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Monday, May 2, 2011

Anatomy of a Binge

Before I begin this post, I’d like to make one thing perfectly clear. I love myself. My weight does not diminish my appreciation of my beauty, my character, my intelligence, or my abilities. This post is for those of us who -- even though we value ourselves no matter what our size – see the connection between binge eating and our weight, and may not want to get any larger for various reasons.

Many large people have a problem with binge eating, and many large people would probably pinpoint it as the primary cause of their “weight problem”. Binge eating disorder is extremely common, and it’s not exclusive to large people. Many thin people binge as well, but due to their genetics or metabolism, it’s not readily visible. We all know someone who can eat like a horse and still look like a toothpick. For some of us, however, it seems that all we have to do is look at food and we gain weight.

What triggers a binge? Something happens. Maybe someone says something that upsets you, and it stays in your mind all day. Perhaps you have a nasty argument with your significant other, a family member, or a friend. Something you have been looking forward to or envisioning a certain way doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would. You might just have a horribly stressful day at work, or perhaps you’re a student and a grueling exam is coming up. A lot of the time, we don’t even know precisely what it is that triggers a binge. All we know is that something unpleasant is going on in our heads, and the only way we can get rid of the discomfort is to eat.

An alcoholic in a similar situation would head for the bottle, the drug addict for their drug of choice. Why do we choose food?

There are many factors, and everyone has their own unique psychological reasons. However, food universally symbolizes comfort. When a baby is born, one of the first things that happens is that mommy puts baby to her breast. When baby is crying, few things can quiet baby down like the comfort of that nurturing breast. That’s where the association of food and comfort begins. 

Binging is a very effective method of distracting us from our problems, for one main reason. Your subconscious mind can handle a multitude of different tasks automatically -- physiological functions such as breathing, your heart rate, etc. However, your conscious mind is very different. It can only handle one function at a time – such as eating, or thinking about a particular problem. That’s why binging temporarily takes the “edge” off your discomfort and numbs it. However, as soon as a binge is over and the thoughts return, you begin to think about what you just did. That’s when all the guilt and shame flood in, and you start to beat yourself up. How many times have you found yourself thinking something like, “Why did I just eat that cake/ice cream/chocolate (insert binge food here) when I wasn’t even hungry?” By then, of course, it’s too late. Unless you’re bulimic and decide to purge (which is another complication to the problem), or work out like a maniac, you’re stuck with those calories you just ingested.

It’s not so bad if you only do this occasionally, and everyone does, to some extent. If you binge on a regular basis, however, that’s when it can become a real problem. That’s when you can really start to gain a significant amount of weight.

I remember so many situations that led me to binge. One particular event that’s always stuck in my mind took place many years ago. I was a regular contributor for a magazine at the time, and I was a favourite of the publisher. He seemed really worldly and intelligent, and struck me as quite sexy. I was interested. So we flirted back and forth quite a bit. He was in Alberta, and I was in Toronto, so all our communication had either been by letter or phone. Then he wrote to let me know that he was coming to Toronto on business and would I like to get together for a drink? Naturally, I said yes. I was dying to meet him, and I was hoping it would lead to a more personal relationship. (The long distance factor didn’t even enter into my mind at that point.) I had my reservations, though. As I said, he seemed worldly and sophisticated, and I was a fat chick – a very cute one, but still fat.  I’d been through enough disappointments with men in the past to know that I needed to be leery. But I decided I was going to meet him anyway, and see what happened. No harm in that, right?  

Yeah, right.

When the fateful day of our meeting arrived, I must have spent two or three hours getting ready and making sure I looked just right. We had arranged to meet at a mall downtown, and when I got there, I spotted him first (he told me he’d be carrying a particular briefcase). I took a deep breath, got ready, and approached him. And you know that moment – that awful moment – when you meet someone for the first time and they look at you -- and you just KNOW in the microsecond that your eyes meet – that there is no way in hell it is ever going to work? Well, that is exactly what happened when I stood there in front of him, and even though he smiled and acted friendly, I just knew … no fucking way was this ever going to get any more personal. So, we went and had this drink and barely made conversation. I guess we were both extremely disappointed, for different reasons. When we parted ways soon afterward, I headed back for the subway, and before I even got on the train I was already planning what I was going to eat when I got home. I had bought broccoli and chicken breasts for dinner, and I decided I was going to make pasta when I got home, which I did. When I ate it, I barely tasted it, but I had plate after plate. I just wanted to forget, or change what had happened, and I knew I couldn’t. It’s that feeling of powerlessness … the feeling of a reality that you just don’t want to face slamming you in the chest. I couldn’t cry. All I could do was eat.

(Notice that I didn’t binge on junk food in this instance, although I definitely have in the past. One reason that junk food is the perfect binge food is that it’s so convenient and instantaneous – you just rip open the package and go.)

The most ironic thing of all about that day was that there were two different guys I crossed paths with who openly gawked at me and flirted with me. One of them was a bus driver who chatted with me, and the other was a guy who crossed paths with me in a subway station. It was obvious to me that both of these men thought me attractive and would have absolutely no objection to getting to know me better, but did that help me out one bit? Not in the least. It meant nothing, because all I could think about was this man who didn’t want me. He was foremost in my mind, not them.

When I look back on this incident today, with the benefit of hindsight and perspective, I can recognize all of the factors that led me to that downward spiral of the binge – and it’s the same with any binge, regardless of the trigger:

1. Expectation of a Certain Outcome – even though I told myself I wasn’t expecting my dream to come true, I was still hoping that it would, and relying on that outcome. When it didn’t happen the way I wanted it to … downward spiral.

2. Focus on the Negative, Ignoring the Positive – I crossed paths with a couple of other men who did find me attractive, but I completely discounted it and ignored it. Who knows if that bus driver or guy at the subway station might have been great for me? I was so focused on what I thought I wanted, I’d cut them off before even giving them a chance.

3. Feeling Like You Can't Stand the Negative Feelings – the pain and disappointment were so great that all I wanted to do was avoid them, therefore … the binge. If I had just been able to sit tight and think about it, I would have realized it wasn’t such a tragedy. This guy wasn’t the be-all end-all of my romantic life! As a matter of fact, I’d learned that he was a superficial asshole! Pretty important information! How is that a loss?

Life is unpredictable and full of challenges. Things are not always going to work out the way we want them to … and that’s okay. One phrase that has always made me feel better when situations like this occur is:

If not this … something better.

There are so many aspects to any given situation. Nothing is ever 100% negative or 100% positive. When something negative happens, we need to really think about it and ask ourselves what portion of the situation is positive. Once you find it, focus on that instead. Staying focused on the negative will only foster more negativity in your life.

Do your utmost to stop fearing your negative emotions, whatever they are. They will not kill you, and they won’t last forever. If you can just be aware that this particular feeling, or combination of feelings, is what is driving you to the food, then you are one step ahead. 


  1. Found you on CL. Nice post. I totally get that, being a binge-eater myself. Will keep reading.


  2. i binge because im bored i feel bad about something or just to stop thinking its also habitual...ive trained myself to eat at a certain time or times of day whether im hungry or not...snack time i call it i need a snack whats for a snack im dying for a snack

    richey edwards of manic street preachers said he drank because he couldnt sleep if he had a thought in his head he couldnt get it out he would obsess about it for days... he also cut himself put out cigarettes on himself and didnt eat...he disappered without trace in feb 1995 and was declared dead last year after 15 years

  3. See ... everyone has their own particular way of dealing with stressful thoughts or emotions. It's just that on us, our way of dealing with it is physically visible. People can hide alchoholism for a very long time, they can wear long sleeves if they cut themselves ... but we can't hide. That's one of the things that bothers me about being a large woman. People automatically assume, just by looking at me, that they have all the answers for me: This is what you need to do, this is how you should be. Meanwhile, they have no clue who I am or what I am about. It pisses me off.