In Troubled Economy, Binge Eating Bites into Finances

The rising cost of food and the faltering economy are enough to put a pinch on many family budgets. But for those with binge eating disorders, the troubled economy has added additional guilt to an already stigmatizing condition.

So says Cynthia Bulik, a clinical psychologist who sees patients who struggle with binge eating, bulimia and other eating disorders. Based on her own clinical observations, Bulik said, rising food costs are taking a devastating financial toll on a growing number of people with these conditions.

"When the food prices started going up, I started hearing this," she said. "The economy is starting to become a challenge for people with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders."

Binge eating is usually defined as a condition in which a person is unable to control their urge to consume a large amount of food in a short period of time. The out-of-control aspect of the condition is what differentiates it from overeating. Bulimia is an eating disorder that usually involves binge eating, with the addition of coping behaviors such as vomiting or excessive exercise following a binge episode.

While the amount of food consumed during a binge varies from person to person, those engaging in extreme binges can eat as much as 10,000 to 20,000 calories in a single sitting. Normally, an individual consumes between 1,500 and 3,000 calories per day -- which means that a single binge may be several times more expensive for the binger than an entire day's worth of food for a person eating normally.

"Traditionally, you have never heard about binge eating being a very expensive disorder to have," Bulik says. "All of a sudden, for these people, binge eating and the money they have to spend on it is actually eating into the family food budget.

"Their disorder is actually competing with their ability to feed their family."

Dr. Ovidio Bermudez is medical director of the eating disorders program at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital in Tulsa, Okla. He says that while he personally has not studied the effect that the flagging economy may have on binge eating disorders, he says it makes sense that such a connection exists.

For binge eaters who eat a large amount of food in a small amount of time, he notes, "there is a quantity of food that comes into play, and this can cost money. Food is not cheap these days."

And while he says none of his current patients have come to him with this complaint, it is an issue that those with binge eating conditions have confronted in the past.

"Even in times when the economy was much better, I have heard stories of people who have had to make decisions between buying medicines and bingeing," he says. "Unfortunately, I have heard of instances when bingeing wins out."

Bingeing at All Costs

Tish Lindberg, a 52-year-old eating disorder survivor who has been bulimia-free for the past 22 years, has firsthand familiarity with the impacts that binge eating can have on nearly every aspect of life.

But the Chapel Hill, N.C., woman still remembers her struggle to change her behaviors when it comes to food.

"Every time I'd binge and purge I'd say, 'I'm not going to do it anymore,'" Lindberg said. "And then, of course, I'd do it again."

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