You've just had a fight with your husband or mother. You head for the refrigerator and stick your spoon into a half-gallon of ice cream. Next thing you know, the ice cream is gone, and so is the cake that went with it.
So is everything else in the fridge. You've even licked the jar of chutney clean. Suddenly you find yourself en route to the supermarket for more. What's going on?
You're having an episode of binge eating—a bout of uncontrollable consumption driven by at least three emotions: depression, anger, and anxiety.
"When you're bingeing, you're out of control," says Dori Winchell, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Encinitas, California. "It's not so much the amount or what you eat, but what it feels like. Is the food in control? After the first bite, can you stop?" If the answer is no, you're on an eating binge.
It's a vicious circle. You feel depressed, anxious, and angry, so you binge. Then you feel depressed, anxious, and angry about bingeing and despair of ever being able to stop. So you binge again, Dr. Winchell says.
Bingeing also can be triggered by starvation diets, says Jan McBarron, MD, a weight control specialist and director of Georgia Bariatrics in Columbus, Georgia. Living on small salads and water during the day, deprived physically and psychologically of sustenance, some women run amok in the kitchen at night. They try to fill the nutrition gap by eating everything in the house.
"Binge eating is a psychological disorder that usually has much deeper roots than a simple food craving," says Mary Ellen Sweeney, MD, obesity researcher at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
"Binge eating is literally stuffing feelings down," says Mary Froning, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC. As long as we're eating, we don't have to deal with feelings such as anger,anxiety, or depression, say doctors.
Stave off nighttime binges. On its simplest level, binge eating at night is often brought on by starving all day, says Susan Zelitch Yanovski, MD, director of the Obesity and Eating Disorders Program at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. "Eat a sensible breakfast and lunch, and you're less likely to clean out your refrigerator at night," Dr. Yanovski says.
Do something. "Take your mind away from your forbidden food by focusing on something that takes all your concentration, like the Sunday crossword puzzle," Dr. Winchell says. "Once your mind is engaged in a task that you enjoy and must pay attention to, you're less likely to be fixated on food."
Wait. If you feel the urge to binge, set the kitchen timer for 15 minutes and try to figure out what's going on, Dr. Froning says. "Is anger or depression or anxiety making you want to stuff yourself with candy bars? If so, try to figure out why you feel so upset."
Ask for help. Women almost always binge alone. With friends, you'd be able to talk out your feelings instead of eating them away. "So if you're feeling down and you're about to raid the refrigerator, call a friend first," Dr. Froning says.
Forgive yourself. You didn't start bingeing overnight, and you won't be able to stop that quickly either, says Dr. Froning. Each small step that you take away from bingeing will help you feel better about yourself, but it can take a few years to change your behavior completely. "Forgive yourself in advance for slip-ups. And just remember: To succeed, the trick is to try and try again," Dr. Froning says.
Stop while you're ahead. You couldn't help yourself. You stopped at the mall and bought a 5-pound box of chocolates. Now you and the chocolates are home alone.
"Throw them out," says Elizabeth Somer, RD. And while you're at it, take a walk or call a friend so that you can think about something else. "Too late? Already ate half the box? Throw out the rest," says Somer.
Savor something spicy. "Hard as you try, you just can't binge on chili peppers and Tabasco sauce," says Maria Simonson, ScD, PhD, director of the Health, Weight, and Stress Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. In fact, spicy foods fill you up faster than bland or sweet foods, and they may even help burn calories faster.
Record your indulgences. Even if you've just eaten the whole box of goodies, it's not too late to do something about the binge, says Somer. Write down what triggered the binge, so that you can figure out what to do differently next time.
See a professional. If you feel you are a binge eater who can't stop, see a doctor or counselor trained in eating disorders. To locate qualified professional help in your area, contact:
American Society of Bariatric Physicians
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia