An estimated 8% of American adults will suffer from Binge Eating Disorder at some point in their lives.
Nearly half of these individuals also exhibit signs of a comorbid mood or anxiety disorder, while nearly 1 in 10 are suffering from different forms of substance abuse.
The numbers jump more dramatically when you consider individuals who have received bariatric surgery — nearly 1 in 4 are binge eating. What’s truly terrifying is the cost to these individuals in terms of loss of enjoyment, health challenges due to obesity, and early death.
Some people are able to manage their weight by only binging once or twice a week. Others are not so fortunate and find themselves spiraling into depression while attempting to hide their overeating from family, friends, and co-workers.
Popular treatment options for binge eating disorder typically include counseling to discover the “underlying cause”, medication, and cognitive behavioral approaches. Research suggests a cognitive behavioral approach to binge eating disorder holds the most hope for recovery. But when you meet people like Kathryn Hansen and understand their story, you’re likely to think again.
The cause and cure for binge eating disorder are unknown, a point often forgotten as practitioners line up on various sides of the debate. One researcher stated what’s known about the cause of eating disorders like this: A combination of biology and life events. Not exactly specific. Curious about alternatives, I connected with Kathryn Hansen, the author of Brain Over Binge, to gain some insight into how individuals suffering from this most common form of eating disorder might recover.
Kathryn Hansen’s Binge Eating Recovery
Kathryn struggled with binge eating; a cycle that exceeded six years of binging and then purging through excessive exercise. She worked through traditional therapy, determined to get to the root cause of her overeating — something that her various therapists were adamant about.
Kathryn tried to figure out the deeper turmoil or emotional problem that was driving her to overeat so dramatically. Was she binge eating as a coping mechanism? How could she build self-esteem and reduce her anxiety? Would this render binge eating unnecessary? Years of hard work in therapy yielded no progress with her symptoms.
At length, Kathryn Hansen began to recognize that building self-esteem and working through deep-seated emotional issues represented the journey of a lifetime. Yet, she needed to stop binge eating immediately.
She began to doubt the principles upon which her potential recovery was based and even speculated that she could be hiding behind those “unmet emotional needs” and “self-esteem issues.” Was unwittingly using them as a justification to continue binge eating? Wasn’t there a way to just stop the behavior?
Blessed by fate, Hansen found her solution through a random decision to stop by a bookstore. The book she happened upon was Rational Recovery by Jack Trimpey. According to Kathryn, by the time she finished that book, she was virtually finished with binge eating.
Conquering Primal Urges
Kathryn Hansen’s breakthrough insight was that binge eating wasn’t tied to her therapy goals of higher self-esteem or ability to cope with problems in a healthy way. She noted that the urges to binge remained consistent, regardless of how she was feeling or coping with challenges. She concluded that the urges to binge were the problem; the compelling and overwhelming impulses to eat that took over prior to every binge eating episode. The binge eating itself simply provided a short-term reset button on the urge to binge.
Another significant insight: Calorie restrictive dieting is the most common predecessor to binge eating. Was Hansen suffering the consequences of years of dieting and therefore caught in a vicious cycle? A scary fact: Girls who diet are 12 times more likely to binge than girls who don’t diet. The correlation of dieting and binge eating are so strong (and logical) that one might wonder how self-esteem and unmet emotional needs ever factored in as causes.
“When you diet, you put your brain in a survival state. It’s an ancient desire left over from when food was scarce,” Kathryn stated. “When I restricted my food, my brain propelled me to binge. It felt so out of control. Looking back, it makes sense. I was restricting my food, and my brain was trying to help me not starve.”
Kathryn believes that calorie restrictive dieting was the first stop on her road to binge eating, which began with foods that were highly palatable: sugary and pleasurable. The tastes and the sensations were rewarding, and eventually, the cycle of binging and dieting became repetitive. While Kathryn didn’t purge by self-induced vomiting after her binges, she did compulsively exercise after a binge eating episode (6-8 hours straight) as a way to balance the heavy periods of eating.
Focusing on Success
Kathryn looks back on one of the most liberating moments of her breakthrough when she realized there was nothing wrong with her. “Empowerment really helped, knowing I didn’t have to live with (binge eating) for the rest of my life. This is something I created, and could also put an end to,” said Kathryn.
Research into the “animal brain” versus the “human brain”, or the prefrontal cortex where advanced cognition, planning, and reasoning occur, clarified the issue.
Kathryn’s primal brain was forcing the urges to binge, but by studying tools such as Jack Trimby’s Addictive Voice Recognition Technique, she was able to pinpoint and detach from the urges and not act upon them. Psychologically detaching from her urges to binge was the solution, at long last.
Shifting her attention from unmet emotional needs and self-esteem to neutralizing the urges to binge allowed Kathryn to naturally overcome her eating disorder, without medication or additional therapy. While this might sound sensational, Kathryn affirms that she simply lost the compulsion to binge by viewing her urges in a new way — not as the result of poor self-esteem or childhood trauma, but as understandable but practically meaningless old brain activity.
Breaking the Habit
Individuals who are prone to binge eating may rebel at the idea that it is merely a bad habit that can be overcome with relative ease. However, Kathryn argues that binge eating disorder is little different from any other addiction in that you must identify the habit and consciously make a decision to stop. When you’re hearing the voice from inside your head pushing you to overeat, that’s when you must separate yourself from the urge.
Says Kathryn: “I observed . . . the feelings of wanting. I call it false wanting. If it were truly what I wanted in my life, I wouldn’t regret it afterward. But it was always something I regretted.” The dopamine in your brain attempts to force you to want to overeat but detaching from that addictive voice allows you to stop it from hijacking your life.”
Kathryn Hansen is the author of Brain Over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good. You can also find her at BrainOverBinge.com.