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Examining Binge Eating Behavior Patterns and Compulsive Overeating
The three primary eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive overeating. Yet, whereas anorexics avoid eating, sometimes to the point of starvation, as was the case with 1970s singing sensation Karen Carpenter, both bulimics and compulsive overeaters binge eat, often gorging on massive amounts of food in relatively short periods of time. There are, though, dissimilarities between bulimics and compulsive overeaters, and ongoing studies in the psychology of binge eating attempt to explain these differences.
Number of Calories A Binge Eater Consumes
According to Charles Zastrow, who extensively addresses the psychology of binge eating in Social Problems: Issues and Solutions, although the average person consumes approximately 3,000 calories a day, binge eaters often “devour as much as 40,000 to 60,000 calories a day" (p. 80). They also typically binge on high-calorie foods, for example, fried foods, potato or other chips, cakes, pastries, and candies.
Binge Eating and Bulimia Nervosa
Interestingly, as Zastrow and coauthor Karen Kirst-Ashman relate, “The term bulimia is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘ox-like hunger" (Understanding, p. 327). However, bulimics are not driven to binge by physical hunger but by emotional distress; and whereas bulimics consume large quantities of food, they then purge themselves of the unwanted calories, either by inducing vomiting, using laxatives and/or diuretics, exercising vigorously, or fasting. Then again, some bulimics will chew their food, savoring the taste, and then spit it out in order to avoid ingesting the calories, but they are in the minority.
The Common Characteristics of Bulimics
According to Sharon Brehm, Saul Kassin, and Steven Fein, coauthors of Social Psychology, from two to three percent of young women suffer from bulimia, compared to one-percent for anorexia, and the highest rates of bulimia are found among female college students (p. 313). On the other hand, Zastrow maintains that the overall percentage of bulimics, including not only college students but also high school students, runs as high as 18 percent of females (Understanding, p. 327).
Regardless of percentages, though, when it comes to understanding the psychology of binge eating and binge eating behavior patterns, it’s important to note, as Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman point out, that bulimics typically share certain commonalities:
- They are usually within a normal weight range.
- They tend to be people-pleasers who crave affection and approval.
- They generally have active social lives.
- They have an obsessive fear of weight gain.
- They experience feelings of shame and even disgust when they binge.
- Many, but not all, abuse alcohol or drugs.
- They often have parents who are overweight.
- They binge and purge as a way to relieve emotional pain.
- They feel like they have little control over their lives.
- They have low self-esteem.
- Many, but not all, are sexually promiscuous.
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Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Disorder
In writing about the psychology of binge eating, Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman define compulsive overeating as the “irresistible urge to consume excessive amounts of food for no nutritional reason" (p. 328). What’s more, Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman say that, unlike bulimics, compulsive overeaters seldom, if ever, purge after eating, resulting in there typically being overweight, many to the point of obesity (morbidly overweight). Compulsive overeaters also tend to suffer from weight-related health issues such as hypertension and diabetes, as well as maladies associated with loss of mobility.
Common Characteristics of Compulsive Overeaters
Compulsive overeaters share quite a few traits with bulimics, for example, bingeing to ease emotional pain, embarrassment over their eating patterns, a desire to please other people, self-doubt and low self-esteem, alcohol and drug abuse, and a need for approval and attention. On the other hand, according to Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman, compulsive overeaters tend to display certain characteristics that are unique to this disorder:
- They attempt numerous diets but always fail, resulting in feelings of hopelessness.
- They ignore warning signs of health problems, choosing instead to continue unhealthy eating habits.
- They are often ignorant of basic nutrition and have no concept of a healthy diet.
- They have “selective amnesia" when it comes to daily food intake and, in fact, rarely recall how often they binged or how much they ate.
- They tend to be socially isolated and avoid interacting with other people.
- They binge as a response to unwanted emotions such as loneliness, anger, depression, frustration, or insecurity.
In summary, when discussing binge eating behavior patterns it’s important to realize that many factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder, and these factors differ, often greatly, from one individual to the next. Therefore, given the complexity of the syndrome, professional treatment is usually necessary in order for sufferers to come to some understanding of what prompts them to binge. In this way they can then regain control of their eating habits and, ultimately, their lives.
- Brehm, S., Kassin, S., & Fein, S. (2002) Social Psychology. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
- Zastrow, C. (1996) Social Problems: Issues and Solutions. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers
- Zastrow, C. & Kirst-Ashman, K. (1994) Understanding Human Behavior and The Social Environment. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers