How to help a loved one with binge eating disorder

Eating in secret can be one of the signs of binge eating disorder.
Eating in secret can be one of the signs of binge eating disorder.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a recognised eating disorder, often disregarded because of our mistaken belief that if someone’s eating and not underweight, they’re not suffering from an eating disorder. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

BED is defined as the consumption of an abnormally large quantity of food over a discrete period of time, according to a previous Health24 article.

It can be as serious as anorexia or bulimia and have far-reaching effects on one's body and overall health.

According to Eating Disorder Hope, exact statistics on eating disorders in South Africa are scant since there has been little research on the topic – and there is also not much awareness about binge eating.

Secretive behaviour

Binge eating disorders are often misunderstood as nothing more than a lack of willpower or discipline. This misconception may prevent many children and adults from seeking proper help for this disorder. It can also be fairly hard to diagnose binge eating disorder due to the secretive behaviour of people who suffer – they may deny binge episodes and hide food or evidence of a binge.

Not all people suffering from binge eating disorder will necessarily be overweight – some of them will purge afterwards or exercise excessively to keep the weight off.

How do you know if a loved one is suffering?

There is a difference between overeating and binge eating. While one can occasionally overindulge, binge eating is a regular pattern. According to dietitian Dr Ingrid van Heerden, three or more of these symptoms will be present in a binge eater:

  • Two or more binge episodes per week over a period of six months
  • Poor control over eating habits
  • Eating faster than normal
  • Preferring to eat alone, or lying about eating to avoid embarrassment
  • Going to great lengths to hide the evidence of a binge like hiding wrappers, containers and till slips
  • Eating up to the point of discomfort
  • Feeling guilty, depressed or disgusted after eating
  • Exercising or purging after eating 

How you can help

1. Educate yourself

The first step towards any treatment plan is to inform yourself about binge eating disorder and to get rid of misconceptions. According to research, parents and family members are often more willing to help when they understand the psychological factors behind binge eating.

doing research online

2. Avoid the topic of food or weight

It might be difficult to avoid these topics, but it’s important to help your family member, child or friend focus on things other than food. The subjects of food and weight can trigger the emotions that may cause the person to binge.

parent talking to her daughter

3. Understand the triggers

The emotional triggers that can cause a binge eating episode differ from person to person. For some people it might be stressful situations or anxiety, for others it might be depression or feelings of despair or worthlessness. Try to help the person understand why a binge episode occurs and what emotions are triggers.

woman stress-eating at her desk

4. Focus on things other than food

Encourage activities that have nothing to do with food or kilojoules. Instead of going to the gym, choose fun outdoor activities that still involve exercise, but without the obsession to burn off food. Encourage exercise for enjoyment and not as a punishment for eating. Choose things like going to an art gallery or a museum instead of eating out.

mother and daughter walking

5. Encourage the person to get professional help

Encourage a binge eater to see a therapist or find a treatment programme. Sites such as Eating Disorders South Africa (EDSA) or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) offer valuable resources and contact numbers. 


Image credits: iStock

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