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Health

Binge eating disorder

Eating to numb the pain

Last Updated August 30, 2007

You've just returned to your table from your third trip to the buffet line. You've had more than your fill of meat, pasta, vegetables and salads.

The load of food is sitting a little heavy in your stomach and you're feeling just a touch guilty for gorging.

Yet you're still contemplating going back because that lemon meringue pie looks too good to pass up — and you'd like just a taste or two of the chocolate cake, maybe with a small scoop of ice cream.

You think for a minute that maybe you have a problem. Then you loosen your pants and feel a little better.

You may have gone overboard — binged, if you will. But does that make you a binge eater?

Probably not.

Binge eating is one thing — binge eating disorder is another.

Ron Saxen Ron Saxen in 1984, during his brief career as a model.

"Everyone overeats at Thanksgiving. It's nothing to be alarmed about," says Ron Saxen, who suffered from binge eating disorder for most of his adult life. "But when it starts to become a big issue in your life, you can tell it kind of takes you over — it's what you think about when you wake up, what you think about before you go to bed at night. Especially when you start doing the bingeing and you're hiding it."

Saxen — author of The Good Eater, a book that chronicles his battle with binge eating — used food to deal with anxiety. It was not unusual for him to put down a couple of hamburgers, a large order of fries and a chocolate shake, then go to another fast food restaurant and order half a dozen burritos before finishing the first meal.

"Then I would go to a place where I could get three king-sized candy bars. Usually the coup-de-grace would be to finish it off with a sundae — like a half-gallon of ice cream, a pound of M&M's and a pint of hot fudge. You couldn't always finish that because you can only put so much into your stomach."

Saxen's first bout with binge eating happened when he was 11. His parents were members of a fundamentalist Christian denomination. His father — who would return home from work late at night — frequently beat him and his two brothers.

Ron Saxen Ron Saxen, nine years and 110 pounds after his modelling career.

"My mom would leave a notepad [for my father] with all the things we had done wrong. And she said 'I'm going to give this to your dad and he's going to wake you up and whip you guys.' One night, I got sweaty palms and sweaty feet. There happened to be a candy sale [at our school]. I had 20 pounds of chocolate in my closet and I got up during the night and ate one five-ounce chocolate candy bar and it took me away. But as soon as the candy bar's gone reality comes back. So I kept doing that."

By the time he stopped, he had eaten three pounds of chocolate. Saxen learned that food could cure his fears, at least temporarily.

Binge eating disorder affects 3.5 per cent of women and 2 per cent of men at some point in their lives, according to a study published in February 2007 by researchers at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts affiliated with Harvard University. Or to put the statistics another way, 40 per cent of people who suffer from binge eating are men.

The survey on eating disorders found that binge eating disorder is far more common than either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Anorexics starve themselves, while bulimics eat to excess but then try to purge their systems by vomiting. People with binge eating disorder don't normally try to rid themselves of the extra calories they take in, although some over-exercise.

Saxen's cycle was generally characterized by starving himself during the day, followed by hours of working out and then bingeing at night. By the age of 21, he had trimmed down to 179 pounds and landed himself a one-year modelling contract. But when he was told to lose five pounds two weeks before an underwear shoot, he responded by going on an extended binge and putting on weight. He ate his way out of a modelling career.

According to the Toronto-based National Eating Disorder Information Centre, you may be suffering from binge eating disorder if you:

  • Eat large amounts of food frequently and in one sitting.
  • Feel out of control when you eat and can't stop eating.
  • Eat quickly and in secret.
  • Eat to the point where you are frequently uncomfortably full.
  • Feel guilty and ashamed of your binges.
Many binge eaters may also have a history of going on diets and failing. An estimated 20 per cent of obese people are also believed to be binge eaters.

The Harvard study labelled binge eating disorder a "major public health burden."

"Everybody knows about anorexia and bulimia; however, binge eating disorder affects more people, is often associated with severe obesity and tends to persist longer,'' lead author James Hudson said.

"The consequences of binge eating disorder can be serious, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. It is imperative that health experts take notice of these findings."

Saxen got over his binge eating, but it took him more than 20 years to do it.

"In the book, I would have loved to have said 'here are the seven things I did to get it under control.' But it wasn't like that. For me, it was a traumatic event — my sister getting into an automobile accident and almost dying. She was my one amigo — it got me. And then, a person who I ran into about 10 years ago became my friend and later my wife. It was that support and wanting to be a better man and getting sick and tired of this endless cycle that said I need to do something about it for myself and for those around me."

He also got professional help, but that came late in the process.

"Nobody wants to get help, nobody wants to admit they have a problem. But trying to do it on your own is impossible. When I finally went down that path to getting better, it was like, I wondered what I was waiting for because I knew there was something wrong, and I probably should talk to somebody."

Today Saxen's down to a healthy weight and he's learned to deal with his anxieties in ways that don't involve huge quantities of food.

"Most schools in the medical fields say you always have to be vigilant like with alcoholism. There are others who say you can be recovered forever. For me, I feel that if you've crossed this line of behaviour a thousand times and you think that you will never do it again, that seems kind of bold. I'm the best I've ever been and do I think I will go back to those dark days? Never."

"It gets way, way, way easier as time goes on. It feels pretty close to effortless now."

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