When overeating is a cause for concern: binge eating and lockdown

14 October 2020

Food, glorious food. It’s what keeps us going. But it’s more than just fuel for our bodies. It’s also satisfying, tasty – and oh-so-moreish. While most of us have found ourselves eating more while in lockdown, how do you know when it’s a cause for concern?

Let’s be clear, overeating is normal

We’re all guilty of going back for seconds because Christmas lunch was just that good. Or, more recently, tucking into a tub of ice cream because lockdown is making every day a slog.

Eating while distracted (for example, snacking while watching your favourite Netflix series), is also common for many of us. As is eating when feeling a little stressed… or bored.

And now that lots of us are working from home, we’ve got access to pantries and fridges full of goodies, only metres away from our makeshift home-offices.

So how do you know when it’s time to draw the line? And how do you know if it’s time to get help?

Occasional overeating – or Binge Eating Disorder?

There are a few key differences between occasional overeating and Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

In short, BED is characterised by the following:

  • Frequent bingeing episodes
  • A marked distress, anxiety, or shame – both during and after bingeing
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Isolation when eating, or being secretive around food
  • Eating in the absence of hunger, or continued eating even when full
  • An absence of compensatory purging

These marked symptoms that accompany BED are not usually present in standard cases of overeating.

So, if you’re questioning whether these apply to you or someone you love, let us take you through each characteristic in more detail.

BED episodes are recurrent

Occasional overeating happens every now and again. On the other hand, the DSM-5 defines BED as recurring. That means the overeating episodes happen frequently.

In this case, ‘frequently’ requires that a bingeing episode must occur at least once a week, for at least three months.

Occasionally eating until you’re uncomfortably full – or going back for more snacks than usual – doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got BED. There’s a range of other factors to consider.

It’s about how you feel – and how this makes you act

Psychologically, binge eaters find the episodes very upsetting.

Afterwards, they’ll typically be overcome by guilt and shame. And this leads to embarrassment, which prompts the binger to eat alone or in private (but more on that later).

The key here is that these feelings don’t stop the binger from eating. Alternatively, people who only occasionally overeat will usually stop before they feel intense emotions of self-loathing or disgust.

Losing all control

As you can imagine, if guilt or a lack of appetite didn’t stop you from eating, you’d feel as if you’d lost all control.

This is exactly what someone suffering BED goes through. They may even feel driven to eat as if it is a compulsion that can’t be ignored – it’s got nothing to do with willpower.

This period of uncontrolled, impulsive eating often occurs within a short time period too, perhaps two hours.

Isolation and privacy

Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often drive bingers to deliberately eat alone.

For others, eating is typically seen as a social activity. It’s considered enjoyable when shared with friends and family. However, because of the pandemic, we’re not able to sit at a café or restaurant and enjoy food with others. This makes it harder for the friends and family of binge eaters to identify their abnormal eating patterns.

Even worse, part of the recovery process involves eating normally with others. During lockdown, those with BED aren’t getting the opportunity to do so – and their recovery may be slowed as a result.

Listening to your body

One of the physiological signs of BED is eating even in the absence of cues like hunger or fullness. Instead, a binge eater will consume based on emotional prompts.

This means that feelings of sadness, anger or distress can trigger an episode… something we’re all feeling a lot of right now. Eating may even be used as a coping mechanism when experiencing these challenging emotions.

Likewise, bingeing can also help distract us from thinking about the underlying problem at hand. As we’re in the midst of a pandemic, binge eating can work as a source of comfort in response to the many flow-on effects and challenges it presents.   

One key determinant

One of the main differentiators between occasional overeating, those with other eating disorders and BED is that sufferers of BED will not engage in compensatory behaviours.

Many occasional overeaters will use the guilt from overeating to motivate them to train harder in their workout. This is not the case for bingers.

Those with bulimia often induce vomiting to try to compensate their bingeing.

Identifying the signs

If you or someone you love is displaying one or more of the following behaviours, it could be BED:

  • Becoming secretive about eating or food and spending more time eating alone. This also extends to hiding food and wrappers around the house to avoid discovery.
  • Defensive behaviour when asked about eating or food. This might include an increased sensitivity to comments regarding food, eating, their body shape and weight.
  • Stockpiling food items, even when supermarket shelves are back to their normal capacity.
  • A preoccupation with eating, food, their body shape and weight.

Overcoming BED

Seeking help early is much more effective than waiting for the illness to progress – and a range of treatment options mean a full recovery is possible.

At Positive Psychology, we have experienced practitioners who specialise in eating disorders. We can help you on your path to recovery. Call us on 1300 995 636 to make an appointment or learn more.