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How My Overeating Habit Makes Me Feel (And What To Do About It)

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Photo: Eric Helgas
It’s 9pm in my dimly lit bedroom. I run my tongue over the thick film of chocolate saliva coating the roof of my mouth. On the duvet looking helplessly up at me is the battered face of a large Lindt chocolate bunny, its carcass smashed into oblivion. I shift in my bed and the bell that was once around its neck rings ominously. Apart from the inevitable nausea that comes with eating an entire banquet of Easter eggs in less than ten minutes, there’s something else forming in the pit of my stomach: a gripping shame that tells me something is seriously "up" with my eating habits.

This won’t be the first time I’ve boshed a week’s worth of sugar in such a frenzied way. I’ve easily destroyed a whole packet of mini rolls, shoved a Snickers in a jar of peanut butter after a bad day at work, or disappeared in a cloud of cheese crisp dust while unsupervised at a barbecue. Every time I do something like this, the fallout is an instantaneous, unmitigated sense of shame. A kind of horror at my own unbridled greed that will cling to me all day like chip fat.

Obviously most people have got a bit carried away with the roast potatoes at a Sunday lunch, but certain more erratic overeating behaviours are characterised by their regularity and big emotional lows that follow. Recently, I heard about an American friend being treated for ‘binge eating disorder’ and the diagnosis sounded oddly familiar. Regular experiences of a "loss of control", "eating to the point of sickness", feelings of "shame" and "eating to deal with stress", feeling "powerless to stop" and "eating alone in secret" are all now symptoms that have caused American Psychological Association to give it an eating disorder category of its own.
In the UK, while it's not yet got its own formal category, many psychiatrists and the NHS recognise it as a disorder with marked characteristics. Binge eating is classified as such because it is not followed by "compensatory behaviour" such as vomiting or laxatives, although the NHS does suggest some binge eaters may try to regulate their food intake by eating less between binges. Most people who seek help from their doctor about binge eating will do so for treatment of obesity, and the disorder has been found to be more prevalent among people who are technically categorised as obese.

I’ve never been particularly preoccupied with my weight. I do plenty of exercise and I don’t binge so regularly that it’s tipped me into overweight territory. There is however something I find vaguely unsettling about my inability to be trusted around my own fridge, like a naughty Labrador at a picnic. Growing up, I remember the slow, depressing discovery that food for so many women was the enemy.
I’ve been having a particularly stressful time at work lately, and consequently, can barely remember the last time I did not experience hunger as an emotion. Luckily, it’s never been easier to conceal compulsive eating habits than with a room full of people who hate their jobs. Mountains of special offer Cadbury’s must pour into bored office worker’s mouths every day; shall-I-shan’t-I Mr Kipling offerings follow round after round of sorry-you’re-leaving tray bakes.

However, my eating habits at work seem to have followed me home. It’s when I am alone in a room with a ticking clock and a wheel of brie that things really get out of hand. Almost as soon as I have mentally pictured the thing I want to eat, I’ve eaten it. It’s a feeling less like luxurious enjoyment than a wild-eyed consumption followed pretty much instantaneously by niggling disgust. If you’ve ever got yourself off to really dutty porn and experienced the fallout or been so out of control drunk you offended all your mates, well, it’s a bit like that.

But while my friend might be American, this is not an issue confined by culture. Dr. Kathryn Kimmond, a psychologist specialising in health and psychology of the body and self harm thinks that, in general, we do have a poor cultural affinity with food in Britain. “Our relationship with food is changing: food is also everywhere, and it’s tempting. Portions are huge, food is fast, it’s all ‘on the go’ and we don’t have to work very hard to get hold of it.”

If one of the symptoms of binge eating is to medicate bad feelings, then the additionally emotive marketing of food at women probably isn’t helping. Yoghurts are "indulgent", biscuits are "naughty." For Dr Kimmond this is also problematic. I ask her if she thinks this is a female problem. “Women are supposed to like cake, stereotypically,” she says, but for some there’s an anxiety around cake, where many people will like to be seen to enjoy it in public, but have private feelings of shame related to body image.” Under pressure to display functional eating habits for many of us, our eating has been driven underground.
Ask pretty much any of my friends if they feel 100% comfortable with their relationship with food and they will tell you firmly no. For many, this is related to compulsive overeating and resulting feelings of guilt. For loads of them this will spill into a disorder, whether they seek treatment or not. In the US where binge eating is recognised as an eating disorder it is thought to affect 3.5% of women and 2% of men while the NHS estimate that there is around a 1 in 30 to 1 in 50 chance of a person developing a binge eating disorder at some point during their life.
The problem with disordered eating habits is it seems we are only compelled to address them when aesthetics indicate they have spiralled out of control. Dr. Kimmond agrees: “There are two extremes, underweight and overweight, but then there is this huge middle ground of people, like you, who are unhappy with what they eat and feeling uncomfortable about it. The problem is that food is everywhere, we can’t get away from it and we need it to survive.” When so many of us are caused distress by the emotions that go with our eating, where does the boundary lie between being greedy and having an eating disorder?

It’s a question that often irks me when I think about my own habits, so I confess the Lindt bunny incident to Dr. Jane McCartney, a psychologist who has written a whole book on emotional overeating. Our brains are hard wired to enjoy sweet flavours anyway, so when rewarded by the holy grail of sugar and fat, it’s no great surprise we crave more. She thinks that my taste for chocolate could be in part chemical. “Certain foods like chocolate and sugar do have this neurological drug effect on the brain. You will just keep going until either sickness or shame stop you.”

So what can you actually do to address a messed up relationship with the biscuit tin? Chemical biology, apparently, is not the whole picture; Dr McCartney thinks I need to think about how I got there. “Look at your most recent overeating episode and what happened. It’s about exploring how you feel about yourself and developing that understanding and emotional maturity around food. When we can’t eat excessively, other emotions are being heightened because we feel like we are being denied. Often people turn blindly to food to make themselves feel better or cover up for something else.”

When I probe her for the causes of binge eating disorder she’s keen to stress the myriad ways her clients report dysfunctional food behaviours. “People overeat for all sorts of reasons,” she says. They eat to punish themselves, they eat for rebellion; they eat to confirm what other people think of them. It could go back to early family dynamics, people might have been given a reward of a packet of crisps to a child when they’re crying. No one episode is the same as another. Until you get an understanding of what is motivating your food habits, you’ll be going around in circles.”

I ask Dr. Kimmond whether these feelings of shame and guilt surrounding overeating could actually stem from a deeper societal fear of being overweight? In a society that still seems largely convinced that thinner is better, could there be a morality encoded in overeating, beyond my personal lack of control? She says, “Generally speaking we live in a society that treats overweight people as fat and lazy. We have a great many more obese people in the country, but there is still a feeling that bigger is bad. I think it comes back to the notion that we praise thinness over being overweight and thinner people are thought to be of a higher moral character.”

I tell Dr. Kimmond that when I am eating I do sometimes feel a little bit crackers, but I am no good at stopping. I tell her about a recent episode where I cooked a lasagne and ate the entire dish unceremoniously standing over to the sink. She says, “You need to talk to somebody who can help you develop strategies to address that. If you feel you are out of control of your eating, and it sounds like there are issues underneath that are encouraging you to behave this way, then you could speak to a counsellor.”

If you are worried about disordered eating habits, charity B-eat have plenty of info on their website.

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