A photo of a hand with multicolored sprinkles on each tip, representing someone who understands recovery from binge eating disorder

What Binge Eating Disorder Recovery Looks Like

Relationships are mysterious things. Even the obvious ones that define our commitments and priorities can be enigmatic. But there are relationships we often don’t recognize as “relationships,” despite their behavioral influence in our lives. Money, work, food, to name a few – they are all reflective messages of often confined emotions. Binge eating, for example, is, on the surface, about a relationship with food. But it’s really a manifestation of a deeper relationship with oneself. Therefore, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) recovery goes beyond the food itself to the relationship with oneself that drives the binging.

Eating disorders are especially complex and sensitive, in part because everyone has to eat! Survival depends on having a “relationship” with food.

So, unlike addictions such as alcohol, drugs, and gambling, whose “recovery” demands complete sobriety, eating disorders aren’t so black-and-white. Food sobriety doesn’t foster survival.

Before we go into the details of Binge Eating Disorder, please know that help and successful management are within reach. 

BED recovery looks different for every person, depending on the factors fueling the disorder and the specific treatment approach taken.

The list of contributing factors includes variables like genetics, biochemistry, personality, and environment.

If you suffer from BED, you may know a truth that the oblivious onlooker doesn’t: Body size is not a determinant of BED. 

People of all sizes suffer from this disorder. And, sadly, they often suffer alone because physical appearance alone doesn’t give away their secret.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States.

  • Approximately 12 million American men and women have BED.
  • The disorder is defined as eating large amounts of food and feeling out of control, at least once a week for 3 months.
  • Bingeing is associated with feelings of shame, embarrassment. depression, anxiety and isolation. Feeling uncomfortably full after a binge is common, as is eating when beyond fullness or not even hungry.
  • BED is different from bulimia nervosa in one very distinguishing way: People with BED do not purge (i.e. rid themselves of the food).
  • Binge Eating Disorder was only recently (2013) included as an official diagnosis. That’s why knowledge about it lags behind knowledge about anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Binge Eating Disorder recovery can be delayed for many reasons, including:

  • erroneous beliefs that BED is about willpower and white-knuckling and not truly an eating disorder
  • weight stigma based beliefs that people with BED “should just eat less”
  • assumptions that BED is the person’s own fault – “he just can’t get food under control”

A huge underlying cause of delays in recovery stems from Diet Culture.

What are Binge Eating Disorder recovery methods?

Psychotherapy, medications, nutrition therapy, and guided self-help interventions are common methods for BED recovery.

Recovery from BED has to extend beyond binge eating behavior and address underlying causes.  

BED is not just about food!

Understanding underlying causes of BED provides insight into what to address in recovery.  For lasting change, psychological, historical, genetic, and cultural factors are often included.

Recovery typically incorporates strategies to:

  • identify and understand cravings
  • recognize and manage binge triggers
  • heal underlying issues
  • learn to eat and exercise with mindfulness
  • understand the role food has played in your life
  • explore the why of bingeing
  • heal relationship with your body
  • consider role of cultural messages (Diet Culture) and those from family
  • learn to meet needs beyond food
  • “legalize” all food (Food is just food. It’s neither “good” nor “bad.”)
  • disengage body weight and food choices from sense of worth as a human

Why do people binge?

Reasons people give for bingeing include: distraction, grief, loneliness, reward, escape, rebellion, avoidance, boredom, companionship….or “just because.”

People binge eat for lots of different reasons. More often than not, there is an underlying “diet” mindset – ie a plan to lose weight. 

Way more often than not, dieting/restriction inevitably lead to rebound-eating. The amount eaten violates the diet rules. Shame and hopelessness develop, and the cycle continues. 

And continues. And continues. 

Unless, of course, you seek treatment. (Left untreated, BED tends to persist.)

All this suffering because of Diet Culture and the stigma and shame associated with bingeing and weight gain.

Bingeing helps people manage tough times, even though it doesn’t solve underlying problems.

As people recover, they learn to have self-compassion. They learn to acknowledge and embrace the bingeing that has been part of their path. 

Diet Culture, being its tenacious self, makes the healing process more difficult than it would otherwise be. (Self-compassion, where are you?)

What is Diet Culture and why does it matter?

You don’t have to be on a diet to be caught up in the culture of dieting or to have a dieting mindset.

The diet industry (I’m talking to you, Noom and WW) spends lots of time and money trying to suppress evidence that diets don’t work.  

The science is crystal clear: Binge eating is primarily a symptom of attempts at food and weight control (i.e. dieting).

Diet Culture is so pervasive that it’s easy to continue to think like a dieter, even when trying to allow all foods or behaviors.

For Binge Eating Disorder recovery, thinking differently means unlearning Diet Culture.

Often people with BED try to control binges by restricting foods. But that just makes binges worse.

Binges are a natural response to dieting and feeling deprived around food in an attempt to lose or control weight. 

Recovery from Binge Eating Disorder means replacing the diet mentality with something different, such as an Intuitive Eating approach. 

After all, you can’t stop binges with the very behavior that causes them. Dieting, food restriction, and other attempts at food or weight control pull the trigger for bingeing. Dieting leads to loss of control.

In other words, binge eating is what happens when you deny—or threaten to deny—your natural, biological instincts around food.   

By understanding Diet Culture, you’ll better and more compassionately understand the bigger picture.

(Ideally, the dismantling of Diet Culture will happen on a systemic level. And slowly but surely that is happening. Shout out to change agents and policy makers!) 

What does “recovered” mean?

Binge Eating Disorder recovery goes way beyond the cliché of “making peace with food” or “eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.”

Recovered means being aware of and responding to your body’s natural needs for fuel and joy, which will vary every day.

“Recovered” may also mean becoming an anti-dieter advocate!

Here are some tips for Binge Eating Disorder recovery:

No one chooses to have Binge Eating Disorder. Recovery can be challenging, even when you really want to recover, especially living in Diet Culture. (Recovery would be simpler if you could move to a less weight-centric place, such as a South Pacific island…say, Tonga?)

The takeaway: You don’t need to spend your life in a painful cycle of bingeing. Effective treatment is available.

Behaviors associated with bingeing are really more about coping than about food. Having a toolbox of effective techniques to cope with a complex array of emotions and feelings is essential. 

Be sure to keep your sparkly paint in your toolbox.

And give Diet Culture the middle finger.

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, body image, and High Sensitivity. She passionately believes your birthright is to enjoy comfort in your body at any size and a fantastic relationship with food. Contact her here for more information.

Dr. Elayne Daniels

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