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."

Her condition never sent her into dire economic straits, as she says she could always find the money to binge. But, she notes, "It had to be awful with my budget. Somehow I fit it into the budget to where I could eat like a pig at times. ... I found ways to make it work."

But the current steady rise in food prices could makes such adaptation difficult for other binge eaters. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of food surged 6 percent in the 12 months leading up to September 2008. Among other personal expense categories, only the rise in transportation and energy costs exceeded this jump.

Worse, Bulik says that sensible adjustments to family budgets may even compound the problem for those with eating disorders.

"What [patients] are saying is that in order to save money, the family has made the very rational decision to join wholesale clubs like CostCo and Sam's Club to buy food in bulk because it's cheaper," she says. "Yet, having these foods around in bulk is a binge trigger.

"It's a whole new level of risk based on the financial considerations of the way people shop."

This guilt, says Bulik, can build upon the guilt that normally comes attached with these conditions.

"The way I'm hearing them say it is that this is just another layer of guilt," she notes. "Often they just feel guilty and ashamed about their illness. Now there is this additional layer of guilt: 'My disorder is actually impacting my family's budget for food or whether we will have enough money to buy Christmas presents.' That's the really sad part."

With more guilt comes more bingeing, which creates a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape. As Bulik notes, "The guilt itself tends to be a trigger for binge eating."

It's a situation with which Lindberg says she can sympathize.

"I can't imagine in today's society with our economy, God, the guilt that you must lay on yourself when you spend money on it that you need to spend on something else," she says. "I can't imagine the guilt."

Money May Motivate Some to Quit

Lindberg, however, says she is living proof that those with binge eating disorders can overcome the condition.

"I can't stand the thought of it now," she says. "I can't overeat; I just kind of 'hit the wall' when I'm eating now. But it's taken lots of years to get to that point."

And while for some the additional finance-related guilt of binge eating can lead to a downward spiral, for others the extra costs could be a life-changing wake-up call.

"It's probably different strokes for different folks," Bermudez says. "I think there are people who would probably be willing whatever sacrifice to keep bingeing, but for other people it may be a motivation.

"In that they are dealing with guilt as a trigger and guilt as an outcome, people face this struggle differently. But sometimes people will regard that guilt as an important motivation to seek help, and they can use it to control their behavior."

Bulik agrees. "If anything, this could be another reason to really work on [binge eating disorders] now; it not only impacts your health, but it also impacts your and your family's pocketbook."