Recognizing Binge Eating in Kids and Teens

When food replaces personal relationships or when overeating is a response to stress or depression, a potentially life-threatening situation can occur.

"We all engage in over eating at times," says Melissa Katz, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. "In fact, our entire culture engages in over eating. But when over eat becomes our primary coping method, it's a problem."

Out of control eating—consuming large quantities of food in a short period of time (less than 2 hours on average) uncontrollably—is a sign that something is wrong. Binge eaters continue eating well past the point of being full. Unlike bulimics, who eat compulsively before riding their bodies of the food through vomiting, over-exercising or the use of laxatives, binge eaters do not purge following an episode of overeating. As a result, many become overweight, which puts them at risk of heart attack, high blood-pressure and cholesterol, kidney disease, arthritis and bone deterioration, and stroke.

The cause of the problem is not well understood, according to Katz who believes biology, genetics, and learned behavior may all contribute. "In my own practice, the problem often runs in families but we still don't know if there is a genetic predisposition," says the expert. "Research is on going but the brain's role is not clear. Some believe a malfunctioning hypothalamus is the culprit. Others feel the behavior is learned. I personally think hormones are also a factor."

The underlying reasons for BED (binge eating disorder) may be complicated. Eating can be used to cope with daily stresses and other problems. Food can also be used as self-punishment for doing "bad" things. Low self-esteem is often a trigger but food can also be used to keep people away. "When you're a teenager, being overweight can be a painful social stigma. I've seen many cases where children withdraw and food becomes their emotional ally, a friend that a troubled child frequently turns to," explains Katz.

Is My Child a Binge Eater?

Binge eating is fairly common among teenagers and doesn't discriminate. "BED used to be thought of as a middle class problem but no longer. The problem can be found in both sexes and across all demographics," says Katz. If you suspect your child has this eating disorder, here are some signs:

  • Meal avoidance
  • Secret eating and hidden food
  • High-carb foods, number one
  • Excessive weight gain  

Katz advises parents to address the pain, rather than the weight gain, by encouraging an open discussion with their child. "Try to find out what's bothering them. Ask about school and their social relationships. Show them you care."

What Parents Can Do

Early intervention is the key to preventing a full-blown eating disorder. Doctors, counselors, and nutrition experts often work together to help children with eating disorders manage their eating, weight, and feelings and teach them the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.

Learning alternative ways of coping with stress is important but takes time. Katz admits there's a process of discovering what alternative coping methods work for each individual. "Therapy can be extremely helpful. Parents can get referrals for counselors who specialize in this area from their pediatrician, gynecologist or child's school."

In the meantime, Katz recommends journal writing as a means of self discovery. "Children can begin to record their feelings about food and may see patterns revolving around when they reach for it." Listening to music, taking a bath or a walk with a friend and reading are also good coping techniques. "I also recommend yoga," says Katz. "It teaches practitioners how to sit with uncomfortable feelings and has many health benefits besides."

In advanced cases, a higher level of care-hospitalization, medication or treatment in a facility outside the home, may be needed. "Binge eating can become so habitual that if people wait too long for treatment it can be difficult to break the cycle," Katz explains. When medication is prescribed however, it is role is to treat the depression that is often associated with eating disorders. "Some anti-depression meds curb the compulsion to binge."

In the end, know that regulating food is an attempt to regulate feelings. "Parents who recognize that binge eating is an external reaction to an internal problem will go a long way toward helping their child develop a healthy relationship with food," says Katz.

Interview with Melissa Katz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders

American Psychological Association

The Renfrew Center Foundation (Marie Badarocca, MD)

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