Binge Eating Disorder: Emotional Needs & New Food Relationships

Man struggling with a binge eating disorder

Contributor: Camille Williams, MA, LCPC, Eating Disorder Specialist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Binge Eating Disorder: Emotional Needs & New Food Relationships

Many individuals with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) can often feel discouraged and frustrated when initial attempts at “fixing” the “problem” are unsuccessful. This is because the focus is often centered on the word “less” — weighing less and eating less — which is ineffective in treating BED and actually increases the frequency of behaviors.

Ineffective Approaches to Treating BED

The first ineffective approach to treating BED is focusing on weight loss. Stepping on the scale and monitoring weight only leads to a mental and emotional preoccupation with the number.

This obsession fuels restricting and binge patterns with food as well as increased emotional distress. Since bingeing behaviors often occur after an emotional trigger, the scale can easily become the set-up for a binge even though the individual is trying to use the scale to have the opposite effect.

The other ineffective “fix” is dieting because diets also set up an individual for bingeing. Through restricting caloric intake or certain food groups, the body’s physical needs are being denied, and that is stressful on the body and harmful to one’s emotional wellbeing.

Therefore, physical and emotional needs will build until bingeing behaviors eventually return. Unfortunately, these are the two solutions most frequently discussed and encouraged by those not informed about eating disorders.

Since these approaches have been proven ineffective time and time again, there are alternative treatment goals that can be effective for treating BED.

Treating BED Brings A New Relationship with Food

Goals should center around a new relationship with food. First of all, physical needs must be met. The individual needs to be consuming enough food to help the body function optimally. This includes foods from all food groups and eating several times throughout the day.

If a binge food is restricted or not allowed, it will only increase in power and temptation. When all foods are allowed, recovery goals can focus on new experiences with foods that were once used during a binge.

When dieting, the body is starved for food, which will most likely be followed by a binge. When eating enough through an appropriate meal plan, binge urges will decrease because the person is not physically hungry anymore. This means any additional hunger is likely associated with emotional needs that have been met with food.

The other significant factor and goal in BED treatment are addressing emotional needs. Some of the most common emotional functions of bingeing are comfort, numbing emotions, or punishment.

Friends Sitting On a Bench Discussing Emotional Needs and treating BED

In treating BED, understanding what the emotional needs are can open exploration of alternative ways to meet these needs. If bingeing provides comfort, maybe exploring the self-soothe skill in Dialectical Behavior Therapy will offer alternatives?

Building tolerance for sitting with uncomfortable emotions also will be a part of the recovery process because bingeing may have suppressed and numbed feelings and discomfort. However, the temporary relief doesn’t last too long before feelings return with extra shame and guilt added to the mix due to the bingeing behaviors.

Healthy alternatives may lead to temporary discomfort at first and will be followed by overall satisfaction due to aligning with recovery values and pursuit of a meaningful life.

Setting goals of having a new relationship with food and healthy emotional expression and satisfaction addresses the struggles associated with bingeing itself. Focusing on weight loss and eating less does not support the need for a new sustainable relationship with food or the emotional struggles hidden behind the behaviors.

So, of course, those approaches to treating BED don’t work. And, if an individual is in need of weight loss for health, these goals will help a person more successfully allow the body to land in its own set range naturally without trying to force or control weight loss.

It can be challenging to let go of the obsession with weight. Since obsession with weight has not been an effective tool for promoting recovery, it is a necessary part of the healing process to let it go.

One last reminder when identifying treatment goals is to practice flexibility, patience, and grace. No one has a perfect relationship with food, and it is O.K. to overeat occasionally because that will be part of the recovery process.

Trying to be a “perfect dieter” doesn’t work and giving into the bingeing attitude of eating anything, and everything isn’t working either. So, allow the meal plan to have a balance between flexibility and wiggle room because that translates into a healthy relationship with food.

Also, allow space to be human as well because we all make mistakes, and we can choose to reconnect with values at any time.

Camille WilliamsAbout the Author: Camille Williams, MA, NCC, LCPC

As the Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Camille supports the development of curriculum, supervises the eating disorder specialist, and provides group therapy. She also educates and trains all staff on campus and advocates for eating disorder awareness through publications.

Camille started at Timberline Knolls as a Behavioral Health Specialist. She then transitioned into the Eating Disorder Specialist (EDS) role. In this position for nearly five years, she developed her skills and competence in working with the eating disorder population.

Camille received a Bachelor of Arts degree in both psychology and sociology from Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. She then went on to earn a Master of Arts in Clinical Professional Psychology from Roosevelt University, IL.

Camille is a member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP).

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed & Updated on June 4, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC
Published June 26, 2018, on

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