Loneliness & Binge Eating

What does it mean to “binge eat”? Basically, it’s eating a lot of food at once, really quickly. Sometimes the person doesn’t even realize that they are “binging” at the time. Afterwards, they may feel depressed or guilty.

It’s funny because I’ve had down on my calendar to write about the link between being lonely or sad and binge eating on this very Wednesday for at least a month. And before I sat down to write today, I ate a whole bag of smoked paprika hand-cooked potato chips and a bowl of leftovers in the fridge. That was after lunch. Then I commenced to drive to the mall and grab a mocha frappuccino from Starbucks. And, although, I thought about each one and decided that they were okay for me today, it brought me back to some of my very worst binge-eating days.

Loneliness (9)

And in the past ten minutes, I have seriously considered trying another blog post to write today because of that. But, kind of like our post on Monday, it seems like the right day to write about this tricky subject. 🙂

Binge eating.

When you think of the term, what do you picture? I’m trying to ask myself the same question. I know what it looks like in my life, but I think that before I started binge-eating, I thought of it as an eating disorder, but one that was accompanied by purging – bulimia, in effect. But, that is simply not always the case. In fact, BED (Binge Eating Disorder) has just in the last three years become recognized as a diagnosable on its own rather than under EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

I want to talk more about it as a disorder next month (September 7 on my calendar right now), but today let’s just try and understand why it happens to every day people like you and me. Why do we get these massive cravings for fatty foods, sugary sweets, salty fries, or whatever else you may lose control over? And is it really emotional eating? Does it happen to everyone?

Coming from the States and the American diet, I’m willing to bet that almost all of us have binged at some time or another. We eat a gallon of ice cream after a breakup – or a box of Twinkies when we fail a class or have a fight with someone we love.

Studies show that loneliness affects our bodies, and we’ve talked about that some in our loneliness series. It affects the way we respond and cope with basic elements of life. Some of the more complex ways our brain works can “go haywire when our sense of belonging takes a hit” (Cacioppo 35). So, the following real-life study makes a lot of sense: Psychologists randomly divided up into three groups. One group was made to feel that they would be alone at the end of their life, another was told something unrelated, and another group was made to feel they would lead a normal, happy life, surrounded by friends and family. The group that believed that they would be alone in the future showed impairment in executive functioning whereas the other two groups did not. Basic ability remained close to the same. Executive functioning in the brain relates to attentional and inhibitory control – our attention span as well as the control of what you’re doing and how to make it happen. The processes to make things happen (from deciding, planning, organizing and finishing a task) or not is affected by loneliness. It affects our self-control.

But here’s the kicker: They put all three groups, one individual at a time, into a room with a bowl filled with 35 cookies. It was framed as a “taste test” and they were told to eat as many cookies as they needed in order to give a proper analysis of the cookie. The members of the alone group ate an average of about TWICE AS MANY cookies as the members of the other two groups (Cacioppo 43).

The people made to feel isolated, alone, and just sad ate a great deal more cookies than the others. I find what Cacioppo (the “loneliness” psychologist) says here really hits home:

 “Is it any wonder that we turn to ice cream or other fatty foods when we’re sitting at home feeling all alone in the world? We want to soothe the pain we feel by mainlining sugar and fat content to the pleasure centers of the brain, and, absent self-control, we go right at it. This loss of executive function also helps explain the oft observed tendency of rejected lovers to do things they later regret” (Cacioppo 43-44).

In another study, this time with older adults, studies showed that for each point different on UCLA’s Loneliness Scale, the older adults had an intake of about 2.56% more fat calories (Cacioppo 45).

I’ve heard it called emotional eating. Sometimes it’s not even binging. But, it’s fascinating that it happens when we’re sad. In fact, you might be getting sad reading this post because you just can’t stop eating. Many of us have been there. And just like with being lonely, you are not alone.

Ask yourself these questions:

 

How do I feel before I binge? If you feel in-control and have made a conscious decision, then fine. But if you lose control, you won’t feel good afterward. Once, I ate a whole lot of tiramisu that my friend made. And, I’m not gonna lie, I made that decision and I did not regret it. I felt good before, and mostly good after. But the majority of the time that I go overboard, I don’t feel good beforehand or afterward.

 

How does binging make me feel? If it makes you feel good – physically, mentally, and emotionally – then good! If it makes you feel sick, sad, guilty, depressed, or bloated, then maybe it’s not so good. I hope that next month’s posts will be able to help you. I wanted help when I was at my worst.

 

How can I make good decisions about what I eat? We don’t have to eat carrots and only carrots every day. I’m learning that. But, we can think about how what we eat makes us feel. There are some tricks we can do – people who can support us. I just went to the YMCA and talked to someone once a week about food and how that food made me feel.

Food does not have to be where we turn to for comfort. But, if you do go to it and binge a little, know that it is a normal response. Know that there are reasons why we go for that chocolate cake and that whole pizza with a liter of Coke. Know that you are not alone and that sadness doesn’t have to control you.

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