Binge eating - extreme overeating - is the most common eating disorder. Picture: Supplied
Jessica Smith*, 25, had no idea that she had a “bad” relationship with food until she lost her father and ended up in a psychiatric facility, at 16, for binge eating disorder (BED).

“It was only that time I started to understand I was a food addict. I grew up loving food, but never saw that as a problem,” said Smith.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) explained that an eating disorder was an illness that resulted in people either overeating or starving themselves or adopting unhealthy behaviours concerning food and body weight.

These disorders include binge eating, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia.

They interfere with daily life and without proper treatment they can cause serious health problems.

Sadag explained that BED was episodes of extreme overeating - which was the most common eating disorder.

People who struggle with it are usually overweight or obese, and it affects both males and females. In contrast with bulimia, it does not lead people to purge (vomit), fast, or over-exercise.

It can develop at any age but is often diagnosed in middle age. It can lead to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Growing up, Smith said she had always had a problem with food, and her overeating resulted in her being overweight.

“Food has always played a preventable role in our lives. My mother would pack me excessive lunches which I ate before break time.

“She also struggled with food and brought me up in an environment in which she was obsessed with it.”

Smith said her breaking point was in her teens, when she tried to commit suicide, which landed her in an institution for a month, when she was diagnosed.

She said she coped better with her condition after accepting the fact that she was addicted to food, and seeking support for her condition.

To cope with it, she said she avoids restaurants and was on medication to control cravings. She has a skinny fiancée who appreciates good food, and she admited preparing food for him can be challenging.

“It’s easy to just eat like him, but it’s usually followed by regret and depression.”

Julie Deane-Williams, a registered dietitian and Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) spokesperson who has a special interest in treating eating disorders, said in some cases, the dietitian may be the first port of call for help.

“Even though there are high levels of denial associated with disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the dietitian is often the healthcare professional on call, especially when it comes to a person struggling with emotional/comfort eating or binge eating disorder.”

Sadag said successful treatment may come from a combination of approaches.

Talking to a therapist - particularly cognitive behavioural therapy - can help change unhealthy eating habits and thinking patterns.

Nutrition education, family counselling, and support groups also help, while weight-loss programmes can also get long-term control over binge eating. If depression is an issue, medication can help too. * Not her real name.