The Truth About Binge Eating (& What To Do About It)

BingingFinalFuschIllustrated by Caitlin Owens.
Full disclosure: sometimes, we're lazy girls. So, whether it's seven ways to simplify our morning routine or how to make our time at the gym actually enjoyable, we're into it. And to keep us on track, we've turned to Greatist, because they've got us excited about staying fit — and having fun doing it.
At some point, we’ve all awoken from some kind of binge, perhaps surrounded by beer bottles, candy wrappers, or shopping bags, and asked ourselves: What the hell happened? How can rational, functioning adults totally lose control of their impulses?
What's The Deal?
As it turns out, whether it’s drinking, eating, or shopping, different binge behaviors actually have similar causes. Greatist Expert and clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Mantell explains that all types of bingeing are “ways of dealing with negative emotions that are not rational or healthy.” But when does the occasional overindulgence become a real problem? According to Mantell, full-fledged binge disorders are characterized by feelings of powerlessness, secrecy, shame, and social isolation. Once someone feels a need to binge in private, or schedule binges around (or instead of) work and social obligations, it’s time to ask why.
Binge eating is currently the most common eating disorder in adults, compulsive buying disorder (a.k.a. “shopaholism”) is increasing, and binge drinking is widespread, especially among women. Whether it’s pizza, booze, or clearance sales, the causes of any type of binge behavior can fall into three categories: psychological, chemical, and sociocultural. (Stick with us here, we won’t get too dense.)
Binging2Illustrated by Caitlin Owens.
Psychological
The most common causes of bingeing are anxiety, stress, and depression — a lot of the time, it’s simply a way to numb unhappy feelings. But bingeing can also be a symptom of an undiagnosed mental disorder. Depression, for example, can lead to low self esteem, body dissatisfaction, poor impulse control, and difficulty managing feelings — all of which can trigger a binge. Naturally, the pain and guilt that comes in the aftermath of a binge can trigger depression, which can trigger another binge… not exactly a fun cycle to get caught in.
Chemical
Of course, people also overindulge because it can feel great — before regret sets in, anyway. The brain releases the feel-awesome chemical dopamine when we eat fat and sugar, when we drink alcohol, or even when we see new things to buy. Once the brain secretes dopamine during binges, they can become like a physical addiction — we binge more and more because we crave the rush of chemicals. Similarly, low levels of dopamine and serotonin (another happy chemical) can lead to compulsive behavior (like bingeing) and depression.
Stress and anxiety can also make people binge by making them more prone to “reward seeking behavior” — basically, stress can make us lose perspective and prioritize the nice feelings (“reward”) we get during a binge over the regret that inevitably comes later.
Sociocultural
Without a strong sense of self-confidence, the pressures of a culture that emphasizes coolness through consumption can also drive people to binges.
“We’re always being told that you’re not worth anything if you’re not thin, if you don’t drink, if you don’t own certain things,” says Mantell. “That pressure to be perfect can definitely lead to anxiety and binge-like behavior.”
Binging3Illustrated by Caitlin Owens.
Mind Over Matter
Many experts link bingeing to a lack of mindfulness, especially relating to emotions. People who are prone to compulsive behavior, in general, tend to have more difficulty understanding their feelings and handling stress. There are many ways to help remedy the issue, such as mindfulness meditation and writing down emotions throughout the day. When a binge feels imminent, Mantell suggests the THINK model: Ask whether these feelings are True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, or Kind. For example, an impulse like, “I must buy that now,” doesn’t exactly fit the THINK bill. Being aware of one’s emotional states can help reduce stress, anxiety, and consequent bingeing, so working on improving mindfulness is never a bad idea.
What Can I Do?
No matter why (or how) someone binges, there are plenty of treatment options available for those who seek help. Dr. Mantell recommends first visiting a cognitive behavioral therapist to figure out if the binges are a standalone problem or if they’re caused by more serious mental issues, like depression or a mood disorder.
After talking with a mental health professional, the recommended next step is to work on controlling binges through continued therapy. Finding a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, or Debtors Anonymous can also be useful in many cases.
Remember, self-treatment is only okay for less serious cases of binge behavior. If bingeing is continuously, negatively impacting your life — to the point where it causes distress or financial, social, or physical harm — therapy should be the first step.

More from Diet & Nutrition

If you live in the Northeast of the U.S., you might want to check on the meat in your fridge. The CDC announced on Saturday that it is investigating a ...
How many times have you woken up with a disgusting hangover after a heavy night and vowed never to drink again? Well, this common plight could one day be...
It seems like everyone’s looking for ways to eat more protein. And there’s a good reason for it, too: Often known as the “building block” of the body, ...
On Wednesday, I was in one of those elevators with a news and advertising screen when I was faced yet again with the results of the month of sobriety ...
While you'll probably never hear anyone raving about the deliciousness of their school cafeteria hot lunch, it's a much better alternative to not having it...
On Monday, Kellogg's recalled 10,000 Nutri-Grain Whole Wheat Waffles packages that were potentially contaminated. And on Wednesday, Blue Bell Creameries ...
If you haven't yet heard the word “gluten,” you've probably been living under a rock. Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus have embraced the...
If Stranger Things reawakened your childhood love for the ubiquitous Eggo waffle, we have some pretty upsetting news. On Monday, Kellogg's voluntarily ...
Apple cider vinegar's (ACV) reputation as a miracle cure certainly isn't new — supposedly even the Ancient Greeks were into the stuff. Today, though, the...
Hackers leaked the medical files of Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Venus Williams, and basketball player Elena Delle Donne early Tuesday, the World Anti-...
This article was originally published on April 26, 2016. Yes, it's true that health food can be staggeringly expensive — especially if it's something ...
We don't do diets. But we still love to eat — and we want to eat well. In her column, How To Eat, Refinery29's favorite intuitive eating coach Christy ...
As you know, food is fuel. Eating a balanced diet can help you feel healthier and more energized. One of the best benefits of eating well, however, is the ...
Every now and then, we all need to indulge in some quick and easy drive-thru fast food — whether it’s because we’re seriously pressed for time, have a ...