Jennifer, 33, of Denver, Colorado, cannot remember a time when her body image issues were not a part of her life. “My struggles with food and body image have always felt omnipresent, they were a part of my identity,” she says. “Ever since late elementary school, I’ve struggled with my weight.” Her first binge came when she was a Girl Scout. “I had several boxes of cookies stuffed in my desk drawers that I ate in private. I lied to my parents about where all the missing boxes went.” At an early age, food became a comfort for Jennifer, who now works in the financial services industry. “I was bigger than the other kids and felt like such an outsider, like I was loitering on the perimeter of life,” she explains. (Here’s how to handle adult eating disorders.)
During a time when most teenagers are focused on spending time with friends and shopping, Jennifer couldn’t help but focus on the injustice of her situation. “I always felt so much bigger than the lean teens I went to school with, and it seemed they could eat anything they wanted. It was so unfair. Why couldn’t I do that? I was told it would catch up with them, but that never felt like much consolation. That also contributed to feeling like there’s something inherently wrong with me, that I was broken,” she says. Tired of feeling like she was on the outside looking in, she decided to make a change. “The summer before high school, I shed a decent amount of weight when I picked up running, and in retrospect, I ate way too little for a developing teen. There was a rush with the weight loss—everyone commented on how great I looked and on my amazing discipline. They commented on my body, my clothes,” she says. The pride she felt from the praise of others began to fade as she started to gain back the weight she had worked hard to lose. “It was an approval high that felt great until it stopped and habits got hard to keep. I started to gain a little back and no one said anything, and sometimes it was awkward. I would berate myself for not being able to get it together. I thought I just needed to try harder,” she explains.
Jennifer’s love-hate relationship with food began to spiral out of control once she became an adult and began traveling for work. “Eating disorders across the board tend to be extremely secretive. I traveled all over the country every week for work, and so some of the more closeted habits I developed began in private. I often would be on the run all day and barely eat anything, and then would get to my hotel room and eat more than a day’s worth,” she says. When she was back at home, it became difficult to hide her eating habits from loved ones she saw often. She reflects, “My brother noticed the inconsistency of my eating when we would spend longer amounts of time together.” (These are the signs your over-eating is actually a food addiction.)
What exactly is binge eating disorder, and how is it different from just overeating? Psychologist and eating disorders specialist Julie Friedman, PhD, executive director of the Binge Eating Recovery (BETR) Program at the Eating Recovery Center, says: “Binge eating is eating a large amount of food in a time period that is larger than what most would eat in the same time period. Often, those with BED feel as if they have an addiction to food and treat food as an emotional crutch. Binge eating episodes typically involve eating much more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large quantities of food when not hungry, eating alone due to embarrassment of how much one is eating, and feeling disgusted or guilty following these episodes.” Dr. Friedman says the disorder is quite common, and usually begins in the late teens to early twenties, though some children struggle with it as well. It is more prevalent in women than men, but 40 percent of those affected are male. Treatment includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention. According to Friedman, binge eating disorder treatment ideally should have a multi-pronged approach. “Patients should seek specialized eating disorder treatment, and multidisciplinary care is best,” she says. “If you can get a multidisciplinary team that covers dietary, medical, and family issues and mental health aspects, that is best.”
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Although binge eating disorder or BED may look different for everyone, a common struggle is with control. “My brother noticed similar behaviors between my mom, who also struggles with her weight, and me,” says Jennifer. “Things like blotting the grease off my pizza or dipping my fork in the salad dressing for each bite. He observed I would hyper focus on the small, insignificant things that I deemed controllable when I felt out of control. My mom said she never saw me binge eat, but could see me falling apart emotionally,” she says.
Jennifer knew she had a problem when her thoughts surrounding food became tied to her worth. “Many times it wasn’t about the quantity of food or what I ate. It was the thoughts and feelings that went with it. Food owned me. The scale determined my day. The number going down was a good day. The number going up was a bad day. Even more than that—down meant I was good, up meant I was bad. I felt helpless to change or at least maintain change over the long term.” Her breaking point was on a business trip with a friend to Hawaii. She discovered they were too heavy to take a helicopter tour in the same helicopter, a reality that fueled her decision to make a change once and for all. “They worked to find us different choppers, but every phone call included a confused representative to whom I had to re-explain the reason we couldn’t ride together. That trip was my breaking point. Upon my return, I told my therapist, I can’t do this anymore and started looking into the BETR program.” Here are 11 silent signs you could have an eating disorder.
Today, Jennifer has found the peace she desperately sought as a young person. “I offer myself more grace now. In the BETR program so much of the crushing shame was lifted as I learned the science behind my struggles. This life long struggle was not because I was bad or I had failed. It became easier to be able to say—I’m 5’7″, have blonde hair, green eyes, and a genetic predisposition for addiction. I understood a bit more about neural pathways and the physiology of the urges,” she says. Jennifer offers others battling food addiction the same words she uses to encourage herself: “You are not alone. You are not broken; you do not need to be fixed. You are not defined by a scale on the bathroom floor. You are so much more resilient than you think. Take life moment by moment and be present. You are human, and that’s an incredible thing.”