HOUSTON – It is more common than anorexia or bulimia. Some people are secretly binging on food until they're uncomfortably full or until there's no food left.
An entire pizza, a whole cake, large amounts of rich, comfort foods that disappear in one sitting.
“I started to use food in a disordered way when I was about 9 years old and my parents were on the verge of divorce,” Kara Richardson Whitely said.
Hiding in a pantry, Kara started secretly binging as a child.
“The sound of chewing would drown out the horrible things that were going on at my house,” she explained.
Sounds of her parents screams drove her to an unhealthy relationship. It's the kind of abuse we now understand when it comes to drugs or alcohol but psychologist Rebecca Wagner, Ph.D., with the Eating Recovery Center (ERC) in Houston said binge eating disorder comes with even more shame.
“People have food all over the place, it's a very messy behavior. So, people will have food on their face, all over their hands, people will even eat with their hands instead of using a fork or knife which would be more appropriate,” Wagner said. “This is behavior that people become very ashamed about and they know that it's not normal.”
Wagner said a binge is categorized by 4,000 to 5,000 calories in one sitting.
“A lot of people binge eat at night. They might go all day long without eating anything because they're worried that if they do eat something it will result in a binge. So they go all day long without eating and then at night time they just can't stop eating. A- because they're so hungry but B- because the stress of the day adds up and then they just start using the food as a way to cope with those stress emotions and they just keep eating and eating and eating until they literally fall asleep,” Wagner said.
Identifying what causes the binges, in order to stop them, is what treatment will do. Patients check in to programs that range from three hours, three days a week to a seven-day, 75-hour immersion. Wagner said they will get to the bottom of what's causing binges and relieve the suffering.
“There is a self-perpetuating cycle that people get into and the problem is we can make people feel worse about themselves by suggesting ‘just stop or just eat healthier or just go to the gym,’” Wagner said. “We could find more compassion for these folks and know that there's something going on with them that is outside of their controlling, that's why they need professional help and treatment.”
Patients at ERC demonstrated to KPRC cameras that treatment can be lighthearted and fun.
“They feel better about themselves because now they have a community of people that better understand them, who also struggle with binge-eating disorder, and understand why they're doing it and why they can't stop,” Wagner said.
The ERC will work with insurance to cover treatment, which might be needed earlier in life than you think.
Wagner said binge eating disorders can manifest as early as 4 years old.
Here are the things she said to monitor children for: If they are on a typical growth curve and then all of a sudden you see a spike that remains. One time doesn't mean anything, but if they're normally at the 50th percentile and all of a sudden they're at the 75th, and then they're at the 90th, and then they're not coming back down. We really want to look for patterns and trends like if food goes missing.
If you go to the grocery store and have picked up foods that usually last your family a week but it's gone in a day or two, that would be a red flag because someone's having that food and you want to know who or why.
If you are finding food wrappers in kids’ rooms, again this behavior is secretive so you might not see it face-to-face, but if you go to your child or your loved one’s room to pick up or tidy up, and you find a bunch of food wrappers hidden in the garbage or under the bed or things like that, all of those would be signs.
Wagner warns that if people do not treat the underlying issues, patients will struggle emotionally and physically long-term.
“The body is meant to survive and so it starts to leech onto the bones to get the nutrients that needs to perform its everyday functions and over time the body starts to break down and you get people that have osteopenia or osteoporosis, which become a lifelong challenges for these individuals,” Wagner said.
Treatment worked for Kara. ERC helped her move mountains to overcome her disorder and now she climbs them.
“At the beginning of my journey to recovery I could barely even hike a staircase,” she said. “Over the years, in my effort to heal myself and to become stronger, I’ve actually climbed Kilimanjaro three times.”
Kara wrote a book about her healing journey and documented the first trip on video. Click here to see more.