Binge Eating Disorder – Are You at Risk?

There comes a point during any ‘diet’ or competition preparation, when the restricted calorie and macronutrient intake becomes too much. Dieting often results in recurrent cravings for particular food items, predominantly sugary carbohydrates such as ‘biscuits, chocolate, sweets and ice cream.’ When these cravings become overpowering, they lead to uncontrollable binges. One competitor remarks that she ‘struggles to control food cravings and usually give in’. This closely resembles the thoughts and behaviours carried out by sufferers of Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

Estimated to affect approximately 3% of the general population, BED is a more common form of disorderly eating than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. The gender divide is less acute in the case of BED, however, since only 10% more women than men are afflicted. Owing to its prevalence, BED has now been included in the DSM V as a condition distinct from Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).[1]

Although medical classifications are largely avoided in this work, the DSM’s definition of binge eating does closely resemble the competitor experience. It is defined as: ‘eating an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances and by a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode’.[2]

 

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What the DSM fails to take into account, however, is the reason why these binges arise. In the case of competitors, they are often a repercussion to months of extremely restricted eating. One woman who ‘had never been on a diet…never had restricted food, portion size, timed meals’, found that cutting led to ‘ridiculous binging’ that made her ‘really sick.’ Binges are common during the final stage of preparation owing to ‘the feeling of total restriction’. When competitors ‘tried to avoid cheating’, they ‘ended up bingeing.’ During this period, another competitor ‘had a massive cheat meal two weeks out from Miami Pro’ owing to the stress of preparing for her show. Binging also occurs when foods become prohibited. ‘Chocolate, sweets and cake’ were difficult to renounce, but only when they were off limits: ‘when I’m not dieting and I can’t have these foods I choose not to, but when dieting and I know these foods are forbidden it makes it so much harder to not have them, hence why I binge.’

 

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In order to be recognised as BED, individuals must engage at least three of the following: ‘eating much more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry, eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating, and feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating.’[3]

The binging behaviours that typically occur post competition accord with these criteria. After stepping offstage, for the first time in months, no foods are off limits. Post competition treat food includes Haribo, Jaffa Cakes, Jelly Babies, peanut M&M’s, MacDonald’s and Domino’s pizza. Two competitors described their binges, one stating that they devoured ‘Reese’s cups, tiffin, Nutella, chocolate, and a little Prosecco…Tipped out onto my bed at hotel and ate the lot.’ Another treated themselves to a huge celebratory feast of ‘steak, chips, 3 Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a beer.’

Following a show, however, overindulging in treats may become uncontrollable. The newly unrestrained appetite takes over and a vicious cycle develops in which ‘[g]orging on food is no longer a way of satisfying hunger, but a terrifying dominating compulsion.’[4] One competitor confesses that she ‘did feel the need to ‘let go’ after [her] first competition and started binge eating’; while another ‘finds it difficult to stop’ once she starts eating sweet foods, and engages in periods of compulsive eating that ‘can last around four days.’

 

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Once the binge is over, however, competitors experience feelings of ‘guilt’, ‘disgust’ and ‘self-hatred’. One competitor’s diary entry reads:  ’Guilt alert!! the pleasure seeking event of today FOOD!…crap food, comfort food (curry, chocolate, crisps, wine), all consumed.  Guilt has hit like a ton of bricks…why the hell did I eat that, now look at me!! Disappointment in myself at an all time high.’ Feelings of guilt arise since competitors feel their bodies ‘changing back to being soft again’ and feel that ‘the work [they] have taken 12 weeks to do has taken only 2 weeks to undo.’

The feelings of guilt subsequently lead to purging through self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise. One woman frequently made herself ‘sick due to guilt’ following a binge; another purged by engaging in ‘2 or 3 lots of daily exercise.’ Purging in turn leads to feelings of shame and isolation. When speaking of her bulimic tendencies, one competitor comments that she is ‘ashamed to admit it and no one knows.’ Another who vomited from guilt after eating, describes food as her enemy: ‘today, feel very guilty…everything I eat, I make myself sick…I know I need to eat but food is most definitely my enemy.’ As well as purging, some women engage in fasting behaviour, one experiencing ‘bad phases’, during which she ‘barely ate anything or had one meal a day.’ Following this period of semi-fasting, however, she ‘would end up binging every few days.’ She felt unable to ‘stop [her]self from doing it’ since her ‘body was literally starving.’ Afterwards she felt ‘awful and guilty so ended up making [her]self sick.’

 

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Only a very low percentage of competitors who admitted to binging had any previous history of eating disorders. Most had a ‘normal’ relationship to food prior to competing: ‘I didn’t suffer before, but now its extreme I have an unhealthy relationship for sweet foods to the point where I’m considering being hypnotised, the binging is that bad.’This is evidence that the strict regimes required during competition preparation can potentially create patterns of abnormal eating.

The longer this persists, the further the deviation from what can be considered conventional behaviour. After a certain period of time, behaviours become self-perpetuating, and ‘intensify through ever greater self-denial.’[5] The ability to tolerate extreme hunger induces competitors to continue with their extreme nutritional routine. According to Susan Bordo, this experience of ‘self-mastery and self-transcendence…is intoxicating.’[6]

Becoming leaner is addictive.

 

 

[1] http://www.aedweb.org/web/index.php/education/eating-disorder-information/eating-disorder-information-14 [accessed 20/01/15]

[2] Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013), p.102

[3] Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013), p.102

[4] Hilde Bruch, The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 2001), p.10

[5] FROM VIRTUE TO VICE: NEGOTIATING ANOREXIA, Richard A. O’Connor, Sewanee: The University of the South, Penny Van Esterikhttps://cms.sewanee.edu/media/academics/anthropology/pdfs/Anorexia-prospectus-2014.pdf [accessed 6/01/15], p.1

[6] Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995), p.178

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