An embarrassing craving for Oreo mashed potatoes could be a sign of an eating disorder, based on a recent study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. The study was the first to look at the link between binge eating and “food concocting”—making strange food mixtures that you would be too embarrassed or ashamed to eat in front of others.
Lead researcher Mary Boggiano, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, had heard stories about people with eating disorders making strange, secretive food concoctions. But nobody had ever documented this behavior in a scientific paper.
To become the first, Boggiano and her colleagues developed a Concocting Survey, which they gave to over 500 study participants. Most were college students, but some were clients seeking treatment for binge eating or compulsive overeating issues.
Almost everyone overeats occasionally. But people with binge eating disorder repeatedly eat unusually large amounts of food. Their eating feels out of control and often leads to feelings of embarrassment, guilt, disgust, or depression. Binge eaters may overeat even when not hungry, and they may wolf down a lot of food very quickly or gorge until they have a belly ache. “People who scored high on binge eating criteria were the ones most likely to report food concocting,” says Boggiano.
Oddly enough, eating too little, rather than too much, may set the stage for weird food cravings. Boggiano calls this the famine hypothesis. “I found several historical accounts of concocting in people who had suffered semi-starvation, such as famine victims or prisoners of war,” she says. Driven by extreme hunger, some had made nauseating or poisonous mixtures, using ingredients such as weeds, bark, clay, sawdust, shoe leather, and even manure.
What’s the connection to people with a disorder characterized by a glut of food? “Half of patients with binge eating disorder have a history of severe dieting,” Boggiano says. “A lot of my prior work done with animal models showed that the brain actually changes with a history of dieting.” Those changes may persist after the period of food deprivation has passed.
Rather than being motivated by hunger, food concocting in binge eaters seems to be driven by a craving. “We think that concocting may be a way of getting a food they’re craving, but don’t have on hand,” says Boggiano. In the midst of an out-of-control eating binge, someone craving cake might not feel like stopping to drive to the supermarket. Instead, Boggiano says, that person might just stir together some chocolate syrup and oatmeal and eat it uncooked.
“In our survey, we found that sweet ingredients—such as chocolate, sugar, or honey—were used most frequently in concocting,” Boggiano adds.
Should you be worried about that chocolate chip, butter, and salami sandwich you just ate? That depends largely on how you feel about it.
Unhealthy food concocting is guilty, secretive behavior, not unlike problem drinking or drug abuse. “People make these concoctions in a frenzy, and they feel kind of high while they’re doing it,” Boggiano says. “Afterward, they feel very self-deprecating, full of guilt and shame.”
If this sounds like you, Boggiano urges seeking professional help. Keep in mind: Because the research on food concocting is so new, it’s not something that therapists routinely ask about. “If your therapist doesn’t ask, bring it up,” Boggiano says.
Talking about the problem with someone who can help is the first step toward overcoming it. “It’s like anything else: The more secrets you keep, the less progress you’re going to make in getting well,” Boggiano says. “Staying quiet keeps you feeling alone and like a freak.”
That’s far from the truth. In fact, a quarter of the people who took Boggiano’s survey said they had engaged in food concocting at least once. “You’re not the only one who’s doing it,” Boggiano says. But when food concocting causes distress—and especially when it’s accompanied by other symptoms of binge eating—it may be a sign of a serious but treatable eating disorder.
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