Cyrus is worried about his son Miles, who was recently diagnosed with binge eating disorder. “I honestly don’t understand what is going on, or what we are supposed to be doing at home to help,” says Cyrus. “We’ve got Miles in therapy, but other than that, we’ve received no guidance about what we should be doing. Are we supposed to keep binge foods out of the house? Should we remind him that binge eating is not healthy? Is there a cure for binge eating disorder?”
These questions make sense, and it’s frustrating that Cyrus isn’t getting more guidance as he faces this challenge. Binge eating disorder is a very common type of eating disorder, but it’s extra tricky to handle it in our society, where binge eating and weight gain are criticized and deeply feared. The good news is that there is a lot that Cyrus can do to help Miles recover.
What causes binge eating disorder?
All eating disorders are biopsychosocial disorders, which means they are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors.
For example, a child may have a genetic predisposition and traits that make it more likely they will develop an eating disorder. Specifically, there are neurobiological traits that make some people more sensitive and responsive to hunger cues, the physical sensations, and emotional experience of eating. Additionally, people who have ADHD or autism are more likely to develop eating disorders than the general population.
Psychologically, a child may have traits including perfectionism, impulsivity, anxiety, and depression, which increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder. People who have OCD, GAD, PTSD, and other common mental health issues are more likely to develop eating disorders.
Finally, our social environment encourages eating disorders. We live in a culture in which parents, teachers, doctors, and coaches all worry about children getting fat. Meanwhile, peers tease and bully fat kids. This is not only about individuals being fatphobic; it’s the result of weight stigma, which is baked into our culture.
The outcome of weight stigma is not a thinner population, but a population that is so afraid of fat that we encourage food restriction and body shame. Counter-intuitively, both these things predict weight gain and, of course, eating disorders.
Society doesn’t cause eating disorders by itself, but if biology and psychology load the gun, our society is standing by at the trigger, just waiting to pull it.
What is the cure for binge eating disorder?
Many people assume that the problem with binge eating disorder is binge eating. However, binge eating is the very top of binge eating disorder symptomology.
Shame triggers binge eating, and binge eating triggers shame. It’s a self-perpetuating loop, which is why it’s usually best to address the other symptoms and causes rather than the binge eating itself. Trying to stop binge eating without addressing its causes is ineffective and even harmful.
Eating disorders have both physical and emotional components. Therefore, your child needs both psychotherapy and nutritional therapy.
A therapist can support your child in understanding their unique psychology and develop coping skills. They should also address any underlying mental health conditions, especially ADHD, autism, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. Unless these conditions are treated, it will be very hard to recover from binge eating disorder.
In addition to a therapist, a certified eating disorder dietitian (CEDRD) can support your child in learning how to eat in a way that will minimize binge eating episodes. The biggest physical risk factor for a binge eating episode is skipping meals and restricting food.
Many people who have binge eating disorder eat too little and/or go too long between meals. This exacerbates the problem and increases the likelihood of binge eating. The most important physical treatment for binge eating disorder is feeding the body regular meals and snacks and eating enough food throughout the day.
How can parents help with binge eating disorder?
Parents alone can’t cure binge eating disorder; you’ll need professionals on board to help. But parents play an essential role in recovery. Parents can help kids recover from binge eating disorder by following these five steps:
1. Feeding structure
The biggest risk factor for a binge eating episode is not eating enough food. Skipping meals and restricting food are common, particularly for kids in larger bodies who are afraid of weight gain. However, restriction sets them up for larger and more frequent binge eating episodes. Parents should take an active role in recovery by feeding kids three meals and 2-3 snacks per day. Your child should not go more than 2-4 waking hours without eating.
Additionally, eating should be an important aspect of family life, and family meals should happen as often as possible. Binge eating is often done in secret, so it’s important to model the social nature of eating together and sharing meals. Eating is an important social and emotional activity, so pleasant family meals should be a priority.
2. All foods fit
Many parents are worried about kids’ health and weight and restrict kids’ sugar and “junk food” intake. This is popular advice, however, the evidence shows that restricting food to only “healthy” options at home increases kids’ likelihood of binge eating. Work with a non-diet registered dietitian to build your comfort with a wide variety of food. Yes, you should serve veggies and fruit, but you should also serve snack foods and desserts. A healthy diet incorporates all sorts of food. Restriction is a major trigger for binge eating episodes, so avoiding it is key.
3. Weight is not the same as health
It’s natural in our culture to be afraid of weight gain. Many parents believe they must keep an eye on their kids’ weight and worry about weight gain. But weight is not the same as health, and worrying about weight is associated with weight gain and eating disorders. Instead of worrying about your child’s weight, learn about a non-diet approach to health, which is shown to improve health behaviors and health outcomes. This approach focuses on healthy behaviors like eating, moving, sleeping, stress management, belonging, and human connection. Unlike weight control, these behaviors improve health with zero side effects.
Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts
- Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
- Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
- Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
- What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food
4. Emotional regulation
Once you have your child in therapy to address underlying mental health conditions, you need to build their emotional regulation skills at home. Whether we mean to or not, parents teach kids how to regulate their emotions from the time they are born. It’s embedded in our DNA to learn emotional regulation from parents. Most people with eating disorders lack emotion regulation skills. Luckily, due to your role as their parent, you are by far the best person to build your child’s emotional regulation. Literally nobody else can do it as quickly and effectively as you. Get intentional about teaching and modeling emotional regulation skills and you’ll make a big difference, fast.
Give your child the best tools to grow more confident, calm and resilient so they can feel better, fast!
- Calming strategies
5. Avoid shame
Above all, you want to avoid bringing shame to the process of eating and weight. Things like telling your child to eat less, pointing out that binge eating is leading to weight gain, and locking up food can be harmful. While doing these things might make intuitive sense to you, they are not an effective cure for binge eating disorder and can make things worse.
Food and body shame lie at the heart of eating disorders and drive disordered behavior, so you don’t want to add to it. Work on your own issues with food and weight, and talk about your fears and worries with another adult, not your child. You should never criticize your child’s eating and weight.
If you are tempted to criticize your child’s eating or weight, shift your energy to the other four steps I’ve described. They are much more likely to help your child recover.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents supercharge their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.
For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.