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Bingeing and Purging

Rapid Overeating and Compensatory Behaviors

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Updated September 07, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Bingeing and Purging

Bingeing and purging form one type of overeating pattern.

Image © Dimitri Vervitsiotis / Getty Images

What Are Bingeing and Purging?

Bingeing and purging involves eating much larger amounts than normal (bingeing) then attempting to compensate by removing the food consumed from the body, known as purging.

Types of Bingeing

People can binge on any type of food, although typically high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods are used, both because of their "forbidden" nature (particularly to those who are concerned about their body weight), and because of the concern they cause when eaten.

Common binge foods include:

  • ice cream
  • bread
  • chocolate
  • candy
  • cake
  • cookies
  • doughnuts
  • potato chips
  • popcorn
  • cereal
  • pizza
  • sandwiches
  • soda pop

Types of Purging

There are several different types of purging that people use to attempt to remove the excessive food they have eaten.

Vomiting

The most commonly recognized form of purging is self-induced vomiting – often the person will stimulate the gag reflex by putting their fingers down their throat to induce vomiting, or they will drink salty water or another substance to induce vomiting. Vomiting can be harmful to the digestive system and can cause dehydration. Exposure of the teeth to the stomach acid in vomit can cause irreparable damage and tooth decay.

Diarrhea

Another type of purging is self-induced diarrhea. This is typically achieved by using laxatives to clear out the lower part of the digestive system. Diarrhea is also harmful to the digestive system, causing dehydration and malabsorption of vitamins, and over time, risking constipation if laxatives are over-used. Diuretics are also sometimes used to lose weight, although these drugs simply cause water loss, which is quickly gained back.

Excessive Exercise

A less well-recognized form of purging is excessive exercise. Exercise is typically considered to be a healthy behavior, particularly among people who are overweight or obese, so exercise is rarely discouraged until harms result from it. Exercising enough to burn off the calories of a binge can take hours per day, resulting in time being taken away from other activities. People who are not taking in enough nutrients through a balanced diet to support the demands on the body of excessive exercise may become malnourished -- empty calories taken in through binges may not be adequate to build and repair muscle and bone. And without carefully managing your fluid and mineral intake through the exercise process, you can risk dehydration or hyponatremia.

Purging with exercise can also be fueled by use of stimulant drugs, such as meth and other amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy or caffeine. These drugs can can give temporary bursts of energy, increase physical and mental alertness, and increase the ability to exercise for prolonged periods of time. Typically, these drugs have a rebound effect, resulting in exhaustion after the drug wears off.

Are Bingeing and Purging Eating Disorders?

Bingeing and purging are not, in themselves, eating disorders, although individually and in combination, they can be symptoms of an eating disorder such as Binge Eating Disorder or Bulimia Nervosa.

Both bingeing and purging are compulsive behaviors, meaning that people can get into a pattern of repeatedly carrying out these behaviors, even against their better judgment. Often, the trigger for bingeing and purging is stress or low self esteem, rather than an objective assessment of the need for weight control.

Over-eating and excessive exercise are viewed by some professionals and sufferers as types of food addiction and exercise addiction, respectively. However, the concepts of food addiction, exercise addiction and behavioral addictions generally remain controversial, and not all mental health professionals are in agreement about what type of disorder they are, or even whether they are disorders at all.

Is There Help Available for People Who Binge and Purge?

Bingeing and purging are generally well recognized within the mental health system. Talk to your family doctor about your concerns regarding binging and purging, and they will make an appropriate referral. Typically, people who binge and purge are referred to a psychiatrist or to a specialized eating disorders clinic. Although bingeing and purging may be part of an addiction problem, they are typically not treated by addiction services unless there is a co-existing alcohol or drug problem, or it is a particularly enlightened clinic which treats concurrent disorders and/or behavioral addictions.

Sources: Fairburn, C. Overcoming Binge Eating. New York: Guilford. 1995. Kessler, D. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale. 2009.

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