Ask Ginny: My daughter binge eats. Should I lock the pantry?

Dear Ginny,

I just put a lock on the pantry because my daughter binge eats. I know that binge eating is so unhealthy for her, and it seems to be getting worse. She just eats and eats. If I buy a package of cookies, it’s gone by the next day. Same with almost anything sweet, crunchy, or carby. She mainly does this at night when we’re all asleep. The fact that she’s sneaking the food is upsetting enough, but it’s even worse when she lies about it and pretends that the food I just bought has disappeared.

Not only do I worry about her health, I just can’t afford to buy so much food right now. Last night I lost my temper and installed a lock on the pantry doors. I also told her that I will no longer buy any processed foods or things she binge eats like bread, crackers, etc. I guess we all have to go on a diet because she can’t control herself!

I’m really frustrated, and this seems like the only solution. Am I doing the right thing? Should I get a lock for the refrigerator, too?

Signed, locks are the only thing that work

Dear Locks,

I’m so sorry to hear this. I know how hard it is to work with children who seem out of control around food. And I know that you are doing the very best you can in the circumstances. Lots of parents in your situation have put a lock on the pantry because it seems like the only solution.

What I would like to do is provide you with some information about binge eating and the treatment for binge eating. I hope that this information will help you understand your daughter’s behavior. It should provide some insight into how you can help.

About binge eating disorder

Binge eating is often presented as a lack of willpower. But it’s important to know that frequent binge eating is actually a symptom of an eating disorder. Binge Eating Disorder is the most common form of eating disorder, and it impacts far more people than either Anorexia or Bulimia. This means it’s not just frustrating and costly, it’s also a mental disorder that requires professional treatment.

To learn more about binge eating disorder, please check out this article: Binge Eating Disorder and your child – what to do, how to help.

Professional evaluation & support

I recommend that you seek professional evaluation and support for your child’s binge eating. Treating binge eating with dieting or restriction of any type can be very harmful, so it’s important to work with professionals who follow a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach. We have a directory of professionals who can help.

As for putting a lock on the pantry and refrigerator, that can be very harmful for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. I completely understand the desire to eliminate the temptation of binge foods for your child. That makes a lot of intuitive sense.

However, locking the pantry and restricting food can exacerbate the pain and suffering of living with an eating disorder. And, in fact, most providers who successfully treat people with Binge Eating Disorder actually encourage full access to binge foods to reduce the sense of restriction that often drives the behavior.

They also institute regular meal and snack times and a mix of all types of foods (including sugar and carbs) throughout the day. This treatment is consistent with how we treat people who have anorexia and bulimia, because someone who has an eating disorder needs to learn to normalize all foods and experience natural, intuitive sensations of hunger and fullness throughout the day.

Emotional pain & suffering

Almost all eating disorders are founded on emotional pain and suffering. Eating disorders are a powerful form of self-soothing and self-care for people who are in emotional pain. We have this video about maladaptive coping mechanisms to help explain this concept:

https://moreloveorg.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/maladaptive-coping-mechanisms.mp4

Rather than take away a person’s form of self-soothing (the eating disorder behaviors), we want to first address the emotional pain and provide new options for self-soothing. This is why therapy is almost always a part of eating disorder recovery.

Instead of locking the pantry and not buying binge foods, make an appointment with a professional who can help you get to the bottom of your daughter’s eating behaviors.

You may be surprised to know that binge eating disorder treatment often includes two key components:

1. Remove all restriction on eating and food

Treatment often includes regular meal and snack times throughout the day. Binge eating disorder, like all eating disorders, is often based on some form of restriction.

Many people eat less than they want to throughout the day and then find themselves binge eating at night to make up for the calorie deficit. By removing food restrictions and encouraging regular meal times and eating patterns through the day, including “junk” foods, we can often reduce the desire to binge eat.

2. Learn emotional hygiene

Eating disorders are strongly associated with poor emotional coping skills. This means that treating an eating disorder includes learning how to process feelings and emotions in real-time throughout the day. Often, before food is restricted and/or binged on, feelings are restricted and become overwhelming and “too much.”

If a person doesn’t have healthy emotional processing skills, they may turn to restriction and food as a way to cope with big feelings. This is why psychotherapy is critical for most people who recover from an eating disorder. Learning to accept and take care of our feelings is often the single most important thing we need to do to recover from an eating disorder.

My advice

Your daughter’s binge eating is undoubtedly scary and even infuriating for you. That makes a lot of sense. I know this is hard and I am in no way minimizing your experience of her behavior.

At the same time, it’s important to know that your response to her binge eating can make a world of difference in her recovery. Before you add any more locks or change your shopping habits, I encourage you to open the conversation with her about food restriction and emotional health. Ask her how she is feeling when she goes to the pantry at night. Meanwhile, reach out to a professional who can help you navigate your daughter’s behavior.

I wish you all the best, and send you so much love as you navigate this with your family.

xoxo Ginny


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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