• Binge Eating Disorder is characterised by periods of restriction and periods of bingeing; it can lead to physical health problems but also has many mental health implications

  • Dr Libby Watson explores how BED relates to feelings of shame and self-criticism, and offers 6 ways you can manage binge eating behaviours

  • We have therapists and counsellors who specialise in working with binge eating and other eating disorders – find yours here 

Evidence reviewed by Public Health England has shown that being overweight or obese puts people at greater risk of clinical complications and death from Covid-19.

This fact has put renewed focus on the importance of tackling weight loss.

Unfortunately, many of the government strategies are often misplaced, or over-simplify what is a complex and often deep-rooted psychological problem.

Why we can have complicated relationships with food

We all have an enduring relationship with food, eating and our bodies. Eating can often be driven by our emotions and is strongly influenced by those around us, which can leave us misattuned with our body’s natural hunger and satiety signals. Moreover, rather than inhabiting them, our bodies have increasingly become objects that we try to shape (e.g. make smaller, bigger, hide), and are often the source of judgement, criticism and even shame.

One psychological problem associated with overweight and obesity is Binge Eating Disorder (BED). BED is associated with regular binge episodes – eating a larger than normal amount of food in a relatively short amount of time during which the person feels out of control. Binges may follow periods of restrictive eating or dieting and can be planned or spontaneous. A binge often takes place in secret and the eating is usually very fast – or ‘mindless’. During a binge episode a person might feel emotionally numb, which can be an indication of hidden trauma and past abuse.

After a binge a person can not only feel physical discomfort, but most distressing are usually the emotional aftereffects: these can include disgust at oneself, self-loathing and shame. There are no compensatory behaviours that are aimed at ‘undoing’ the overeating as you would see in someone suffering with Bulimia (e.g. vomiting, laxative use, excessive exercise). This is why overweight/obesity is common in BED, but this is certainly not always the case.

If you feel that you have a problem with emotional eating or binge eating, here are some things that may help.

1. Reduce temptation

Oscar Wilde famously is quoted as saying “I can resist anything except temptation.” He speaks for human nature… Research has shown that the chemicals released when we experience temptation are actually more powerful than the pleasure centres of our brain that fire when we are enjoying said experience. 

So rather than fighting this losing battle against willpower, instead make the very thing that you crave inaccessible: avoid buying in foods that you go for when you binge; make and keep to a shopping list (and don’t go to the shop when you are hungry); eat regular meals and eat when you are hungry so that you do not find yourself in states of ravenous hunger.

2. Keep a diary

Log when and what you eat; whether or not it was a binge; what your hunger level was prior to eating (e.g. on a scale of 0-10) and most importantly the context of your eating (especially for binges). How were you feeling emotionally? What sort of day was it? What triggered you to eat if it wasn’t hunger? 

By keeping a log you may be surprised at the patterns that emerge. Research also shows that the very act of keeping a diary changes the very behaviour that you are tracking; your eating habits may improve simply because you are more focused on and aware of your eating.

3. Throw out the diet book

Diet books are full of rules and the rigidity and categorisation of food as good or bad are misleading at best and harmful at worst. Many people with problematic eating already have unhelpful or restrictive rules around eating, not helped by the diet industry, which survives on people believing that a diet is the answer to weight loss. 

When people have an unhealthy relationship with food they often engage in all-or-nothing thinking patterns, such as believing that they are successful and in control when on a diet or that they are somehow a failure if they eat foods that are on the ‘bad’ list. 

Another example is believing that ‘I’ve failed on my diet so I might as well give up’, or ‘I’ll start afresh on Monday…’ Aiming for a reasonably healthy – not impossibly perfect –eating will help reconnect you with the pleasure and nourishment that food brings rather than perpetuating fear around food.

4. Be kind to yourself!

In my experience, people who regularly binge eat are often those who put everyone around them before themselves. They brim with kindness for others but neglect their own needs and are often their own harshest critics. Nourishing yourself first will provide you reserves from which you can then give to others. 

At times that you do binge or overindulge, notice the impact of the words you speak to yourself (do you have an inner critic?). Try to be curious about what triggered the binge and what you learn from it – being understanding towards yourself in the process and speaking to yourself more as you would a friend. See the binge as an isolated event that doesn’t have to overshadow either the improvements you have already made or prevent you continuing to work on your eating going forward.

5. Know you are not alone

Unfortunately there is a common pattern of self-neglect in people who binge eat, which can stem from experiences of being neglected or overlooked by others. This can leave a person’s suffering quite hidden, often as a result of shame or feeling worthless or undeserving. If you find yourself suffering, please know that you are not alone. 

You may have learnt from early experiences to keep quiet, to attend to others’ needs before your own, but this may not be working for you anymore. Hopefully the more awareness of emotional eating and binge eating, and the complexity around overweight and obesity generally, will help people open up more about their experiences and learn that they are not alone in their struggles.

6. Consider therapy

When it comes to changing unhealthy or damaging behaviours, it is not uncommon that we can become our own saboteurs. Therapy can shed light on why you may find yourself stuck; what is perhaps frightening about the prospect of change; and can help you adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Therapy offers a safe and non-judgemental space. If significant, and at a pace that is right for you, your therapist can help you to face painful past experiences and begin to address their impact on you. This may be a vital process on your journey towards health, healing and recovery.

Therapy for eating and weight management issues often result in better relationships, whether it be with others or with food, through nurturing the most important relationship – the one with yourself.

Dr Libby Watson is a psychotherapist in East London, Essex and online

Further reading

3 tips if coronavirus has triggered disordered eating

Breaking the binge-diet cycle

Misconceptions around eating disorders make my recovery harder

9 ways counselling can help you overcome an eating disorder

Shame, guilt, and your relationship with food