I dedicated a whole post to guilt and its effects on Binge Eating Disorder some time ago, find it here. People with no disordered eating just accept the treat and move on with their lives, but that is not the case when you have an eating disorder. There is no such thing as moving on from your feelings.
Guilt is a big factor in the cycle of BED. When we over-eat or perceive we over-eat or even when we eat something we think we shouldn’t have, guilt kicks in. ‘I shouldn’t have eaten that’ and ‘I have no willpower’ and ‘What did I do that for?’
Guilt then pulls from her friend self-blame and her even better friend, shame, which then transforms into low self-esteem. ‘I am worthless’ is a common thought in people with eating disorders.
Now, buried under guilt and shame, we need to relieve this pressure and what can lift the weight off our shoulders better than, well, food? Another binge ensues, and that’s not something we want people to see us do.
Eating in Hiding
Whether you munch while your husband is away or you have a stash of cakes hidden under your socks, this is also a common symptom of BED. I was surprised to realize, too, how long I had been doing that for. It was only while I was in therapy that I realized I had started eating in hiding when I was as young as 9 or 10. We had only been living in Spain for two or three years at the time, but whether that had anything to do with it, is difficult to say. I always struggled to make friends and feel accepted while I lived in Spain, especially before my late teens but, although as I said, there might not be any causality, there was definitely a correlation. In any case, my first instances of eating in hiding were buying a chocolate bar on my way back from school and eating it before my parents got home, making sure I hid the wrappers.
This eating in hiding evolved through the years, namely because of the next issue.
Constant Preoccupation with Food
One of the most exhausting parts fo BED for me was the constant presence of food in my mind. What am I going to eat next? Can I cook something? Should I go and buy food? Buying binge foods is also quite common. Loading the trolley with food that might do others for several days but really, you’re planning to eat it all in one sitting. Either way, you are constantly thinking about what to eat and this has little to do with your physical needs.
Losing contact with Hunger
There is no middle-ground when you have BED. You’ve either bingeing and always uncomfortably full (or even unwell) or you are dieting and you are absolutely starving. You completely lose awareness of normal hunger feelings. Hunger, really, has little to do with BED, but it has a lot to do with recovering. It is important to recovery not to let yourself get too hungry and in order to do that, you need to become more aware of your body and its needs.
This is common to all eating disorders, I believe, and it has to do with an association we make between our self-worth and our body’s shape and size. We forget about everything else that makes us into a person (read more about this here and here). This low self-esteem is two-facetted.
The obvious one is the physical aspect. Whether you avoid looking at yourself in the mirror or make sure nobody ever sees you completely naked, your shape and size make you feel down. Labels such as ‘I’m a whale’ or ‘I’m disgusting’ are recurrent in our inner discourse.
But there is also the psychological self-esteem, the one that tells us that we are pathetic and we can’t control ourselves and we don’t have any willpower, because that’s all it takes right? Not really.
Constant (unsuccessful) Dieting
This was really the main turning point for me. I had been dieting on and off for ages and never managed to follow through. After years of this and in my early thirties, I asked myself: what if I have a problem? That’s how I started researching and eventually came to the conclusion that I had, at the very least, a food addiction, and that’s how I started therapy back then.
But I am, of course, not the only one. You might be aware that the success rate of diets is always very low. Some studies give this success rate at only 1%, meaning only 1 in every 100 people will keep the weight off successfully. Even the most biased studies can’t manage to give a success rate higher than 15%. And by success we don’t mean losing the weight successfully, we mean losing the weight and keeping it off.
So that means that an average of 85% of people who engage in dieting put on the weight back on, if losing any weight at all, often becoming heavier than they were before they dieted in the first place. Does this mean the whole world has BED or an Eating Disorder? Maybe. And maybe it’s not clinical, maybe is not a full blown Eating Disorder, maybe it’s just, if you allow me the differentiation, disordered eating. We live now in a society of excess (Western world mostly) where food, for the first time in history, is not a problem. Let’s remember that food abundance for everybody in the Western World is not so old and that this easy availability is far from being the standard in the whole world. So we have a lot of food and now eating has become more than a physiological need, it’s a social activity too. Now you don’t necessarily eat because you are hungry, you don’t have to, because there is no need to save the food, since there is more in the supermarket. My husband would be hungry and want ‘something nice’. As you can imagine, he doesn’t mean an apple. There is, literally, no need in our society to feel hungry to eat and now food is not just fuel, it’s a treat, a way to make you feel better, a hug, almost. Food has taken on a different role because of its abundance and, as a society and as individuals, we need to re-learn how to be in touch with our own bodies.
If you can relate to any combination of these factors I encourage you to look further into it. Websites like BEAT and the NHS (here) provide further information on eating disorders. You can also talk about it with your GP. Most importantly, though, remember that knowing you have a problem is the first step to recovery, so if you have got there, you’re already on the right path.