There’s a difference between overeating and uncontrollable overeating. By Dawn Chen
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If you ate a few extra pieces of pineapple tarts or bak kwa during the festive season, you might have overeaten, but that does not mean you’re suffering from binge eating disorder. The main difference between the two is whether or not there is a loss of control, explains Dr Victor Kwok, head and consultant at the Department of Psychiatry, Sengkang Health.
“Binge eating is a consumption of a larger amount of food than usual in which a sense of loss of control is experienced. Other associated symptoms include eating until you feel uncomfortably full, having the feeling of guilt or disgust after eating, and binging secretly or continuous eating long after you are full,” he explains. “To qualify it as an eating disorder, the binge eating episode has to occur at least once a week for three months.” Binge eating is also uncontrollable, unlike purposely indulging in your favourite treats or stuffing yourself at a buffet.
Experts estimate that binge eating disorder is more common than breast cancer, HIV and schizophrenia. Dr Kwok shares more about the condition below, and what treatment options are available for sufferers.
Who is most prone to getting binge eating disorder?
Dr Kwok: There are several risk factors of binge eating disorder – those with a family history of the condition, those who come from broken or separated families, women who are under a lot of stress from their pregnancies and people who resort to eating as a way of coping with stress.
An example to cite is one of my patients whose binge eating disorder worsened as he was facing financial stress, and had to look after his sick mother-in- law. He would find himself making a trip to the candy shop every week, finishing all the chocolates at one go, and recalled feeling very sick thereafter.
How is binge eating disorder different from other eating disorders?
Dr Kwok: Unlike other types of eating disorders, patients do not try to compensate after a binge. For example, they neither starve themselves after a binge nor do they exercise or vomit out the food. However, some cases of binge eating disorder can turn into bulimia nervosa and vice versa.
What are the health consequences of binge eating disorder?
Dr Kwok: Patients with binge eating disorder are likely to put on weight, and hence likely to suffer from the associated metabolic conditions like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Psychologically, those with binge eating disorder are also often unhappy with their body shape and size, and this may worsen self-esteem issues and heighten stress.
Binge eating disorder and anxiety are deeply intertwined and often co-occur. Those who are diagnosed with binge eating disorder are also often diagnosed with a full-fledged anxiety disorder.
What are some warning signs that someone has binge eating disorder?
Dr Kwok: People with binge eating disorder are likely aware they have the condition. Some signs that family members can look out for include a sudden intake of a large amount of food over one to two hours. These usually include inexpensive food items like bread and noodles.
Patients may also tell others that they are unable to stop themselves from eating even though they are full and may feel uncomfortable or look distraught after the bingeing episode.
What are the treatment options for binge eating disorder?
Dr Kwok: Many people with binge eating disorder actually don’t seek help. For those who do, treatment can take several months. In the initial stage, the aim is to stop the binge eating episodes. If the patient has put on a significant amount of weight, the next focus would be to help the patient with weight loss. Slowing weight gain or maintaining the current weight would be considered quite a success.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is also effective. It helps patients learn to cope with issues that trigger binge eating. Thoughts and behaviour about eating and body-image are also addressed.
Medication may also be prescribed, and is very effective in most cases.