How to Tell When Binge Eating Gets Out of Control
While the occasional XL meal might not do long-term damage to your health, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of binge eating disorder—a serious condition.
Any woman who claims she's never ordered a large pizza for one, devoured a whole box of cookies for lunch or ate an entire bag of Doritos while binging on Netflix is straight-up lying-or in the minority.
But this girl? She can seriously put away some food. The aptly named "petite competitive eater" Kate Ovens, 21, from the UK, is blowing up online, thanks to her remarkable ability to devour an insane amount of food. Various websites recently lauded her ability to consume massive 28-ounce burger, milkshake, and fries in less than 10 minutes. She even has a Facebook page and YouTube channel dedicated to similar, binge-tastic endeavors.
But here's the thing, apart from her crazy competitive eating challenges (seriously, she has taken down a 27-inch pizza, seven pounds of barbecue, and one 10,000-calorie meal), she seems to lead a pretty healthy life. (What's a Healthy Weight Anyway?)
"[Competitive eating] is very much a hobby. I'd never damage my health for it and I certainly don't want to get fat," Ovens recently told DailyMail.com. "I do get some negative comments online but my health comes first, so I'm not going to be stupid about it. I eat healthily the rest of the time and I go to the gym every couple of days." FYI, her Instagram feed shows that she even has some abs! "Some people say 'oh, she must just have a really fast metabolism or an eating disorder' and I have neither of those things. I just look after myself."
So, wait, can you really be health conscious and still have the occasional food fest?
When Binging Isn't (All That) Bad
"It's okay to binge every now and again," says Mike Fenster, M.D., cardiologist, professional chef, and author of The Fallacy of the Calorie. "All things in moderation, including moderation. However, two important caveats do apply: intensity and frequency." Meaning, how much are you really binging-and how often? Do you sometimes just overdo it a bit, clearing your plate when you should have put down your fork halfway through the meal? Or do you regularly feel stuffed after meals and hide how much you really ate from others?
As long as you don't feel out of control when you overeat, tempted to drastically cut back on subsequent meals in an attempt to compensate, or miserably full on a weekly basis, it's likely that your eyes were just a bit bigger than your stomach rather than you have an unhealthy relationship with food or that you are doing your health some major disservice, says Abby Langer, R.D., a nutrition counselor in Toronto. An overeating sesh every couple of weeks or so is NBD.
"Every once in a while, a massive meal won't really do any perceptible damage to your health," says Langer. That's because your body is really great at maintaining order. When you overload your system with a rush of calories, sugar, and fat, hormones fluctuate, energy levels change, sugar is stored in fat cells, and you've probably added some stress and inflammation to the mix. The good news? After a day or so, you'll probably feel back to normal.
Additionally, during the day or two following a binge, your body might be slightly less hungry as it works to find balance again (and save a few calories). However, this is NOT an excuse to "detox" by skipping meals or living on liquids the day after a binge. "This can just lead to more overeating down the line," says Langer. Not to mention, that fosters a pretty unhealthy relationship with food. (We have The Truth About Detox Teas.)
It's also worth considering why you overdid it in the first place, says Alexandra Caspero, a registered dietitian based in St. Louis. Did you miss lunch and sit down for dinner extra hungry? Were you feeling stressed or tired? The answer is key to making sure binges don't become your new norm. "Acute binging, or what most of us would call 'overeating,' happens," says Caspero. "When we eat past the point of fullness, or when we eat more food than we know that we need, I consider this a binge."
Fenster recommends following the 80/20 rule. "Try to adhere to your usual healthful approach at least 80 percent of the time," he says. "But there are special occasions, vacations, and life moments that call for a willingness to throw caution, and nutritional guidelines, to the wind. But a special occasion should not become standard fare. That 'once in a while' jumbo waffle sundae can't morph into a nightly ménage with Ben and Jerry."
When Too Much Is Really Too Much
While your body can more or less handle an all-out food fest every couple of weeks or so, overdoing it on food more often than that raises some red flags.
Frequent binges could definitely cause you not only to gain weight, but influence how your body reacts to salt, sugar, and fat to make you crave more of those health-wrecking ingredients, says Fenster. Research from the University of Montreal shows that, just like with drugs, overeating triggers a vicious cycle of emotional highs and lows in the brain that can lead to progressively worse binging. For more than 3.5 percent of women, binge eating is a way of life, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
If you suffer from Binge Eating Disorder (BED)-or even intense or frequent binging that doesn't quite meet the definition of BED-your habit can do a serious number on your health, increasing your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, says Fenster. Even if you aren't overweight. (Caspero notes that just because Ovens eats massive amounts of food from time to time, and isn't overweight, that doesn't mean she's healthy. Related: Are You Skinny Fat?) What's more, as the levels of fats and sugars floating through your bloodstream consistently rise and fall with each of your binges, you become prone to fatty liver disease, says Langer. After all, your liver has to process all of the sugars and fats you consume. And Fenster adds that your liver and heart take an even bigger hit if you pair your food binges with alcohol.
"Unlike these videos, BED is not a fun event," says Kathleen Murphy, LPC, clinical director Breathe Life Healing Centers, which works to help people overcome eating disorders. "BED is a serious and debilitating disorder. Overeating upsets the balance of the system and extreme overeating unnecessarily taxes the body, putting your biological systems through severe stress that can have damaging effects in the long run."
So, before you sit down to your next competitive-eating worthy meal, it might be worth revisiting those questions: How often do you binge? Do you feel out of control when you eat, sick afterward, embarrassed, or like you need to skip meals afterward to make it right? You might have something bigger than a harmless girl vs. food challenge going on.