When To Know If Your Eating Habits Are Something More Serious

It's difficult to overstate the importance of food — it's the center of holidays and celebrations, what many of us look forward to during the mid-day slump, and a necessary part of life. There are few things better than sitting down to a meal with our loved ones (even if they just happen to be our favorite mukbanger joining us from a screen). For some of us, being a seasoned foodie isn't just a personality trait but a way of life. In a recent study, over 52% of Americans reported that their love for food surpassed anything else -– and almost a third said they'd expose themselves to deep-rooted phobias for limitless access to their favorite dishes (via Talker).

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that our physiology fuels our adoration for food. A study published in Nature Neuroscience revealed that rats given free access to delicious high-calorie foods like cheesecake quickly began binge-eating. Researchers observed startling changes in their brains similar to those in drug users. "In one sense, we're all addicted to food. This energy-dense stuff is very new to us as a species. It's probably corrupting brain circuitry," study co-author, Paul Kenny, tells Scientific American.

Some of us can develop habitual snacking from physiological cues, like those mentioned above, or turn to our favorite foods as a coping mechanism. But how can you tell if your approach to eating might be something more serious, like a binge eating disorder?

Signs that your eating habits may be cause for concern

It's normal to face disruptions to our hunger cues during stressful life events like a breakup, but the desire to overeat is nearly always present for binge eaters. The American Psychiatric Association characterizes binge eating as having at least one binge per week, often past the point of fullness or when the person isn't hungry. Sufferers may experience low self-esteem and feelings of shame, disgust, or helplessness. The disorder is distinguished by the absence of activities such as purging or exercising to reduce caloric intake (via National Institute of Mental Health). While the occasional bout of overeating isn't considered problematic, binge eaters have trouble regulating their eating habits consistently. It's also important to note that binge eating isn't necessarily about caloric intake –- it's entirely possible to binge on low-calorie foods like raw fruits and vegetables.

"Those who emotionally eat may be overwhelmed with emotions like anxiety, shame or sadness," psychotherapist Marcella Cox tells The Washington Post. Some may be reluctant to identify themselves as emotional eaters but still engage in binge eating behaviors. Binge eating can even develop from prolonged caloric deprivation, as seen in anorexia sufferers (via Psychology Today). Because half of binge eating disorder patients are obese, many of the physical symptoms accompanying binge eating disorder are also associated with obesity. Diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal issues are all frequently observed in people with binge eating disorder, according to Mayo Clinic.

Treatments and interventions for those with binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder can be addressed through behavioral therapy with a licensed professional or self-help therapies, like guided workbooks. Research published in Annals of Internal Medicine indicates that the most effective treatments for binge eating disorder include cognitive behavioral therapy and physician-prescribed medications. For many, accountability and support can be crucial components in their journey to stop binge eating. In the subreddit r/BingeEatingDisorder, thousands of users offer advice and encouragement to help fellow sufferers free themselves from binge eating. Mindfulness techniques, including meditation and journaling, can be effective strategies for binge eaters to observe and correct harmful patterns.

It's crucial to understand the root cause of the compulsion to overeat -– whether or not you realize it, emotions like boredom can influence dysregulated eating patterns. And new research indicates that attention deficit disorders may be correlated with bingeing behaviors; for instance, Duke University reports that roughly a third of binge eating disorder patients were also diagnosed with ADHD.

Despite the volume of food typically eaten by binge eaters, many sufferers of the disorder experience nutrient deficiencies due to their preference for processed foods (via Cleveland Clinic). Focusing on nutrient density and variation in your diet may help reduce your brain's impulse to snack endlessly.

Resources to help you heal from binge eating disorder

If you or a loved one are suffering from binge eating disorder, help is available. First, consult your physician or therapist to learn about treatment options for binge eating disorder. If you're looking for mental healthcare, Psychology Today offers a search tool to find licensed professionals in the United States. Be wary of therapists that appear to list themselves as experts in every category of mental health treatment. "The more boxes [the therapist] checks, the more searches they show up in. I think that's a little bit of false advertising," Dr. Cadyn Cathers tells Self. If you're unsure of the therapist's credentials, you can always ask for more details to determine if they'll be a good fit.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).