Sunday, April 19, 2009

Could I Have Binge Eating Disorder?

I am an overweight woman in my 50's. I don't usually overeat at meals, but several times a week in the evenings I will just take out leftovers, packages of cookies, chips, whatever is around and sit and eat until I am exhausted. I can follow a diet all day long, but I am just overcome with the need to stuff myself at night when I start thinking about things in my life that went wrong. It feels like a 'drug' that helps relax me and I just can't stop. I don't think it's about the food, but I don't know what to try to stop myself. If I have an eating disorder what is the treatment for this? Do you have suggestions for how I can stop? -- anonymous

You do have some of the classic signs of binge eating disorder, a condition that affects between 1 million and 2 million Americans, but only a health professional can diagnose you for certain. Many people who have this disorder keep it hidden from their friends and family for obvious reasons. It's shameful and embarrassing to know that food has control over you, but there certainly are treatments.

One important thing to realize is that the condition is not about food. Going on a diet will not help, and can just further frustrate the person who is suffering from binge eating disorder. Some of the characteristics of binge eaters include feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sadness, and even boredom. And, yes, the binge does act like a 'drug' to overcome these feelings.

More common in women, and often seen between the ages of 40 and 60, binge eaters have reported that eating large amounts of food within a short time period (about an hour) creates the sensation of "stuffing down negative feelings". Many report that they avoid other more common expressions of emotions such as crying or yelling. Seen as "unfeminine" to raise their voice, they turn to food when they are angry; thinking of crying as a weakness, they eat to cover their feelings of sadness or frustration.

The end result is often obesity (and the co-existing health problems that occur when excess weight is present), low self-esteem, feelings of being out of control, and even malnutrition (because the large amounts of food consumed rarely contribute nutrients but are often high in salt, fat, and sugar).

The best course of treatment is carried out with a certified mental health counselor such as a licensed social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist, many of whom specialize in eating disorders such as binge eating disorder. Your therapist may or may not prescribe medications (namely for depression) as well. The key to overcoming this disorder is finding ways to deal with negative emotions that are predominant in your life, developing other ways to handle stress, and learning to have a healthy relationship with food.

I encourage you to take the first step to get yourself the help you need--and deserve--and make the call to find a health professional whose practice includes treating those suffering from eating disorders.

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