Binge Eating Disorder: When Comfort Eating Crosses the Line

Two babies dressed as bunnies representing how Binge Eating Disorder can beginIt starts out innocently enough — literally. As infants, milk comforts our cries. As children, treats reward good behavior. Throughout adolescence, adults encourage us to use food as a means of feeling better when we’re bored, lonely, sad, or experiencing any less-than-desirable feeling at any given time.

Day after day, year after, we learn to associate food with comfort — a sensual physical experience that can always be depended on to provide immediate pleasure. We carry this correlation into adulthood, turning to food for adult reasons.

For some, comfort eating is on rare occasions, like after a break-up or losing a job.

For others, it’s a more regular experience, like relieving stress after work or filling lonely evenings at home.

In all of these instances, comfort eating is an emotional response to pain, discomfort, or fear. Obviously, this is not a purpose for which food is intended, but comfort eating in and of itself is not dangerous. Certainly, we would be better served in the long run dealing with the issue masked by comfort eating, like eliminating the stress at work, or fully embracing the inevitable sadness that comes with a break-up, but despite the distraction of comfort eating, it does not threaten our physical health or quality of life. If and when that happens, comfort eating has crossed the line into Binge Eating Disorder.

Binge Eating Disorder, also known as compulsive overeating, is characterized by:

  • Eating larger than normal amounts of food at least twice a week for a period of 6 months
  • Rapid, isolated food consumption
  • Inability to control how much is consumed
  • Continuing to eat past the point of feeling full
  • Disgust, guilt and shame over how much has been consumed

Unlike bulimics, binge eaters do not purge, or engage in any other behavior aimed at making up for their compulsive food consumption, such as excessive exercise or the use of laxatives. As a result, binge eaters put on weight. So in addition to the shame associated with the act of compulsive overeating, binge eaters feel shame at their weight gain. Then as they do in response to other painful feelings in their lives, binge eaters turn to food for comfort, leading to increasing weight gain and, in most cases, obesity as the disordered eating continues over the course of a lifetime.

Obesity is a dangerous physical condition with complications that can include high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and more.

Woman concerned about Binge Eating Disorder Relapse SupportOf course, the impact of Binge Eating Disorder is not limited to physical threats. Binge eaters have a more intimate relationship with food than they do with people. This coupled with the shame of their disordered eating leads to increasing isolation and depression.

What all of this adds up to is a vicious cycle. The worse binge eaters feel about their weight, their relationships, and themselves, the more they turn to food for comfort.

Fortunately, there is help and hope for Binge Eating Disorder. The key is changing your attitudes about food, the first step of which is admitting that the way you relate to food is unhealthy.

In Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders: A Whole-Person Approach To Treatment From Anorexia, Bulimia, and Disordered Eating, there is a comprehensive list of questions for examining your relationship with food. Below is a sampling, and a good place to start:

  1. Even though I know the way I eat is unhealthy, I still eat this way because…
  2. What does my constant obsession with food keep me from thinking about?
  3. When I can concentrate on food in the present, it keeps me from thinking about things that have happened to me in the past, like…
  4. How do I use food to make me feel better when I’m feeling anxious or hurt?
  5. When I feel I’m not in control of myself, I think of myself as…

Exploring the feelings fueling compulsive overeating is a scary prospect, but it is a necessary part of the healing process. In this manner, you can start to disassociate yourself; you are not your disorder. Consider seeking the support of a professional counselor who specializes in eating disorders. Help and hope is out there.

Article Contributed By: By Dr. Gregg Jantz, Founder of A Place Of Hope

Page Last Updated and Reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 8, 2013
Published on, Eating Disorder Assistance Online