When eating becomes an obsession

One woman's fight to overcome compulsive overeating

Editor’s note: The name Janine King is not the student’s real name. We have changed her name to protect her privacy.

Compulsive overeating, or binge eating disorder, can take a psychological and physical toll. It often goes untreated. Photo: Andrea Gunn

When Janine King was in grade school, she would rush home after school to order a takeout meal from the restaurant in her apartment complex.

Then, she would eat it in secret before her parents came home from work, and later eat a second supper with her family.

King, a 21-year-old university student living in Halifax, is not entirely sure when or how her unhealthy relationship with eating began. She remembers being a young child and thinking about how she couldn’t wait to grow up and live by herself so she could eat whatever she wanted.

By the time she was 12 years old, it became evident she had a problem that was beyond her control.

“I was eating all the time, I was just so obsessed,” she said. “I would eat alone and eat in isolation a lot, it was just a complete obsession with food.”

Compulsive overeating, or binge eating disorder, is characterized by excessive, uncontrolled calorie consumption – often to cope with negative feelings – without the purging that is associated with bulimia.

Dr. David Mensink is a psychiatrist with Dalhousie’s counselling services where he runs a weekly group eating disorder clinic. Photo: Andrea Gunn

Dr. David Mensink is a psychiatrist with Dalhousie’s counselling services where he runs a weekly group eating disorder clinic.

He said the health consequences of compulsive overeating can be serious. Aside from psychological side effects like depression, anxiety, guilt and other negative feelings, it also takes a toll on the body.

“It can have an impact on your internal organs, people oftentimes develop Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, there’s a lot of physical problems,” Mensink said.

Compulsive overeating was widely recognized by the medical community only in 2013 when it was defined in the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Because of this, education and awareness surrounding compulsive overeating has not caught up with other eating disorders. Many people aren’t aware that it is a medical condition, and it often goes untreated.

Hidden illness

For many years, King was in denial about her disorder. Her parents saw signs that her relationship with food wasn’t typical, but thought it was a matter of self-control.

They brought her to see dietitians on numerous occasions and also tried to encourage physical activity – something that stuck for King. She developed a love and knack for sports, and by high school she played on three varsity teams.

Though she was still binging regularly, she was burning so many calories that she was able to slim down, and from the outside, she looked like a normal, active teenager.

“Because I didn’t have any weight on, my parents just kind of assumed whatever problem I had was gone.”

That changed for her in the twelfth grade. She quit one of her varsity sports, and combined with stresses in her life causing her to binge more frequently, she gained about 30 pounds in one month.

“That was the point (my family) really realized how much my exercise was hiding whatever I was doing and at that point they brought me to a doctor,” she said.

Though this was in 2011 before binge eating disorder was a common term in the medical lexicon, King’s doctor happened to have experience working with eating disorders and diagnosed King as a compulsive overeater.

For King, it was a huge relief. For the first time, she felt like her problem was not a failure on her part, but something out of her control.

“People kept offering me the same advice and it just wasn’t working so of course I felt like a failure,” she said.

“If people keep saying to you, ‘This is your fault, you need to use your willpower’ and you do that to the best of your ability and you fail over and over again, how do you now think that reflects on you?”

Finding peace

King attended her first Overeaters Anonymous meeting, at the advice of her doctor, in August 2011. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous uses the 12-step method to help members cope with their compulsions.

During her first year attending meetings, King said she still struggled with binging. Slowly working through the steps, she began to see progress.

King became abstinent from binge eating in May 2012.

Today, she still attends weekly OA meetings. She has a sponsor she talks to regularly, and is now a sponsor of someone else.

“My life is completely different from when I walked through those doors,” she said.

King’s anxiety is now managed in healthy ways, such as breathing exercises and meditation, and she has not had any problems with depression since abstinence. Although there are trigger foods she can’t eat, her relationship with food is now normal. King has also lost weight, but doesn’t know how much. For her, the weight loss is secondary.

“As a symptom of my disease I never wanted a moment of silence, because I was eating to cope with so much of what was going on around me, whether it was my emotions, my fears, my anxieties … so when silence crept in I said I need to eat something to shut that off,” she said.

“What this program has really, really given me is a new way of life rid of anxiety, a new way to approach life, and 100 per cent it has given me happiness.”

King said she has elected to tell only people in her life that need to know or that she thinks will be supportive and compassionate about her recovery.

“But I’ve been disappointed,” she said.  “I think there’s (still) huge stigma around compulsive overeating and people not believing it’s a real disease, people believing that you’re lazy or that you’re over-exaggerating.”

King knows first hand the fear of judgment and the shame associated with seeking treatment for compulsive overeating, but she urges anyone who is struggling to get help, either through their family doctor, OA, or other community resources.

“I can’t even believe how happy I am today.”