Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, affecting three to five percent of women in the U.S. Unfortunately, it's the one least talked about. People who suffer from BED periodically eat large quantities of food in one sitting and feel unable to control those binges, and BED can—like other eating disorders—take a terrible toll on the sufferer, both mentally and physically. (How Bad Is Occasional Binge Eating?)
Amé Karoly, a 26-year-old in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, started battling the disorder in just third grade. Her binge eating started when she put on weight and her classmates bullied her viciously about it, publicly fat-shaming her, which in turn made her eat more as a way of dealing with her shame and embarrassment about her body. "I learned very early that I had to hide my emotions from the bullies," she says, "and one of the ways I learned to do that was to binge eat. It made me feel numb."
As Karoly moved into her teen years, she was unable to control her eating—until, at 13, she moved in with her dad and stepmother, who put her on a super strict schedule and monitored every bite she ate, even making her walk three miles a day to earn her allowance. It worked—she lost nearly 75 pounds that year. While the tactics may sound extreme, Karoly says that having a slimmer physique helped her fit in with her peers and, as a result, helped her find her self-confidence and feel good about her body. But it was a superficial solution.
In a pattern that will sound all too familiar to others who've struggled with their weight, the pounds started to creep back on when she left the strict confines of her dad and stepmother's home and started binge eating again as she transitioned into college. "I'd have blackout binges," she explains. "I'd come to and there'd just be wrappers everywhere and I couldn't even remember having eaten all of it, but I knew that I had because it hurt so much." One time, she tallied the calories and was shocked to discover she'd eaten over 5,000 calories in one sitting. She was so ashamed of her problem that she worked hard to hide all the evidence from her friends and family. (Are You Guilty of Indulging Incognito?) But she couldn't hide the physical effects, and by the end of her undergraduate years, she'd reached her all-time heaviest at 350 pounds.
"I just wanted everyone to see me as confident, happy and bubbly but underneath I was really ashamed of the binge eating and was seriously depressed," she says.
Despite the consequences, binge eating was doing what she wanted it to: killing her emotions. "Honestly, I ate until I was in physical pain because that was easier to deal with than the emotional pain of feeling like a failure," she says. "I didn't know how to deal with my depression and low self-esteem so being completely numb was my target for most of college."
After graduation, she decided to study abroad in China. While she enjoyed the culture, the people, and her studies, she started to notice another perk: She was losing weight. "Going to China took me so far out of my comfort zone, I had no familiar foods and none of my usual triggers for my binges," Karoly explains.
Plus, she adds, the Chinese have no qualms about commenting on people's physical appearance or giving diet advice—people would poke her or take her picture all the time. "Old women used to comment 'So big! So big!' and younger women would tell me to drink more green tea," she says. But rather than upset her, she found that their honesty forced her to face her phobias and she was able to stop bingeing and lose 100 pounds. As the scale went down, her confidence went up and she began to appreciate her body in a whole new way, grateful for being able to do all the activities she wanted to do while exploring another country. Plus, she says, being a "recovered" binge eater had become a core part of her identity and she was desperate to maintain her weight loss. Quiz: Are You Addicted to Food?
But then life threw another curveball. During her fourth year of her study abroad, her father passed away. He'd always been her rock and Karoly missed him desperately. The emotions overwhelmed her; at first, she tried drinking and partying as a way to numb her feelings but, she says, nothing worked as well as binge eating.
"I landed after the funeral and went straight from the airport to the grocery store, still carrying my suitcase. I stocked up on food and then locked myself in my apartment for two weeks and just ate. The only person I saw was the pizza delivery guy," she says. Eventually she was in so much pain that she couldn't even walk. As she crawled to the bathroom, she says she had an epiphany.
"You know those shows like My 600-Pound Life? And you wonder how those people ever let themselves get that big? It hit me hard at that moment that this is how. I was becoming that person," she says.
That realization—and regaining the 100 pounds again in just a few months—made her decide that she needed to get help for her binge eating once and for all. Karoly moved back home and started intensive therapy. Going on anti-depressant medication helped her feel stable enough to finally start tackling her internal pain, and she began cognitive behavioral therapy. She worked on building a healthy relationship with her mind, trusting her body would follow.
And it's working. She realized one day during therapy that she was still telling herself all the mean, cruel things the bullies had said to her all those years ago—and it was time to stop believing them. Now she's replaced thoughts like "you're weak and worthless" and "you'll always be fat" with more accurate ones like "I'm strong and successful" and "I have willpower and all the tools that I need to take care of myself." (Check out The Power of Words for Weight Loss.)
This internal love spurred her to want to take care of herself externally too. She got into kickboxing, yoga, Pilates, and even got an adorable new puppy she enjoys walking every day. Now she sees herself as strong and tough—a survivor. The therapy has helped with her relationship with food too. "I no longer need the food to deal with emotions, so now I'm able to stop when I get enough," she says.
And even though she hasn't lost all the weight again, she says she truly loves her body now for the first time. "My body is strong! It never quit, even when my mind wanted to give up and I love that," she says. And now she realizes that loving herself is the first step in getting healthy, not the end goal. "I had to love and appreciate my body before I could truly change it." (Meet more Women Who Show Why the #LoveMyShape Movement Is So Freakin' Empowering.)