Serious Emotional Strain

Most people occasionally overeat. Sometimes, your favorite restaurant becomes too much to resist. You crave potato chips during movie night at home. Or, you overindulge during the holidays. Usually these episodes do little more than cause indigestion. But, for some people, overeating can take over their entire lives.

Binge eating at a glance

Binge eating is characterized by recurrent episodes (at least twice a week) of consuming a large amount of food in two hours or less. Sufferers typically eat until they are beyond full. "The eating feels out of control, is usually done secretively and is often followed by shame and guilt," explains Linda Wondrasch, PsyD, LICSW at Methodist Hospital Eating Disorders Institute.

Contrary to common belief, binge eating does not involve purging, which is a characteristic of another eating disorder, bulimia nervosa. Instead, binge eaters don't do anything to get rid of the calories. Untreated binge eating increases people's risk for hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, gallbladder disease - and obesity. It may also lead to severe depression.

It's not a matter of "mind over matter"

There is a strong psychological connection to binge eating. Stress, anger or sadness may prompt binge eaters to eat comfort foods such as sweets, candy, high-fat snacks and other foods. "Generally speaking, binge eaters go for 'bad' foods, which the dieting population tells them to restrict or eliminate," says Dr. Wondrasch. It's no surprise then, that 10 to 15 percent of extremely obese people in self-help or commercial weight-loss programs have a binge-eating disorder.

Binge eating can affect people at any age, but is most common after years of chronic or yo-yo dieting. "Anytime that you restrict food, you eventually give in because the physiological need far outweighs your discipline," says Dr. Wondrasch.

When a diet stops working, it often causes people to feel even worse about their weight and their self-control, putting them at increased risk for more bingeing. Instead, Dr. Wondrasch advises people to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. She also suggests avoiding the idea of "good" food and "bad" food and just visualize all food as fuel in reasonable amounts.

In addition to weight gain, binge eating can cause serious emotional strain. "Many times, people will stop at a grocery store or the drive thru and binge in the car on the way home from a stressful day at work," says Dr. Wondrasch. "Or if they know nobody will be at home, they may buy their favorite foods or order a pizza to eat when they're alone. And then they'll hide the evidence."

Where to find help

Methodist Hospital Eating Disorders Institute offers help for overcoming binge eating. "Ironically, this isolating condition is best treated in a group setting, so people can see that they are not alone," says Dr. Wondrasch. "Bringing out their secret is a step toward healing." Individual sessions are available to supplement the group program.

About eight to 12 people participate in these 12-week programs, which are led by mental health professionals and registered dietitians. Discussions focus on managing stress, decreasing binge-eating episodes and changing they way participants feel about food, their weight and their self-esteem. The three-hour sessions also include a healthy meal, which is planned by a dietitian.

Weight loss is not the objective of treatment. The real goal is to help people feel better - both physically and emotionally. "Through cognitive behavioral therapy, we talk about body image and the importance of finding your voice," explains Dr. Wondrasch. "Many people with eating disorders can be self-critical, passive and put other people's needs above their own." Classes also teach people how to build a trusting network of friends and family, instead of trying to cope alone or overeating as an escape.

After the first 12 weeks, participants may continue with phase two of recovery, which helps individuals develop their own relapse-prevention plans. After that, ongoing group and individual counseling is available as part of relapse prevention. "Eating disorders can be chronic and they take time to overcome. We offer people a chance to recover fully," says Dr. Wondrasch.