Binge Eating Disorder – What is it, and What Might Cause it?

Binge Eating Disorder – What is it, and What Might Cause it?


Binge eating can be a frightening experience, where you can feel completely out of control. It’s as if you just can’t seem to stop eating, and some people describe a sense of zoning out or dissociating while bingeing. The brain doesn’t seem to register that you are full until you either run out of food or feel overfull and sick. This is quickly followed by an overwhelming sense of shame and failure to control yourself. Once again you have binged….


Why does this happen and why is it so difficult to stop? There are five main reasons:


  1. Dieting – yes, that’s right, trying to significantly restrict your food intake can trigger episodes of binge eating. Will power only takes us so far. This is because the body is primed to make you eat. When the brain senses we aren’t getting enough nutrients, it ramps up our hunger responses. Fight hunger and it fights back! Eventually, biology wins the battle and out-of-control eating can result.


  1. Planning to restrict. You know this one – “my diet starts on Monday” (Therefore, I might as well eat as much as I can of my ‘forbidden’ foods over the weekend.) It’s called Last Supper eating, and can happen several times a week.


  1. Emotional regulation. Certain foods in certain quantities can act in the same way as anti-anxiety drugs. Chocolate is a good example of this. By filling yourself up with food, part of the nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This part calms you and puts you in a restful state. The brain soon learns that food seems to reduce your anxiety and other difficult emotions. It may therefore compel you to binge in times of stress.


  1. Frequent behaviours soon turn into habits, especially where the habit is linked with your reward feedback systems (which food is). If you binge in certain situations or at certain times then this is most likely a habit. For example, when you get in from work (“I deserve this cake, I’ve had a hard day”). Habits are very powerful. Our brains link eating with survival, so the brain is vulnerable to the habit of bingeing at certain times.


  1. This is a lot more complex. Partly, this overlaps with 3, but there is a much deeper mechanism at work here. If your binge eating was originally triggered by traumatic experiences in the past, which remain unresolved, you may re-experience similar strong emotions and bodily sensations if you are triggered by other, often random events occurring during daily life. This can include certain situations, arguments, raised voices, different sights, sounds or even smells. We are not always aware of our triggers. In this situation, filling yourself up with food can be a way of feeling safe, and grounding yourself in the present moment. It is a coping mechanism, which may have enabled you to survive in the past, and is a way of soothing difficult feelings in the present.


The good news is that a trained counsellor can help you to look at your binge eating behaviour more closely, and we can begin to explore your personal reasons for binge eating. We can look at your triggers, situations where you feel more vulnerable, and explore ways to help you cope which don’t involve bingeing. I will not ever judge you, or be shocked by what you tell me. I work together with you to discover your path to recovery.


Written by counsellor Trish Thomas