Obesity, Binge Eating, and Fooling Ourselves

Sister Eating Big Sandwich

Camille Noe Pagan specializes in writing about health and nutrition, and also likes to bake, so it’s no surprise that she took an interest in a study conducted by McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School on the topic of eating disorders. Pagan talked with the study’s lead author, Dr. James I. Hudson, who is associated with both institutions, and who believes the study should lead to the recognition of binge-eating disorder, or BED, as an official disorder.

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by sporadic episodes of eating a lot, in a short period of time, combined with the sensation of being the pawn of an ungovernable force. If you binge-eat once a week, it’s a bad sign. Uncontrolled bingeing twice a week or more, that goes on for six months, is a giant red flag. Pagan says,

Other signs of trouble include eating excessive amounts of food until you feel uncomfortably full, feeling like you can’t stop eating, hiding food or eating alone, feeling ashamed about your eating habits, and feeling that your eating habits are interfering with your social or work life.

An interesting detail is that some binge eaters don’t get fat. Some “make up for” binges by eating very frugally the rest of the time, to find a crude kind of balance and maintain normal weight. This can backfire — and usually does — because the enforced hunger is just as likely to trigger another binge.

The reason we are interested, of course, is because binge-eating can definitely lead to obesity. This is true of both children and adults, and the binge-eating habit runs in families. There may be genetic reasons for this, which other researchers are currently looking into.

There are undoubtedly psychological reasons. Adults who are stressed or depressed tend to raise children who are stressed or depressed. If the adults react to these conditions by self-medicating with massive quantities of food, the kids in the household will learn to do the same. Instinct has a lot to do with it. Just like baby animals, baby humans are programmed to watch their parents and imitate them. This is a very important survival trait, but sometimes it can lead the young astray.

The McLean/Harvard study indicates that, like other eating disorders, BED more often afflicts women. In anorexia, the person engages in self-starvation, may have a real aversion toward food, and gets very thin. The bulimic loves food and eats a lot of it, then reverses the process by vomiting. The researchers found that BED is much more common than anorexia and bulimia put together.

This is meaningful. When we talk about the food addiction paradigm, and the need to do something drastic about the childhood obesity epidemic, one of the objections that comes up goes something like this: “If you make kids feel bad about their weight, it sends them into anorexia and bulimia.”

Maybe so, but since obesity is much more widespread, it’s more of a priority. Also, anorexia doesn’t last as long — usually less than two years — while binge eating can be a lifelong occupation. And, basically, the same information about healthful eating patterns is true for all.

Pagan suggests regular exercise, meditation or other relaxation practices, and eating small, balanced meals. Cognitive behavior therapy can help, too. It’s about identifying the thought process that leads to binge-eating behavior. That strikes a chord. Did you ever have a thought process like this? “As long as I’m messing up the kitchen and getting the frying pan dirty, might as well go ahead and cook up a BIG mess of fried potatoes.” How about this one? “The kids don’t like lemon cake anyway, but I hate to see it go to waste. Might as well finish the whole thing.” The stories we tell ourselves and the excuses we make for ourselves can be very creative.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “When You Can’t Stop Eating,” MyLifetime
Image by Randy Son of Robert, used under its Creative Commons license.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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