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December 31, 2016
By Susan Callahan, Contributing Columnist
Sir William Osler, the Canadian doctor who co-founded
Johns Hopkins University, once wrote that "The glutton
digs his own grave with his teeth".
I was reminded of this quote two years ago when I made
a surprising discovery. I was hosting an old friend I had
not seen in two years in a house we had rented at the
beach for some weeks in the summer.
My old friend, whom I will call "Jim", is an interior
decorator by trade. Jim had always been very fashionable
man who took great care about his appearance, so it was a
shock when I saw him for the first time in two years. He
had become obese. The once-trim waistline was gone. He
seemed almost "trapped" in his new severely overweight
body. "Too many beers", he joked when he first arrived,
as if to answer the unspoken question of what had
happened to him.
Anyway, a week into the vacation, Jim had volunteered to
make a dinner for the 4 of us. My husband and I went off
to the beach, intending to come back in time for dinner at
5:30. But the sun made us lazy and we wandered back
home closer to 5:45 PM, about 15 minutes late.
When we opened the door, we saw a sight that shocked
Jim and his boyfriend were standing up at the kitchen
counter, literally shoveling food into their mouths. We
must have startled them, judging by Jim's expression.
They had not heard us coming in. They had been so deep
into their food that they had not even heard the key turn
in the lock when I entered.
Who stands up at a counter top when they eat? I had
never seen anything like this and the sight disturbed me.
The dinner which Jim had made for the 4 of us, was
completely gone. He and his boyfriend had eaten it all.
Embarrassed, Jim hastily scraped together a substitute
dinner of sandwiches. Later, in a quiet moment after the
others had gone to bed, Jim confided in me that he had
been binge-eating for two years.
What had made him start to binge eat? What causes binge
eating in general? Are there strategies that help to control
The Brain-Stomach Connection That Controls Our Appetite
Eating normal portions of food involves a coordination of
brain signals exchanged between your stomach and your
The problem is that our biology gives us a fast brain and a
After you eat a meal, it takes between 20 to 40 minutes
before your stomach registers that you are full. It does
this by sensing the distension of your stomach pouch.
When it is empty, your stomach pouch is about the size of
your fist. It is elastic, so it can stretch to almost twice its
With practice, we humans can gradually stretch the sizes
of our stomachs. That is why Joey Chestnut, the hot dog
eating contest champion, can wolf down 70 hot dogs] in
about 10 minutes without vomiting.
How Common Is Binge Eating?
Binge eating among men is a growing phenomenon.
Celebrities too, such as Rob Kardashian and the late pop
legend George Michael, have struggled with severe obesity.
Binge eating affects 3.5% of women and 2.0% of all men,
according to a 2007 study from Harvard Medical School
and Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, McLean Hospital.
About 25% of those who are obese are binge eaters.
That makes binge eating the most common eating disorder
in the US.
Contrary to popular notions of "gluttony" as an over-
indulgence in pleasurable eating, binge eating brings no
pleasure to its sufferers.
Binge eaters eat beyond the need for nourishment, beyond
the limits of "fullness" signalled by the stomach and
Binge eating is defined as an eating disorder by the
American Psychiatric Association in the DSM-5, its official
code of psychiatric disorders, as "Recurrent episodes of
binge eating characterized by both consuming an
abnormally large amount of food in a short period of time
compared with what others might eat in the same amount
of time under the same or similar circumstances and
experiencing a loss of control over eating during the
In addition, to be "binge eating" , at least three of the
following things must occur. The person must
Strategies to Stop Binge Eating
We have collected the strategies from medical studies that
have proved effective in curbing and in some cases,
stopping binge eating.
Meditation Can Help Control Binge Eating
In 1999, scientists from Indiana State University
conducted a study of binge eating. The study, led by Dr.
Jean Kristeller and and Dr. C. Brendan Hallet, looked at
how meditation affected the binge eating of 18 obese
women between the ages of 25 to 62.
After 6 weeks of meditation training, the number of binge
episodes decreased by more than 50% from 4 per week to
1.57 per week. And, the number of "large " binges
decreased by 70%.
Meditation and mindfulness helped to make the binge
eaters more aware of body signals and helped them better
integrate emotional and physical controls, the scientists
Meditation and mindfulness also reduce the feelings of
panic that often accompany binge eating.
How do you begin to meditate? One simple way to
meditate is to sit quietly and to focus on your breathing,
becoming aware of the air as it moves into your nose, into
your lungs and then out your mouth as you exhale.
Taking just 5 minutes in the morning and at night to
breath consciously is a first step toward greater tranquility
and body awareness. As you learn to relax more as you
breathe, you will find that your meditation time will
You don't need special clothes to begin meditation. You
don't need a yoga mat. Just sit comfortably, quietly, relax,
Over time, you will learn to meditate whenever you need it.
You will be able to meditate before you begin to eat and
after you eat. Thanking your body for taking in the food
you need to survive also helps. It begins to awaken your
awareness that your body has a need for only so much
food and to overfeed it is to disturb its balance.
Forgive Yourself More and Blame Yourself Less
Studies have found that binge eaters tend to be
perfectionists. This is the personality trait that tends to
distinguish them from other people who are obese but
who do not binge.
If you are a perfectionist, it is probably a personality trait
you have had for years before you started binge eating, so
it will not be easy to just discard it.
But here is one way to start. Get messy. Perfectionism
tends to travel with its fellow companions of "neat
freakism" and, sometimes obsessiveness and
compulsiveness. Start slowly. Perhaps take up painting as
a hobby. Maybe start playing touch football. Anything that
requires that you get messy sometimes.
Getting messy more often will start, slowly, to help you
relax about standards of perfection.
Another strategy is to say to yourself several times a day
"I am alright just as I am". This simple affirmation,
repeated enough times, helps to re-train your internal
dialogue you have with yourself, from super judgmental to
Treat Loneliness with Socializing, not Food
If you eat compulsively out of fear of being alone should
plan ahead to fill their social calenders.
Loneliness is horrible. We humans are social animals, not
lone wolves. We are built to be around each other. In fact,
social isolation is a punishment used by prisons all over the
world for one reason --it works. Social isolation literally is
Don't Go Cold-Turkey and Overly Restrict Your Access to
Sugars and Fats
Binge eaters tend to binge on foods that are high in sugar
and fat. As one study noted, people rarely binge on
vegetables. Binge eaters often choose starchy snacks such
as potato chips or desserts such as chocolate or cakes an
cookies or cinnamon buns.
Why is that? The reason, it turns out, has to do with the
chemical "dopamine". Dopamine is a neurochemical
produced in your brain which controls your pleasure
Realizing that they have a "weakness" for desserts or
snacks, binge eaters often adopt a strategy of "restricting"
their access to these "binge triggers". Thus, during a non-
binge period, they eat absolutely no potato chips. But
when the binge is "on", they can consume 10,000 calories
of potato chips in one giant binge. Then, racked with
disgust, they go back to cold-turkey.
A 2010 study led by Dr. Nicholas Bello Johns Hopkins
University School of Medicine suggests that maybe that is
exactly the wrong thing to do.
Restricting your access to zero apparently weakens your
body's ability to regulate dopamine's affect on your
pleasure centers. As a result, after a period of cold-turkey
like resistance, you return to the next binge with less self
control rather than more.
A 1998 study from The Pennsylvania State University
showed that restricting access to our favorite binge foods
actually may make us eat more. The study on lab rats
found that those who were restricted toe eating high fat
foods to just 1 to 2 hours a day, saw their consumption of
fat increase significantly.
As the study noted, "restricting access to an optional high-
fat food, even under nonenergy-deprived conditions, can
promote significant increases in the consumption of that
food when it subsequently becomes available."
Here, the better strategy is to eat a little of what you may
binge on. If you love snacks, indulge a bit. If you love
chocolate, indulge a bit. Never get into that feeling of self-
deprivation. It's self-defeating and will lead to binge eating.
Practicing Self-Acceptance Is the Key?
The scientists don't know exactly how to break this cycle
but they have some clues.
One big key is self-acceptance.
You are not a bad person because you binge eat. You are a
one of many along the spectrum of human possibilities
who is now in the process of becoming a non-binger.
You are not a failure because you are obese. Today is
simply one snapshot of 365 snapshots of where "you" are
in your journey and who you are this year. You are one of
many people who is in the process of transition from a
body weight that is too heavy at the moment to a body
weight that is more comfortable.
Yes, you are heavier than you would like to be at this
moment. But so what? So what, really? You are in the
middle of a transforming journey and, like all journeys, it
has a beginning, a middle and an end. All you need to do
is look around and enjoy the scenery as you wander
through the woods. No one is counting how many
mushrooms you eat along the way.
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|Binge eating is now the most common
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