Binge eating payoffs

People binge eat because it pays off in some surprising ways

Why do people binge-eat?  There could be many different answers, depending on the individual – but the main one involves payoffs.  Most people seem to understand this concept, that we don’t keep doing something over and over again unless there is some type of payoff or reward for our effort.  When it comes to consuming large amounts of food at one time in an out-of-control way, this doesn’t seem rational.  And it isn’t.  But it is clever, because binge-eating offers two payoffs!

Most people seem to understand that binge-eating, like other compulsive or addictive types of behavior, are reward-based.  And that people do it because their reward is immediate – they get pleasure, comfort and/or escape by eating massive amounts of those delicious food items.  Most people in this society also seem to know that food is something they can get their hands on at any time of day or night.  It’s an achievable goal, and thanks to credit cards and all-night delivery services, it’s easy – anyone can do it.  And while addiction studies have shown that it’s the anticipation of the binge that’s the most exciting (just like the sight of needles and injection equipment is more exciting than the actual high from the addict’s drug of choice), there’s another payoff that often gets overlooked.

While the anticipation highs and the eating highs can be seen as the pre-binge reward, the second payoff comes after the binge is over, when the remorse and self-punishment can begin.  Make no mistake about it, this post-binge reward can be an equally if not even more powerful payoff for the chronic binge-eater.  In fact, it may actually be the main reason for the binge.  For example, the person may actually have something to feel bad (e.g., sad, angry, lonely, bored, resentful, guilty) about, and in true addict fashion, may be trying to avoid these feelings by bingeing.  After the binge, it is much easier to deal with feeling bad about the binge, than about the real issue.  After the binge, the same old negative scripts can be dragged out and replayed.  Why did I do this again?  I’m such a loser!  I’m never going to succeed.  I just don’t have what it takes.  What’s the point – I might as well keep on bingeing. 

So the post-binge payoff not only provides the familiarity of the same-old routine and avoids dealing with the actual issue, it also opens the door to continued bingeing.  And while despair lurks in this post-binge payoff, it is never really experienced because there’s always more food and more bingeing to keep the real pain away.

When I was seriously hooked into binge-eating, as I was for the early decades of my life, I could not understand why I kept doing it when I wanted so desperately not to.   But despite my efforts at control, I kept bingeing and gaining increasing amounts of weight.  I became obese when it was far from the norm, when obesity was not making daily headlines, and when relatively little scientific research was being conducted and published – at least in the mainstream press.

Looking back, the truth is that I did not hate the binge-eating, I hated myself for doing it and I hated the result:  it made me fat! (At that time, mercifully, I did not think of bulimia, otherwise I suspect this might have become my pattern).  I could blame no one but myself  (which only served to perpetuate this self-destructive and addictive behavior).  After all, I was the one shoveling the food into my mouth.  It took me years to understand the pre-binge payoff of avoidance, but it took me decades to comprehend the power of the post-binge reward.