Maybe failed dieters need therapy for overeating, not food restriction, argues Claire Zulkey in the Atlantic. She describes the cycle that many dieters fall into: A controlled eating plan — this many grams of cheese, a deck-of-cards portion of meat, probably no Twisties — and then the frenzy of overeating that ensues when the dieter gives in to temptation: A whole pizza, three breakfasts at McDonald's, many bags of Twisties. Frustrated and ashamed, they start an even more restrictive diet (often preceded by a final last-hurrah binge) and begin the cycle all over again.
Photo: Susy Morris
Binge-eating disorder is a relatively new diagnosis, though Zulkey notes that as many as 40 per cent of dieters suffer from it, and medical professionals might not be up on how to treat it. This is compounded by the fact that the binge-eaters themselves might insist that the problem is merely a problem of willpower — if they could just discipline themselves, they would be able to lose weight. And for people who secretly eat bags of McDonald's while hiding from their families, shame amplifies their sense of failure. It's a tricky problem, not least because overeating, especially junk food, is generally accepted and even normal in our culture. (Consider all the jokes about loosening one's pants for Christmas.)
But there are doctors, therapists and in-patient treatment centres who are addressing it. BED responds to therapy, especially cognitive-behavioural therapy; Zulkey notes that "Nearly 80 per cent of patients abstain from bingeing after 20 sessions. And, unlike most calorie-restricting diets, the success of CBT holds for many patients over time." So that's good news.
Now I read this and thought, "So getting this treatment will help me finally lose weight?" Which I suspect is not supposed to be the main point: I should seek treatment for my secret Oreo problem because I want to stop the cycle of binging, stop feeling ashamed, and maybe even lower my cholesterol. But I confess I'm always hoping for a Jedi mind-trick: "I will stop caring about being thin, and love my body as it is, and those steps will help me to to finally become thin." Which I suspect is part of disordered thinking.
Do you need help for binge eating? You can start with a referral from your family doctor and specifically ask prospective therapists if they have CBT training for binge-eating disorder. An initial phone call should screen out therapists with no training in this department. If you don't have access to mental-health care or are otherwise determined to DIY this problem, there are a couple of books that might be helpful: The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide and The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook.
And good luck. As anyone who's secretly stuffed an unwise number of calzones in their mouth knows, binge eating can be a lifelong struggle.