We all binge eat at some points in our life. Binge eating simply means consuming a very large quantity of food often without even realizing it, and don’t worry, just because you have done this doesn’t mean that you have an eating disorder. Probably you did it without any feelings of blame or shame about yourself afterwards, and while it may not be perfect for your body it’s probably not causing any major problems either. However, if you find yourself keeping doing it over and over again, for example regularly for several months, then you may need to seek help.
Eating disorders are a category of mental health disorder and include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have some similarities yet are two quite different eating disorders. Anorexia can affect people of different shapes, gender and socioeconomic status. An individual is considered anorexic if their BMI (body mass index) falls below 18.5 and especially if they have a poor body image which causes them to see themself as overweight even though they are in fact considerably underweight. They forcefully restrict their calorie intake or completely avoid the intake of food for longer periods of time. They may also experience binge and purge cycles in which they consume large quantities of food — mainly unhealthy, non nutritious foods — and then purge by using laxatives, diuretics, vomiting or even other means such as excessive exercise or fasting. Anorexic individuals are extremely fearful about gaining weight and they think that they are simply removing the calories that they see as causing them harm. Anorexia nervosa actually has a very high risk of fatality because of how it causes the body to be both dangerously underweight and at the same time malnourished due to starvation. Some of the many symptoms include electrolyte disturbances, losing bone density, anemia, amenorrhea, low blood pressure, low heart rate and muscle loss. Therapy is the most recommended treatment to help the patient.
In bulimia nervosa the individual has a normal or even higher than normal BMI and yet they binge eat and then try to compensate with purge by the same methods described above — force vomiting, fasting, over exercising, diuretics and laxatives. They may have symptoms of severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, sensitive teeth, intestinal distress, acid reflux disorder and a chronically inflamed sore throat. The recommended treatment is normally a combination of anti-depression medication and/or psychotherapy.
It is not possible to suffer from both anorexia and bulimia at the same time. The symptoms are very similar so it would be easy to diagnose a patient with either one, but it is the body weight to height ratio (BMI) that determines which one is diagnosed.
The preferred treatment is in most cases therapy. Research shows, however, that the family environment plays an important role in the development and treatment of both of these disorders so when therapy is performed it is helpful for the whole family to receive counseling so that not only the individual learns how to change their behavior but the family also learns what they need to do to provide a more nurturing environment that will help them and not relapse.
With both of these conditions it really is critical that the individual seeks treatment and asks for help, otherwise they are risking serious health problem later in your life. Asking for help is not a weakness. Although, do remember that our body image is only one aspect of our life and being healthy is a combination of everything — eating a whole foods based diet, surrounding ourself with the correct community, good relationships with our family and friends, and exercising regularly.
Seager, Slabaugh, and Hansen (2018). Chemistry for Today: General, Organic, and Biochemisty, 9th edition.
NIMH Information Resource Center (December 2021). Eating Disorders. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders