Food is an integral part of who we are and a necessity for survival. Providing us with the right nutrients, it contributes to us functioning optimally. At the start of the week, we often have good intentions of getting this right - eating nutrient dense, real foods. By the weekend, our good intentions tend to falter for different reasons; maybe it's the end of a stressful week, we are socialising more, celebrating events, living a life of balance and having an indulgent meal which turns into an excessive food weekend, have restricted our food intake during the week or are, simply, bored.
Overindulging on food on occasion isn't a cause for concern. However, because of the effect it has on the body it does become worrying if it occurs at least on a weekly basis, in the form of a binge episode.
During these sessions, sometimes done alone, you may notice you eat faster than normal until feeling uncomfortably full. It usually involves large quantities of food although you’re not feeling hungry and you may feel guilty, depressed or upset with yourself afterwards. This is known as a binge eating disorder and it is worth speaking to your healthcare professional about it.
Binge eating often happens because of a mental or traumatic issue and once this is addressed, either through self-help, support groups, talking therapy or as a last resort, medication, it can be controlled well.
When we binge eat, our bodies go through both physical and mental changes. Here are a few of them.
In the first instance, the large amount of food ingested can make us very bloated and develop abdominal discomfort. If this becomes sudden, sharp and severe, it requires urgent attention.
The swelling of our abdomen can cause pressure upwards, making us feel breathless as our lungs don’t have enough space for us to breathe normally. Binge eating often involves unhealthy, junk food with very little fibre. This can lead to even more bloating and constipation.
Binge eating can cause the stomach to be full of food, leading to pressure on the sphincter (lock) at the bottom of the gullet and it relaxes and can open up. This lock usually stops food from coming back up or regurgitating.
Once it opens up, you can get a burning sensation all the way to the throat and some food particles or liquid in our mouths. For some, it can cause them to vomit. Recurrent episodes of this can be a form of bulimia and can in the long-run affect our teeth, gums and jaw.
This heartburn can also cause inflammation which can cause long-term damage. Refraining from binge eating and getting this treated early on is very important.
While changes in hormones made in the ovaries (oestrogen and progesterone), the ‘hunger’ hormones (ghrelin and leptin) and the 'stress' hormone (cortisol) have been linked to episodes of binge eating, the foods consumed can also affect other hormones such as insulin. This is because the binge is often on foods that cause our blood sugar levels to spike, triggering a sharp rise in insulin so the excess sugar can be absorbed and potentially stored as fat. This can result in fluctuating energy levels, fatigue, tiredness and a signal to your brain to eat more. Long-term, obesity can set in and conditions such as diabetes can occur.
Binge eating is a rate limiter when it comes to losing weight - whether overweight or maintaining our weight. The cycle of eating a balanced diet during the week and then binge eating at the weekend usually involves consuming a lot more empty, low nutritional value calories than required.
A lot of people find they lose weight steadily from Monday to Friday and by the following Monday morning, their weight has gone up and is usually more than the previous week. People tend to have less of a routine, socialise more and potentially consume more alcohol at the weekends. In order to maintain or lose weight if needed, lifelong consistency and being mindful of our eating and exercise habits is vital.
Eating ‘clean’ during the week is great as long as it can continue into the weekend and consists of sufficient nutrient dense calories. Depending on your lifestyle, it is important to be aware of adequate portion sizes of fruits and vegetables and good sources of protein and complex carbohydrates to ensure you do not develop a nutritional deficiency.
This is even more important if you exercise with moderate to high intensity regularly. The risk of undernourishment can be similar if you binge eat on high energy foods with no nutritional value. Always check the label.
One cannot highlight enough the effects of undereating. From feeling dizzy to being breathless and weak, to the long-term effects on the skin (such as early skin ageing), heart and bones (osteoporosis, i.e. thinning of the bones which can be painful), these are just some of the consequences of an inadequately balanced diet. Please seek medical advice should these symptoms occur.
Anxiety and low mood
After binge eating, people tend to feel bad. A lot of people are concerned about their weight and the binge episodes make them anxious, worried and sad that they aren't reaching their weight loss goals. It can become a vicious cycle as going on a diet during the week and restricting food then triggers another binge episode resulting in anxiety and remorse afterwards.
Easier said than done, but try not to feel bad after a binge or compensate by over-exercising or restricting/skipping your next meal. These reactions tend to contribute to the risk of having another binge episode in the future.
If you are concerned about eating disorders for yourself or someone else, help is available. Please speak to your Doctor. You can also visit the UK leading charity on eating disorders - Beat .