I read once that "binge eating" was a "masturbatory activity". Being well versed in both pursuits, I can see what the writer was getting at.
What I'm going to be talking about here isn't "binge eating" in its recent high-jacked definition, where half a brownie is considered a "sin". No, I'm talking about the mental illness. The one that eating disorder charity Beat describes as when “people experience a loss of control and overeat on a regular basis”. I can now discuss this comfortably, having emerged from the other side after years as a victim of the disorder.
I've always been an all-or-nothing kind of girl, whether that be getting 16 piercings within the space of six months, dyeing my hair every repugnant shade I could afford, or eating a whole pack of digestive biscuits with just one cup of tea. Throughout my life I’d compulsively binged on a variety of my pleasures, unaware of the knife-edge I'd been dancing along – until food became my obsession.
Beat adds that such uncontrollable binges are usually planned like a “ritual”, can involve the person buying "special" binge foods and generally take place in private. I can't put a number on all the dates, birthdays, cinema trips and nights out I’ve bailed on so that I could stay at home fondling the contents of a sharing (haha!) bag of Doritos instead.
Bulimia and binge eating quickly became my emotional cushions. A typical binge of, say, two large pizzas, three bowls of sugary cereal, two sharing bars of Milkybar chocolate and a huge bowl of plain pasta with butter and cheese (all consumed in one night) would leave my stomach hard and bulging – the perfect distraction from the demons elsewhere in my life. As Nigel Slater writes in his book Toast: “You can’t smell a hug. You can’t hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding”.
To say you've "binged" after a perfectly typical meal affirms the idea that you mustn't enjoy your food without a side helping of guilt.
It takes a lot to rattle my cage normally, but one thing that narks me is the use of the word "binge" when discussing perfectly normal eating habits. Let's take The Body Coach, otherwise known as Joe Wicks, who in a video entitled Help! I’ve had a mega binge, admitted to his 2.5 million followers that he’d eaten sugar on his holiday. I mean, yes, I imagine his hair is probably quite soft, your mum likes him a lot and he smells like a Yankee candle, but isn’t it rather dangerous to suggest that drinking Fanta on holiday is a behaviour that needs correcting?
Let’s also discuss Kayla Itsines' – who is famous for her at-home workout videos and Bikini Body Guide (BBG) – take on bingeing. One post on her website, under the headline How To Bounce Back From A Binge! reads: “We have all been there! Whether it is reaching out for one too many mini hot dogs at a party or somehow eating that entire bag of Doritos instead of just a few chips.” A whole extra mini hot dog! Heavens! Imagine if Kayla could see the contents of my binges; I’d surely be banished from the BBG club to a life of love handles, cellulite and misery.
We all know that eating too much of one thing until you physically cannot stand up isn’t good for you – that’s common sense. When we're born we have a natural instinct to eat when we're hungry and to stop when we are full, a skill we appear to have lost through a relatively new, unapologetically authoritarian approach to food. I believe the main problem lies in the words we use to talk about food and, in particular, how some popular internet health gurus freely promote restriction and guilt. Sure, we've given “clean eating” a right pummelling recently, but that is but one layer of the onion.
To say you've "binged" after a perfectly typical meal affirms the idea that you mustn't enjoy your food without a side helping of guilt. However, I am the perfect example of how enjoyable life can become once you relax around food – something I have only been able to do since setting up the website Not Plant Based, which is a source of reliable health, food and fitness information for troubled eaters. Trust me, once you do find comfort in eating only what you want, the likelihood is that the temptation to "binge" will soon subside.
A binge to me nowadays is more likely to involve four seasons of Peep Show in bed on a Sunday afternoon, which is a world away from my teenage years. Given my track record, I often wonder what I'd say to the late gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in response to his quote: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”. I think I'd say that I'm all my mistakes, I am all my feats and I am a giant fuck-off slice of chocolate cheesecake.