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Binge Eating And Over Eating Is An Addiction Disorder

It's not just overweight people who are affected.
Secrecy is common with binge eaters.
Secrecy is common with binge eaters.

How many apps for takeaway places or meal delivery services do you have on your phone? Or if you're retro, how many paper takeaway menus sit on top of your fridge?

We've never had more or easier access to food. There are countless huge supermarkets in all urban suburbs not to mention convenient stores, restaurants and ice cream and donut joints on every corner.

In fact, Aussies make a staggering 51.5 million visits to fast food outlets every month, with 40 percent of diners loyal to one to two brands. Not surprisingly, McDonald's wins in the popularity stakes with 42 percent of those who consume fast food visiting Maccas in the past four weeks. Subway was next, followed by KFC, Hungry Jack's and Domino's Pizza.

We're not saying that 24/7 access to any food you desire is necessarily a bad thing. The issue of waste aside, convenience is certainly handy, but that's only if you have a well rounded approach to your diet as a whole. And some people don't.

Eating disorders are sadly on the rise in Australia. Between 1995 and 2005 the prevalence of disordered eating behaviours doubled among both males and females and at the end of 2012 it was estimated that eating disorders affected nearly 1 million Australians. While anorexia and bulimia are the two most known diseases, binge eating disorder, otherwise known as overeating disorder, is also becoming more prevalent in a society which can fulfill its heart (or stomach's) desire, on a whim.

"Addictions to 'everyday' things like food and sex are what we call process addictions. We used to call them behavioral addictions, but we now use the word 'process' because it is more specific, because what is addictive is the rewarding process," Alastair Mordey, accredited addictions counsellor and program director at The Cabin Group told The Huffington Post Australia.

"You can have rewarding substances which are addictive, such as ones that are euphoric like heroin and alcohol. And then you can have processes which are rewarding such as eating. Rather like other process addictions, you have to tackle it slightly separately to substance addiction."

Overeaters and binge eaters are most often dopamine deficient in the exact same way an alcoholic would be.

Patients who have binge eating or overeating disorder most likely developed the addiction in adolescence.

"These people will not be well psychologically, which is probably why they started overeating in the first place. They have a dopamine related disorder just like any other addiction, and overeating is a way of medicating themselves," Mordey said.

"Overeaters and binge eaters are most often dopamine deficient in the exact same way an alcoholic would be. This can be can be genetically and/or environmentally caused. People can be born with gene variants which gives core dopamine dysfunction, and environmental factors might be something in their life which is not pleasant, which plays with their pleasure chemistry. These people look for something that activates their reward circuit. That could be cannabis, other drugs, or salty or sugary foods. Once they start doing that they find that it works -- they feel a sense of meaning and reward and feel better, but after a time it doesn't really work anymore, yet they can't stop doing it because they have a memory of the fact that it once did help them. That's how addictions work."

From there an addiction to food can develop, known most commonly as overeating disorder, or sometimes binge eating disorder.

"Usually, eating a larger amount of food than is considered normal or comfortable in a certain space of time is a behavioural trait of someone who might have the disorder. A distinction from bulimia is that they are not purging. You might have bulimics who are binge eaters and vice versa, so there is some overlap, where obviously there's no overlap between binge eating disorder and anorexia. Usually the person indulges in an overconsumption. And it won't be an over consumption of broccoli, it will be food stuffs that are rewarding, such as carbohydrates and refined sugar. Those two things activate the methylation dopamine system in exactly the same was that cocaine or heroin does," Mordey said.

Over eaters may aim to nullify a binge by restricting calories at a later time.
Over eaters may aim to nullify a binge by restricting calories at a later time.

Many overeaters will do so in private, or go to great lengths to keep their habits from loved ones.

"In regards to secrecy there are parallels with other addictions. While it's not as unacceptable to be overweight or obese (which is a very common secondary illness to overeating or binge eating) like it is to be a heroin addict for example, it is still somewhat undesirable in our society. Certainly if it can be traced back to your own behaviour then it is more undesirable."

"For that reason you'll often hear people blame it on things such as it being glandular, which most often it is not. There are some hormonal dysfunctions that can lead people to be overweight obese, but they are very very rare. There are genetic substrates that mean you are more likely to be overweight even though you don't eat a huge amount more than someone else, but by and large the overconsumption of carbohydrates and sugar and sedentarism are what creates obesity and being overweight. As soon as you make the connection that the reason you eat too much and exercise too little is the reason you're overweight, it then becomes shameful, and therefore worthy of hiding. It's not politically correct but people who do binge eat and overeat know full well that that's how it is."

While many people with overeating disorder, or binge eating disorder are overweight or obese, that's not always the case. A person of regular or healthy weight can still have an addiction.

"An person of average weight may still have binge eating or overeating disorder. How they will do it is by an indirect route of purging. So usually purging would be a behavior that you would see with bulimia, but there are indirect ways of purging such as exercise or calorie restriction at other times," Mordey said.

Overexercise may be the way some overeaters attempt to purge.
Overexercise may be the way some overeaters attempt to purge.

Mordey believes the key to beating these addictions is to focus on the behaviors, rather than just slapping on a label.

"We break a patient's disorder down into behaviours such as overeating, undereating, over-exercising (or purging) and under-exercising, and from there we can work to change behaviours. Discussing behaviors instead of labels is important in treatment as someone can see what a behavior look like and change it, whereas just labeling them with a disorder isn't helpful and they can't change that," Mordey said.

Within the traditional 12 step community there are fellowships for binge eaters which is usually Food Addicts Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous, referred to as OA. They're two of the most common support groups.

"At our facility, for overweight people or people with binge eating disorder we would encourage them to eat more real food, and to increase their exercise. This doesn't need to be a huge change. We encourage them to do 'non activity based exercises', such as using a standing desk and going to the grocery store to buy food instead of having takeout delivered, as they are killing calories by non-exercise thermogenesis," Mordey said.

"When we treat an overeater they're not an addict in the classic sense of the term, because mostly they're leading a relatively functional life, and they will have a job or other responsibilities. For that reason they are treated for a shorter time period, anywhere from 14-28 days whereas usually with a chronic drug addict we'd be looking at 1-3 months."

"Treatment is about learning how to cook and prepare real, whole food according to a nutritional system without being too restrictive, as well as finding an exercise they enjoy. In addition to new tools in regards to food and exercise which are psychological educational segments of a recovery program, patients who overeat, in common with other addiction issues, will have psychological scarring that is addressed through counselling," Mordey said.

If you are worried about yourself or someone you love, contact the National Eating Disorders HelpLine on 1800 33 4673 or head to the website for information.

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