When Anne-Sophie Reinhardt was trying to lose weight, she’d start the day with black coffee and maybe a slice of toast. But by lunchtime, she’d be so ravenous she’d stuff herself with a huge meal of meat and pasta. That’s when the day would spiral out of control. Next came Nutella-slathered bread and entire bags of jellybeans while watching back-to-back episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some days, she’d feast on pizza and fries — occasionally, an entire cake. Then panic would set in, and she’d hit the family treadmill, trying to make a dent in daily calorie totals that could top 10,000. Within six months, Reinhart, then 17 years old, had added 50 pounds to her 5’1” frame and reached her heaviest weight of 150.
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“I had a hole in my belly I couldn’t fill,” explains Reinhardt, now 27. “I would fight myself not to get more food, but the urge to overeat would always win out. I wouldn’t even get any enjoyment out of it because I was so busy beating myself up. ‘Why again?’ I’d say. ‘You have to be better tomorrow. This is going to be the last time.’”
What Is Binge Eating Disorder?
Reinhardt was eventually treated for binge eating disorder (BED) which, unlike anorexia and bulimia nervosa, hasn’t received a lot of attention over the years. In 2013, the syndrome, which is estimated to affect five million women and three million men in the U.S., was finally included as a distinct entry in the American Psychiatric Association’s most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The disorder is characterized by repeatedly eating large amounts of food — and being unable to stop when full. People who binge will often eat when they are not hungry and consume their food quickly, often to the point of being uncomfortable.
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The main difference between bingeing and bulimia is that binge eaters do not purge later to prevent weight gain, which is a common side effect of the disorder. One study found that among people entering a weight loss program, about 30 percent suffered from binge eating disorder.
“Satisfy your cravings in moderation so they don’t come back to haunt you.”
Bingers typically eat alone and feel disgusted or embarrassed by their behavior. “A person without the disorder can say, ‘Well, that was just a bad night,’ and shake it off, but the person with binge eating disorder would feel shame and depression,” explains Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, a Miami-based psychologist and author of Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation’s Fixation with Food and Weight. “Also, when you overindulge with other people, you don’t have such severe physical discomfort. Bingers might not be aware of fullness signals. Or they choose discomfort as a way to punish themselves.”
Psychologists are hesitant to define quantities or types of food associated with BED, although Rosenfeld says it’s typically high-fat, high-calorie fare. You just have to binge at least once a week for three months to qualify for the diagnosis. “They key is you’re doing it on a regular basis and feel out of control,” she says. In other words, occasionally overdoing it at summer barbecues probably doesn’t count.
How to Stop Binge Eating
If you think you might suffer from binge eating disorder, talk to your doctor to find out how to get help. But even if you don’t fit the criteria, many of us occasionally push our limits and eat way more than our bodies need. Here’s how to prevent an excessive eating episode:
1. Get off the diet roller coaster.
If you severely restrict what you can eat, you’re more likely to overdo it on those forbidden foods later. “It’s a diet-binge cycle,” explains Rosenfeld. “Patients feel deprived and hungry, and the pendulum swings in the other direction.” Case in point: Reinhardt once lost nearly 10 pounds eating kale soup for two weeks straight. Then she returned to her bingeing behavior and gained back the weight. Find a program that includes regular meals and snacks, along with occasional treats so you’ll always feel satiated.
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2. Feed your cravings.
Feeling on the verge of chocolate obsession? Eat a gooey truffle or scoop of ice cream before your desire balloons into a brownie-nut-fudge calorie bomb. “Satisfy your cravings in moderation so they don’t come back to haunt you,” says Rosenfeld. “Food is a pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with that. Treat yourself well.”
3. Know your triggers.
Food is often used to numb out uncomfortable feelings, so become aware of which situations (or people!) make you want to overeat. “Try to identify them in advance so you can find other ways of ways of coping,” says Rosenfeld. For example, if you know that getting angry with your husband makes you want to hit a greasy drive-thru, you can go for a walk or call friends next time you’re frustrated.
4. Try meditation.
If you’re using food to escape your feelings, regular meditation may help you feel more present in your body and learn to manage uncomfortable emotions. One review of 14 studies on the effect of mindfulness meditation concluded it helped control the disorder, although it didn’t always result in weight loss.
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5. Seek treatment.
Don’t hesitate to get help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps people manage negative thoughts and behaviors, may help deter binges, according to the American Psychological Association. Talk to your doctor about which treatments might be best for you.
In her early 20s, Reinhardt managed to stop binge eating — but then she went to the other extreme. She ate so little she dropped 65 pounds from her 5’1” frame, leaving her at only 80 pounds. Three months in a residential treatment center helped her heal. So did reading actress Portia di Rossi’s eating disorder memoir Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, she says. “It was the first time I realized I wasn’t alone.” Now Reinhardt works as a body image coach and believes that helping others keeps her focused on her recovery. She also swears by chronicling her feelings in a journal and engaging in exercises that make her feel more connected to her body. “You’re always going to have days when you struggle,” she says. “So be kind to yourself and find others who understand what you’re going through.”