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Investigating Emotional and Binge Eating Disorders with Amira Khalil

By Hilary Diack

Suffering from an insatiable need for food? Nibbling when you are not really hungry? Just a few of the alarm signals that should get you thinking about your eating patterns. It is surprising how many people suffer from eating disorders, so Cairo West Magazine had an informative chat with Amira Khalil, certified in Counseling Psychology and Eating Disorders, and author of I Did it With Chocolate.

CWM: Is there a common root cause for eating disorders?

AK: Essentially, eating disorders are control issues; any eating disorder provides control over the life of the individual. For whatever reasons, the individual suffering from an eating disorder will most probably have control issues relating to earlier life and this might be due to any imbalance in the four childhood pillars: Unconditional love, Encouragement, Discipline and Self-Control. Those are the four pillars any child needs in his early life. If a child is not nurtured and where those four pillars are not balanced he might develop an eating disorder. For example, a child needs to know that he is loved unconditionally to feel valued and be able to depend on his parents whenever he needs reassurance, whether he is good or naughty. Also, the child needs encouragement and needs to feel that he is achieving something, demeaning and critical comments all the time will harm his self-esteem. Self-control also is an important example, not the kind of self-control that restricts behavior, rather the sense of control – feeling safe, unthreatened and having safe space around oneself. Abuse in childhood, either physical or psychological might damage the sense of self-control, hence eating disorders are often found in abused children.

An emotionally healthy person will have all pillars at the same level at a healthy rate; people with an eating disorder will not have this; eating disorders are a coping mechanism. The most important thing to understand here is that eating disorders in general have a purpose and are needed by their sufferers for many reasons. The cruelest thing to be done here is to attempt to remove the symptoms before addressing the cause. Eating disorders frequently show with other mental disorders, 50% of the people suffering from eating disorders have depression.

What is binge-eating?

Binge-eating is eating in a defined period of time (within a two-hour period) an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances. Excessive food consumption must be accompanied by a sense of lack of control to be considered an episode of binge eating. An indicator of loss of control is the inability to refrain from eating or to stop eating once started. Binge eating occurs, on average, once a week for three months.

In binge-eating disorders, there are several behavioral indicators of loss of control associated; at least three of them exist in a binge-eater:

  1. Eating much more rapidly than normal.
  2. Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
  3. Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
  4. Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
  5. Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward.

How common is it, and does it affect particular age groups?

Eating disorders often develop during childhood and teenage years, but many people do not experience this during adulthood. It affects females a little bit more than males and is more prevalent among individuals seeking weight-loss treatment than in the general population.

What are the main triggers and causes for this?

It is difficult to specify a main cause for binge-eating. It is usually due to a host of contributing factors that lead to the disorder. It involves upbringing, social and cultural issues, brain and body chemistry, biological and psychological issues, and it also involves each person’s individual personality.

How can people counteract the compulsion to overeat?

Eating so much every once in a while is normal, so as eating for emotional reasons, from the moment we were born we are nurtured with food and rewarded with food. So emotional connections to food are sometimes normal.

What is not normal is compulsively overeating as a coping mechanism to cope with negative emotions; this is where eating could be out of control. People having this will think about food all the time, feel guilty, ashamed and depressed after eating. This is quite different however from what someone would feel after a big meal in an Eid family gathering for example.

If the problem is just emotional eating this is easy to counteract. Think before you eat. Am I really hungry? Do I really need to eat or do I just want to eat because I am bored, stressed or depressed?

  • Moderation is the key. Don’t ban certain food and don’t resort to restricted diets as deprivation leads to overeating. All food is allowed but eat in moderation. Banning certain food will make you eat it in large amounts afterwards.
  • Understand food. Learn about food; calories, fats and carbohydrates. Eating too much salty food will make you crave carbohydrates after it for example.
  • Do something different. Be aware of your emotional eating episodes and once they are there just go for a walk, workout, read … etc do something that you like.

But if we are referring here to an eating disorder, it is vital to understand the emotional challenges and stressors a person is experiencing, and how they have become imprisoned by distortions of themselves in relationship to food, stress, weight and their own bodies. This is where we can begin the journey of healing for this disorder and/or compulsive behavior. The individual suffering from an eating disorder needs support to overcome it, counselors might help here.

What types of food are most likely to be turned to?

The type of food consumed during binges varies both across individuals and for a given individual. Binge-eating appears to be characterized more by an abnormality in the amount of food consumed than by a craving for a specific nutrient, unlike emotional eating where individuals crave sugar, carbohydrates and junk foods.

Can binge-eating also lead to bulimia?

Although there are similar characteristics between those with bulimia and binge-eating disorders, those who binge-eat do not purge. There are no compensatory mechanisms associated with the binge to get rid of calories, so individuals with binge-eating disorder are more likely to be overweight or obese, while patients with bulimia may be underweight, normal weight or overweight.

Dieting follows the development of binge-eating in many individuals with binge-eating disorders, unlike Bulimia Nervosa in which dysfunctional dieting usually precedes the onset to binge-eating.

Does stress play a role in eating disorders?

Yes, stress can have a powerful effect on our appetite and food cravings.  Sometimes stress shuts down the appetite but for some other people it does the opposite.  When stress becomes more than you can handle, you develop ways to cope, which may include binge eating or not eating at all.

That’s why it is very important to learn how to deal with stress and how to get out our negative energy, and most of all to unlearn the bad habits we’ve developed in dealing with stress. Poor diet contributes to stress, which in turn contributes to poor diet.

What are your top tips for avoiding emotional eating?

First of all let’s differentiate between emotional eating and binge-eating. Emotional eating is not a disorder, it is when a person turns to food for comfort and eats in response to feelings and not hunger, like depression, boredom, loneliness, stress, anxiety or frustration.

They generally just engage in that episode and that’s the end of it. They are looking to fill a void and food seems to serve that purpose. They may repeat this sort of behavior from time to time or even somewhat frequently, but this does not necessarily mean they suffer from a binge-eating disorder. If we ate for comfort by reaching out to low calorie food, we would be alright, but how many people turn to cucumbers when they are feeling stressed for example?

Learn how to handle your emotions.  Don’t reward yourself with food. Find your own thing; find something else to do when stressed or depressed to comfort you other than food. Have a customized life and don’t just follow the crowd.

Amira Khalil certified in Counseling Psychology & Eating Disorders, and author of I Did it With Chocolate.

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