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The Scary Eating Disorder Season

Be patient with yourself. You don't have to be perfect -- even at this. You'll have good days and bad ones, triumphs and setbacks. It's part of the journey.
10/20/2014 12:59pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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If you are a binge eater you certainly don't need to visit a haunted house to have a scary experience -- you're living in one. These last three months of the year are jam-packed with socially-sanctioned opportunities to overeat. Starting with Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Chanukah/Christmas holiday season, you'll find candy, cookies and other tempting foods everywhere you go. There are parties at work and school and, of course, gatherings with friends and family. These holidays are not necessarily meant to be about food in excess, but there are many reasons why they become so.2014-10-19-jackolanstern.jpg

Many also feel the obligation to always look great and have endless fun -- which brings its own set of pressures and challenges. And then, when New Year's Day arrives, most enter 2015 with a plan to get ourselves in shape with a diet and exercise program that will somehow transform your body into something entirely different by beach season. It's become "normal" in our culture to overdo it and then work hard to undo the damage in a compensatory way. But it's not normal and it's not healthy, either.

There has to be a better way -- and there is. For everyone (and most especially people with compulsive overeating, emotional eating or binge eating disorders), be gentle and start the season with a healthy dose of self-awareness. Prepare yourself for the onslaught of temptation by making a plan to protect yourself. It won't work to simply tell yourself to "just say no."

Bingeing and overeating in its many forms, is a form of addiction. It's not about being weak, undisciplined, slovenly or lacking willpower. It's an addiction to the stimulation to the pleasure center of the brain, both by certain foods as well as by just the anticipation or excitement about certain foods. Harvard researchers demonstrated that in people with this problem, eating high-glycemic foods lights up the very same parts of the brain that are activated in substance abuse like drugs or alcohol. It's much, much harder for vulnerable men and women to stop with just one piece of candy or a single cookie than it is for other people. If you were to view comparative brain scans of people during a hit of cocaine, an alcohol binge, a bulimic purge or a food binge, you would not be able to tell which is which.

Binge eating disorder is now recognized by the psychiatric and medical communities as a true eating disorder. This is helpful because for people who meet the criteria, there are now established protocols for treatment for a verifiable diagnosis. The criteria for diagnosis of binge eating disorder is:

  • Loss of control over amount of eating
  • Marked distress over binge episode
  • Occurs at least one time per week for three months

Plus, three or more of the following:

  • Eating more rapidly than normal (i.e., in a two-hour period)
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
  • Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed or very guilty over after overeating

Please seek treatment if you think you may have binge eating disorder or its cousins emotional eating and compulsive overeating. It's a difficult problem to solve on your own. Start by consulting a medical doctor (your primary care doctor is a good place to start) to evaluate health problems that may have resulted from your binge eating -- and also consider targeted psychotherapy and nutritional counseling with eating disorder specialists.

Also, in these next few months, consider the following strategies to help you stay focused on your health. (You can find other helpful suggestions in my book, The Dummies Guide to Overcoming Binge Eating.)

Recognize (and avoid) your triggers. This goes deeper than not buying a giant bags of candy (though that's a good place to start). Be aware, too, of physical triggers such as hunger, hormonal changes and tired, as well as emotional ones, including stress and sadness.

Keep a "Food and Emotions" journal. Keeping track of the specific foods you eat and the thoughts and feelings you have before, during and afterward will help you begin to understand the root causes of your binge eating behaviors.

Allow yourself to eat. Eat in a balanced way every day and build in healthy ways to enjoy seasonal pleasures, in moderation. Not uncommonly, restrictive dieting is part of how binge eating disorder develops.

Focus on your inner qualities. There is more to you than how and what you eat, what you look like and what size jeans you wear. Make a list of your positive qualities and celebrate them.

Be patient with yourself. You don't have to be perfect -- even at this. You'll have good days and bad ones, triumphs and setbacks. It's part of the journey.

Distance yourself from relationships that bring you down -- and ask for support from people you can trust. You don't have to do this alone!