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The Truth About Food Addiction


College is an overwhelmingly stressful time. We’ve all heard about the not-so-mythical myth of the “Freshman 15,” but we are not always aware of all the unhealthy eating patterns we adopt as undergrads. Our food habits can get out of hand and we are at a high risk for all sorts of eating disorders and harmful behaviors, such as binge-eating. This disorder, sometimes referred to as food or eating addiction, involves eating large quantities of food in one sitting and losing the ability to stop. We talked to experts to help you make sense of this eating disorder and find out how to get help if you think you are prone to binge-eating.

What is binge-eating disorder?

Binge-eating disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a diagnosable Eating and Feeding Disorder. According to Dr. Lauren Ozbolt, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist, the accepted definition for this condition is “recurrent episodes of binge-eating, [where] the episodes are associated with three or more of the following:  

  • Eating more rapidly than normal
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
  • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself
  • Marked distress regarding binge-eating
  • Binge-eating occurs at least once a week for three months
  • No inappropriate compensatory behavior [i.e. purging] is present

What is binge-eating?

Binge-eating is much more than just the occasional overindulgence. “Binge-eating is out-of-control eating, much more than an individual needs to maintain their weight,” says Joanne Larsen, a professional dietitian. “Large amounts of calories (5,000 to 10,000+ calories in a single session) are eaten in in a couple hours or less.” To put it in perspective, this would mean consuming between one and three jars of Nutella or one to four large pizza pies in one sitting.

Bingeing is comparable to addictive behaviors in some ways, but there is not enough evidence for the existence of actual food addiction, which Dr. Ozbolt explains is not a medical term. That being said, we are much more likely to binge on some types of food than on others. “Binge foods are usually high calorie, high carbohydrate, high fat,” Larsen says.

The idea that people only binge on junk foods (and not, say, lettuce) could suggest that these foods contain inherent addictive properties, but this has not been scientifically proven. “There have been some articles published denoting the power of ‘sugar’ and ‘sugar addiction’ but to date, no valid medical data has ever supported this idea,” Dr. Ozbolt says.

Bingeing episodes can be extremely damaging, both physically and psychologically. “Binge eating distends the stomach and can cause intestinal distress while your body tries to process the quantity of binge food you ate,” Larsen says. “Binge-eating, if frequent, can result in weight gain which can lead to an eating disorder,” namely binge-eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.

The impact of this behavior on your mental wellness is equally as serious. “Food-bingeing can lead to lower self-esteem and a feeling of helplessness over binge foods,” Larsen explains.

How does binging behavior happen?

There are many factors that may contribute to the onset of bingeing behaviors and binge-eating disorder. For instance, hunger can play a role in each episode. “You may or may not be hungry when binging on a food, though food-binge behavior is more likely when you don't eat every four to five hours,” Larsen says.

Dr. Ozbolt agrees that you are more at risk if you don’t feed yourself regularly. “Sometimes the dynamics of dieting and restricting can increase your propensity to binge-eat,” she says. “For example, if you deprive yourself of food for several days, you may ‘break down’ and binge-eat due to hunger.”

In the case of the illness itself, “binge-eating disorder likely has some genetic predisposition but also has environmental risk factors,” Dr. Ozbolt says. “It is often associated with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. Victims of sexual abuse/trauma are often more prone to bulimia nervosa and binge-eating. Often it can serve as an inappropriate coping mechanism for emotional regulation.”

In this way, binge-eating disorder and eating disorders in general are psychiatric diagnoses that are not rooted in food itself, but rather in a variety of other distressing elements. To nuance this argument, the foods that we are most likely to binge on are readily available on college campuses, and the stress that accompanies our collegiate careers can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder as well.

Although you should use the term “addiction” sparingly when it comes to binge-eating, Susan Holmberg, a certified nutrition specialist, contends that “junk foods are much more addictive than broccoli or chicken. [In college,] you get cheesy sticks and pizza ordered at 3 a.m, [because] it’s inexpensive.”

When should you get help?

For Holmberg, the line between a “normal” relationship with food and an unhealthy one is blurry. “‘Addiction’ is tossed around a lot and is difficult to pin down,” Holmberg says. “You can’t quantify it, it depends on the individual. Eating the whole jar of Nutella might not be symptomatic if you just shouldn’t be around Nutella; everyone can overeat here and there.”

With this in mind, there are many indicators of binge-eating disorder that you should not ignore. You could be suffering from this condition if any of the following apply to your eating habits:

  • They interfere with your social and academic life.
  • You avoid social situations where you might eat too much.
  • You hide and/or hoard food; you have a food stash.
  • You gain a significant amount of weight (ten pounds or more in a month, depending on your weight, according to Larsen).
  • You experience a loss of control when eating.
  • You know you are harming your body, but you can’t make yourself stop.

If you think you have reasons to be concerned about your wellbeing or that of a friend, “there is a free online survey called EAT-26 which women can take to gauge if their eating patterns are unhealthy,” Dr. Ozbolt advises.

Which resources can you turn to?

Feeling “addicted” or out-of-control around food is a serious problem that you shouldn’t face on your own. First of all, you need to surround yourself with a support system of caring friends and family. In turn, they can help you navigate this difficult time and seek out counseling.

Holmberg would encourage you to find out which resources are available on your campus. College counseling services are usually well equipped to help patients with eating disorders, whether they have a specific subdivision for such issues or not. “There are also plenty of books, online books, online chat groups and local helplines,” Holmberg says.

The following websites and helplines can help you learn more about or overcome this disorder:

Finally, Holmberg suggests reading books by Dr. Mark Hyman, the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and a physician specializing in nutrition, books by Dr. Daniel Amen, who writes about the role of the brain in our overall health, and The Mood Cure by Julia Ross.

Which steps can you take in your own time?

Beyond counseling, there are many manageable steps you can take towards getting healthy. One general idea to keep in mind is that “binge-eating is not about willpower over food,” Larsen says. “Willpower is often used to avoid binge foods rather than changing bingeing behaviors using behavioral techniques. Willpower is usually only successful for a few days.”

Instead, Larsen suggests the following methods:

  • Create a positive eating environment for yourself to succeed by not buying foods you binge on.
  • If you binge on desserts, select foods that are filling, such as meat, starches, vegetables, fruit and dairy before you go back to choose a dessert.
  • Limit yourself to one dessert per week and choose which day of the week you are going to eat dessert.
  • Stop eating when you are full.
  • If you eat fast, slow down and chew each mouthful slowly, savoring the taste of food.
  • Eat regular meals: breakfast, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, dinner and an evening snack.
  • Plan to eat every four to five hours so that you are not overly hungry, which can lead to bingeing.
  • Exercise. It helps increase the feel-good hormones (endorphins) in your brain and helps increase your calorie burn for hours after your workout.

However, if you have a full-blown, diagnosable eating disorder, it is crucial that you seek out medical help. The way Dr. Ozbolt puts it, you need “individual psychotherapy (i.e. counseling) and nutritional counseling. This is a psychiatric disorder and is as valid as any medical disorder. If you had diabetes, for instance, you wouldn't just read a self-help book or ‘will’ yourself not to have it.” Binge-eating disorder is an illness like any other, and you should not feel uncomfortable getting professional help; this will only contribute to the existing stigma.

Binge-eating disorder is a deeply rooted psychiatric condition and can be extremely challenging to overcome. But between your friends, school counseling services, online resources, helplines and books, you have all the tools you need to get you through this difficult time.

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