Walker's room is his oasis. It's where he listens to music, does his homework, plays online games, and chats with friends. It looks like a typical bedroom — except for what's under the bed. That's where Walker keeps his secret stash of snacks and tosses the empty candy wrappers, chip bags, and cookie boxes.
Walker has just eaten a large packet of cookies and a family-sized bag of chips — and he hasn't even finished his homework yet. He's searching for more chips to eat while he does his math. He hates that he's overweight, but he can't seem to stop binge eating. In the back of his mind, he knows that in an hour or so he's going to feel guilty and disgusted with himself, but right now it feels like he just can't stop himself.
Understanding Binge Eating
If you gorged on chocolate during Halloween or ate so much pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving that you felt uncomfortable, you know what it feels like to overeat. It's not unusual to overeat from time to time. Most people do.
During our teens, the body demands extra nutrients to support growth of muscle and bone. So if you go through phases where you feel like eating more sometimes, that's usually why.
But binge eating is different from typical appetite increases or overeating during the holidays. People with a binge eating problem regularly eat much more food than they need. They often eat quickly, eat when they are stressed or upset (instead of just when they are hungry), and do other things while they eat (like watch TV or do homework). They don't stop eating when they're full.
People who binge eat are usually overweight because they take in so many more calories than their bodies can use. As a result, they may feel bad about themselves, feel that they lack self-control, and be unhappy about their weight, shape or body image.
Binge eating involves more than just eating a lot. People with this problem don't want to be overweight. They wish they could be slim and healthy. Many times people who binge eat feel misunderstood. It's not as easy as others might think to just stop eating. With bingeing, a person feels out of control and powerless to stop eating while doing it. That's why binge eating is also called compulsive overeating.
Emotions often play a role. People with a binge eating problem may overeat when they feel stressed, upset, hurt, or angry. Many find it comforting and soothing to eat. But after a binge, people might feel guilty and sad about the out-of-control eating.
Binge eating is often a mixed-up way of dealing with or avoiding difficult emotions. Usually, people who binge eat aren't aware of what's driving them to overeat.
Why Do Some People Binge Eat?
Most experts believe that it takes a combination of things to develop an eating disorder — including a person's genes, emotions, and behaviors (such as eating patterns) learned during childhood.
Some people may be more prone to overeating for biological reasons. For example, the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls appetite) may fail to send proper messages about hunger and fullness. And serotonin, a normal brain chemical that affects mood and some compulsive behaviors, may also play a role in binge eating.
In most cases, the unhealthy overeating habits that develop into binge eating start during childhood. These habits might be a result of eating behaviors learned in the family.
It's normal to associate food with nurturing and love, but sometimes food is used too much as a way to soothe or comfort. When this is the case, kids may grow up with a habit of overeating to soothe themselves when they feel pressured. They do this because they may not have learned other ways to deal with stress.
Some kids may grow up believing that unhappy or upsetting feelings should be suppressed and may use food to quiet these emotions. Some people feel that the amount they eat is the only thing they have control over when life seems difficult or traumatic.
It's hard to know just how many teens may have a binge eating problem. Both guys and girls can have binge eating disorder. But because people often feel guilty or embarrassed about out-of-control eating, many don't talk about it or seek help. People can also be overweight without having a binge eating problem.
Signs of a Binge Eating Problem
People with a binge eating problem might:
- binge eat at least once a week for 3 months
- eat much more quickly than other people do
- eat until they feel uncomfortably full
- eat large amounts of food even when they're not physically hungry
- eat alone because they're embarrassed by what or how much they're eating
- feel upset about their binge eating (e.g., ashamed or guilty)
It may be hard for many people with binge eating problems to reach out for help because of how society thinks about overeating and being overweight. Many people don't get treatment for binge eating until they're adults trying to lose weight. But getting professional help as a teen can really help people develop great stress management techniques and lower the risk of long-term health problems.
People with eating disorders need professional help because problems like binge eating can be caused by brain chemistry and other things that seem beyond someone's control. Doctors, counselors, and nutrition experts often work together to help those with eating disorders manage their eating, weight, and feelings.
Part of dealing with a binge eating disorder is learning how to have a healthy relationship with food. Nutrition specialists or dietitians can help teens and their families learn about healthy eating, nutritional needs, portion sizes, metabolism, and exercise. They also can help design an eating plan that's specially designed for someone's needs and help the person stick with it and make progress.
Psychologists and other therapists can help teens and families learn healthy ways of coping with emotions, thoughts, stress, and other things that might contribute to someone's eating problem.
Depending on what's behind someone's binge eating, doctors may prescribe medications along with therapy and nutrition advice.
People with binge eating disorder may find it helpful to surround themselves with supportive family members and friends. It's best to avoid people who make negative comments about eating or weight because they can add to someone's feelings of self-criticism, making matters worse.
Sometimes other family members or friends are not ready to deal with their own eating problems. They may worry about a teen who is eating healthier or exercising more. It is important for someone with binge eating disorder to feel supported in their decision to live a healthier lifestyle.
Another thing that can help build self-confidence and take a person's mind off eating is trying a new extracurricular activity or hobby. Finding a way to express feelings, such as through music, art, dance, or writing, also can help a person develop new, healthier habits and stress management techniques.
It can take a while to get back on a healthier track with eating but it’s worth the investment in your long-term physical and emotional health. Just like getting better in any other skill, sometimes you need the support of a therapist, coach, trainer, and family or friends to get you where you need to be.
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2014