By Leslie Goldman

In a Health poll, it was found that losing control is epidemic. Here’s the #1 way to curb your cravings.

The word binge brings a distinct image to mind: A woman stuffing all sorts of foods—from cream puffs to chips to pizza—into her mouth at a frenzied pace. For some, this is pretty close to reality.

Take now-recovered binger Kristin Gerstley, 27, of Houston. Her typical binge: hitting multiple drive-throughs—McDonald’s for a Quarter Pounder and fries, Taco Bell for nachos, and more. “As I got the bags, I’d pretend to check off the items on a fake list I’d created,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was ordering all that food just for myself.” After paying, Gerstley would drive to a secluded area of the restaurant’s parking lot and (before she even knew it) eat it all.

Gerstley’s overeating may sound extreme, but it’s more common than you think. Earlier this year, ground-breaking research out of Harvard University–affiliated McLean Psychiatric Hospital showed that Binge Eating Disorder, or BED, is America’s most common eating disorder. According to James I. Hudson, MD, ScD, a psychiatry professor at Harvard’s McLean Hospital and lead author of the study, bingeing is “extraordinarily underrecognized, both by health professionals and by the public at large.”

If BED is more common than anorexia and bulimia combined, we wondered how many more women are struggling with lower-level bingeing—the kind that has you downing a box of cookies without thinking because you’re hungry from dieting or inhaling a bag of chips when you’re angry.

What we found: Almost all of us have binged. In a Health.com poll, 82 percent of respondents said they’d gone on a binge where they felt they couldn’t stop eating, and more than half reported uncontrollable urges to eat until physically sick.

What’s going on? Are we all treading into eating-disorder territory? Or just having high-caloric lapses in judgment? Here’s what you need to know about the bingeing epidemic.

Anatomy of a binge

You eat a whole basket of chips with ketchup while waiting for a friend. You nibble on a johnny cake, only to find you’ve eaten three before even finishing the morning paper. Are these binges? Yes. While the clinical level of bingeing identified in the Harvard study is defined as uncontrolled eating at least twice a week for at least six months, most experts call any uncontrolled eating “bingeing.”  The key words: “Loss of control,” Harvard’s Hudson says.

And frequency, one doctor believes, isn’t that important. “When people are binge eaters, they’re binge eaters—whether they do it once a month or once a week.”

For sure, dietary lapses come in all shapes and sizes. Kathy Hardesty’s last binge was chocolate-induced. The 57-year-old from Pismo Beach, California, received a one-pound box of chocolates as a gift, and ate the whole thing within 24 hours. Brenda Messer, 45, does the occasional binge boomerang between sweet and salty. “Before you know it, forget about the bag of chips and the Ben & Jerry’s—they’re both gone.” The 1,000-plus women who answered a Health.com poll binged on everything from tacos to Twinkies, mashed potatoes to marshmallows.

Whatever the food, the binge impetus is almost always emotional, experts say. Any negative thought, from insecurity to anger, emptiness to self-doubt, can kick-start overeating. But why is turning to food such a common coping mechanism? “Food helps change our conscious experience. We go into a bubble,” Gould says. “Everything feels all right, and nothing can get to us.”

Kathy Hardesty binged because of loneliness and money worries, she says. Brenda Messer was under family and job stress. Both ate to get away from their troubles and did feel better—for a while.

This escapism is actually a form of denial, Gould says. “Food becomes a medication, a tranquilizer. Often, an addictive cycle of eating for emotional relief is born: “I feel bad. I can escape it by going on a binge.”  Then you wake up from that and crash because the other part of you clicks in, the part that thinks, “I shouldn’t have done that.” And it doesn’t matter if you’re escaping by raiding the fridge, hitting three fast-food drive-throughs, or finishing off a pint of Rocky Road. The end result, Gould says, is typically a wash of guilt, which can prompt the entire cycle to repeat.

To Be Continued