Healthbeat Report: Uncontrollable Overeating

May 10, 2012 (CHICAGO)

So when is eating too much a true illness? Experts say there are telling signs.

The stories of binge eating patients are similar. Embarrassed, ashamed, they would eat at times till it hurt.

Gail Canning says at a young age, sugary foods would set her off causing her to crave more and more, making her weight an issue.

Dave says he had fast food rituals. He would pick up burgers and pizzas and take them home to secretly eat.

Harriet McCullough says she ate even when she wasn't hungry, constantly grazing on cookies and candy. "I knew that I was in real trouble," she said.

It's a food behavior that seems to turn eating into an addiction. It's called binge eating disorder or BED for short.

"We see a fair number of people who come in and go, really? There really is something wrong with me?" said Jenny Conviser, Psy.D., clinical psychologist, Insight Psychological Centers.

Conviser and psychiatrist Bill Ciganek are with Insight Psychological Centers which specializes in treating binge eating disorder. They say it's now considered the most common eating disorder in the U.S. affecting about 5-6 percent of adults.

So what makes this any different than simply overeating and having a weight issue?

"It's not about the inability to discipline one self. It's about a psychiatric disorder that has an underlying genetic, biological psychological and social forces acting together to cause this," said Dr. Ciganek.

Experts say there are distinct characteristics. You may have the disorder if you binge on average at least once a week for three months. Binge eaters will consume large amounts of food very fast until they're uncomfortably full. Most will eat in private to hide their habit. Many may feel powerless to stop eating and are disgusted with themselves afterward.

Unlike bulimia there is no attempt to reverse the binge. Consequently many sufferers are overweight or obese. Binging is often used to deal with stress, anxiety and more.

"The amount of energy I put out to put food into me to kind of numb my emotions and my self esteem," said Dave.

Dave is now being treated and doing well. Gail Canning says she's now eating normally thanks to a support group.

But there is no one medication or therapy to make everyone better. Many times other psychiatric conditions are involved and treating the condition can be complex.

"There's a lot of controversy about it," said Canning. "People don't believe that it's really a real thing. Bbut if you have experienced it you know that there is a loss of control involved."

When Harriet McCullough finally was diagnosed she found out she was also suffering from depression. She says counseling and medication turned her life around, and she's going public in hopes of reaching others.

"I can relate to how painful it is to anyone that is a binge eater. So I'm grateful the medical profession is recognizing it," said McCullough.

Medical complications may include obesity and increased risk for high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease. Bingers may also be at increase risk for suicide. But there are plenty of critics who worry the definition of binge eating is too broad and could be applied to those who don't actually have a mental illness, leading to healthy people being prescribed unnecessary medication.

Insight Psychological Centers

National Eating Disorders Association

Binge Eating Disorders Association

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