Feeding the monster inside
Binge eating disorder is more complex than simply overeating. Find out how to help your child cope with it.
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Tim is just your average teenage boy.  He loves music and skateboarding and hanging out with his friends.  When you walk into his room you see posters of bands on the wall, his homework sprawled across his desk, and his bed, like most teenagers', remains unmade. But when you look under the bed, you'll find where Tim keeps his "stash" - cookies, chips and sweets.  You will also find empty wrappers, because he is too ashamed to throw them in the normal garbage.

Tim has a binge eating disorder and describes it as "a monster inside of me that just wants more and more food and he won't shut up until I feed it." Soon after he has binged, he feels guilty and this guilt drives him to another binge, and then another.  He is trapped in a vicious cycle and feels completely out of control.

What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder, also known as compulsive overeating, is an eating disorder that affects men and women and isn't only an adolescent problem. This disorder usually starts at a young age, however, and teenagers are at the highest risk.

Teens who suffer from a binge eating disorder eat too much, even when not hungry.  They usually binge when they feel stressed, upset, hurt or angry.  The food comforts them and they find eating high calorie foods very soothing.  Soon after the binge they feel guilty about the out-of-control eating and this leads to an ever-deepening depression.

Binge eating disorder is not just simply overeating, and teens with this problem also tend to have the following symptoms. They:
  • Appear extremely depressed after eating
  • Hide food/empty packets under the bed, in cupboards, etc.
  • Are more than just a few kilograms overweight
  • Eat more than what is considered normal at meal times, even if they are full
  • Eat much more rapidly than normal
  • Eat alone because of embarrassment
  • Have a low self-esteem

The dangers

Binge eating can lead to various health problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, heart problems and diabetes.  Teenagers who are overweight tend to stay overweight as adults, so this can end up being a life-long problem if left untreated. 

Being overweight can lead to emotional problems. Obese children are often bullied or teased at school and battle to keep up in sporting activities.  This usually leads to severe depression in a child who was battling to cope from the beginning.

How to help if your child has binge eating disorder

Fortunately, of all the eating disorders, binge eating disorder has the highest recovery rate.

  1. Take your child to a mental health professional.  This will help him/her to get to the root of the problem, why it started and how to deal with their feelings in a healthier way.  In some cases, anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication is prescribed.
  2. Change the habit of turning to food for emotional needs.  Remember the temptation to overeat is present at every meal time and whenever food is in sight.  It helps a lot if you can make meal times about something else besides food.  So talk together as a family during mealtimes. Ask about how school was and what happened at work and help your child share his feelings.
  3. Try and stock mainly healthy food in the house.  If there aren’t any fattening chips, chocolates and ice-cream around, it will limit the binges your child can have.
  4. Don't make negative comments about their weight or their eating.  Comments like "You should stop eating now, you're going to get fat" is the kind of statement that will send a child with binge eating disorder into a downward cycle.
  5. Never put your child on a strict diet.  When you are deprived of certain foods it only makes you want them more.  When your child eventually does give in to that food it will inevitably restart bingeing.  
  6. Help your child find healthy ways to express their feelings.  Suppressed feelings and thoughts need to get out, and any healthy way your child does that is good.
  7. Remember: There is no quick fix for binge eating and you need to know that to change how your child thinks and acts when it comes to food could take several months or longer.  With commitment and the proper guidance though, it certainly is a disorder that can be beaten.
What tips can you suggest for healthy ways for teens to express their emotions?

Michelle Minnaar has degrees in Psychology and Education and regularly conducts workshops for teens and parents on topics such as self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, drug abuse and learning problems.

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