The Other Eating Disorder: The Connection Between Depression And Binge Eating

by Lindsay Wallace

As someone living with bipolar II disorder, I find myself hanging in the balance between light and dark. Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, I cycle between one emotional extreme and another.

I have severe depression and hypomania, with periods of stability in between. But, I only resort to binge eating when I'm severely depressed.

Despite the fact that binge eating disorder doesn’t get as much attention as other eating disorders, like anorexia or bulimia, it is actually more common, afflicting 3 percent of US adults.

Bingeing is when you consume large amounts of food even when you are not hungry or feel full. Despite feeling sick to your stomach, you feel powerless to stop.

When I binge, I’ll eat anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day, and I do this several times a week.

It isn’t entirely clear why some people develop eating disorders and others don’t, but research shows that mood disorders, like depression, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety, are contributing factors.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, half of all patients diagnosed with binge eating disorder have a history of depression.

Additionally, a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 2008 found that 24 percent of bipolar patients met the criteria for eating disorders.

In a major depressive episode, you reach a level of self-loathing and self-hatred so severe that binge eating is a way to cope with the emotional pain you feel.

I have engaged in this behavior because it made the depression easier to endure; it deadened the despair. But, the high is only a temporary one.

Really, it’s a vicious cycle. If I'm already depressed and turn to food for comfort, I only find that indulging worsens the depression.

Any attempt to resist food always ends with me eating stuff by the bag or box. I tell myself I’ll only have one cookie and I end up eating 10. I’ve eaten an entire box of Oreos in one sitting on multiple occasions.

Binge eating isn’t just limited to junk food though. I’ve also found myself binging on healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables and bran muffins.

I love shredded wheat and eat it almost every day for breakfast. Just like the Oreo incident, I’ve eaten entire boxes in one sitting more than once.

I am usually too ashamed to binge eat in front of others, so it almost always happens when I’m alone at home. Every binge is followed by an extreme sense of guilt. I even feel guilty while engaging in the behavior. I know it’s wrong, but I do it anyway. I can’t stop myself.

In addition to feeling ashamed, I end up feeling disgusted with my body. Afterward, I stand in front of the mirror naked, picking apart every inch of my body.

I pinch the skin under my arms and on the sides of my hips, and it makes me want to physically harm myself. When I put on a pair of pants that feel just a tad tighter than they did a few weeks ago, I panic.

Unlike some people who binge eat, I haven’t gained an exorbitant amount of weight. Instead, I become obsessed with counting calories.

I’ll barely eat anything or restrict my food intake the next day because I believe that doing so balances out what I ate the day before.

For example, if I don’t eat breakfast the next day, then I’ve canceled out 300 to 400 calories from the previous day. If I limit lunch to 300 calories, I cancel out another 300. It’s a sick game I play, and one I’m not proud of.

Other methods I use are spending a considerable amount of time at the gym until I burn the same number of calories I took in. I also use laxatives several times a week, more than the recommended dosage.

It’s important to note that for people living with bipolar disorder and depression, you already feel dead and empty on the inside, so the only way to feel comfortable again is to make yourself feel empty.

You do this by getting rid of the calories you ingest. Emptiness is what you are used to feeling, and although it's an unhealthy emotion, it is something you feel at home with.

Part of my treatment plan in dealing with bipolar II disorder addresses binge eating, as it is a trigger for and symptom of the disorder.

I use Optimism, a mental health app intended for people with depression and bipolar disorder, as a self-help tool to maintain good health.

With this app, you basically keep a journal of everything that can affect your mind (e.g. triggers, symptoms, notes, stay well strategies).

By charting these over time, you can begin to identify patterns in your life and even some of the negative influences that impact your mind.

I discovered binge eating is a trigger for me, so when I do it, I might be headed into a depressive episode. By catching that behavior early on, I am able to work with my therapist to address the issue before it gets out of control.

Binge eating disorder doesn’t get as much attention as others.

To learn some basic facts, check out the Binge Eating Disorder Association's website and receive support at sites like nationaleatingdisorders.org.