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How Destructive Is Binge-eating?

  • Eating

I often speak with clients after they’ve had a whopper of a binge. Even days or weeks afterward, they can usually recall every painful detail of what they consider to be a major act of self-destruction. But is bingeing really so harmful?

Now, before I receive hate mail insisting that bingeing on fat and sugar can’t be anything but unhealthy, I’ll agree with you. A little fat and sugar, okay, but gobs aren’t good for our bodies. Then again, neither is overeating this same amount of calories spread over days or weeks. But many regular overeaters pay scant attention to consuming more food than their bodies need as a matter of habit and don’t get down on themselves. They think, “Oh, I just have a big appetite” or “So what if I ate past full?”

My point is that if you generally eat “normally” or healthfully (which may or may not mean overeating nutritious food) and binge occasionally, it’s not going to kill you. Moreover, let’s recognize that there are binges and there are binges. Some troubled eaters call a binge eating half a dozen or a dozen cookies. Other people call a binge eating half a dozen boxes of cookies. So binges are all relative. Oddly, this culture views a binge as highly destructive behavior, yet considers habitual restricting and under-eating healthy. Sounds a little arbitrary to me.

I’ve been talking about the physical aspect of bingeing, but what about its psychological impact? In my experience (personal and professional), binge-eaters consider their food excesses as just about the worst thing a person could do, far more awful than many truly awful behaviors. I’ve heard people say they’d rather do drugs than binge. The truth is that much of the “destructiveness” binge-eaters feel is self-imposed condemnation. Bingeing is neither a sin (never mind what the bible says about gluttony) nor a crime. If you paid for it, you can eat it and no one will haul you off to jail or send you to hell.

Much of the “destruction” around binge-eating comes from our pejorative view of it and how badly we think of ourselves for doing it. This is called voluntary suffering. Having a binge is not the end of the world. I know, because I had many of them for decades. The more you hate yourself for the binge, the worse you feel and the less likely you are to refrain from bingeing in the future. Better to make less of a deal of your next binge, be curious about its triggers, offer yourself compassion, then forget about it. You binged, so what! You’re still alive and kicking, aren’t you? Just return to “normal” eating with whatever knowledge you learned from the binge and carry on.