Book Review: The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook

bingeOooh. Carolyn Coker Ross and New Harbinger, you almost had it. But you missed the mark. And boy am I bummed.

I read and completed the exercises throughout “The Binge Eating & Compulsive Overeating Workbook: An Integrated Approach to Overcoming Disordered Eating” by Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH (New Harbinger Publications, Inc.). I wanted to be able to recommend it, especially to those who desperately want help with bingeing and/or overeating, but who might presently be unable to get counseling. Unfortunately, I cannot make that recommendation.

Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating are disorders that are too serious to allow for contradictory, sloppy content in materials offering to treat them. Sufferers are confused enough around food as it is. Treatment texts need to tread carefully. “The Binge Eating & Compulsive Overeating Workbook” doesn’t — not carefully enough. And I’m disappointed, because this workbook had some real potential.

One of the things I liked most about this particular workbook is that it divides its contents into three parts, addressing the healing of the Body, Mind and Spirit, respectively. Binge eating and compulsive overeating are never the result of mere hedonism. Disordered eating is almost always driven by fears and anxieties that live in the mind and wear away at the spirit, which is why taking a holistic approach to healing is crucial.

The Binge Eating & Compulsive Overeating Workbook” got big-time bonus points from me for its down-to-earth explanation of weight and the health risks associated with excess weight. This workbook is refreshingly even-handed in this regard. Unlike the medical community, for example, which is too often too quick to assume that every fat person is a walking timebomb, and that going on a diet post-haste is the ultimate cure-all.

In a section of Chapter 2 titled “The Facts About Your Health Risks”, the workbook fairly states that “…if you suffer from BED (Binge Eating Disorder) or CO (Compulsive Overeating), your risk for certain diseases may be increased. Most of these risks are thought to be related to weight, but may instead be related to overall level of fitness, as little of the research in this area has included individuals who are both overweight and physically fit.” It then goes on to list those diseases. The workbook also states that “…individuals who engage in yo-yo dieting or weight cycling are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure.”

Thumbs-up to this workbook, too, for the fact that it wisely ignores the notion of using the scale by itself to measure one’s progress in getting healthier, or in gauging health risks. Instead, it instructs the reader in how to calculate his or her Body Mass Index (BMI), yet still points out that “BMI is a good approximation of body fat but it has some limitations”, and goes on to detail those limitations. Additionally, it introduces the idea that waist circumference is a helpful predictor of risk for certain medical conditions, and stresses that “…it is important to place less emphasis on your weight and more emphasis on where you carry your weight.”

In spite of its strengths, I have some significant complaints about “The Binge Eating & Compulsive Overeating Workbook“.

For example, the book, for the most part, does a great job of keeping the reader’s focus on healing – for the sake of an improved quality of life nutritionally, psychologically, interpersonally, even spiritually. It is generally careful not to encourage dieting, by instead emphasizing mindful, balanced eating.

It seems contradictory, then, when a section titled “Research on Spirituality and Eating Disorders” points out that “Researchers have found that spirituality has a significant effect on self-esteem and…may be related to successful weight loss efforts (emphasis mine).” It reads a lot like an advertisement for spirituality, dangling the weight-loss carrot as incentive to get spiritual, so to speak. I think the author should have left all citations about this research out of the workbook, considering what a huge role failed weight loss attempts can play in creating and/or worsening eating disorders. So much work was done to set up the right frame of mind for the workbook’s user; the inclusion of this small section is potentially confusing, and definitely careless.

Also falling into the “Better Left Unsaid” category is the mention of the weight loss benefits of certain medications for depression and anxiety. A section of Chapter 9, “Co-occurring Diagnoses”, lists treatment options for depression and anxiety, and medication is one of them. The opening paragraph begins: “Several medications have been proposed to reduce weight and treat depression in binge eating disorder (emphasis mine).” The same paragraph names two medications which “enhanced the weight loss achieved with behavioral therapies.”

Why are you even pointing this out? This workbook is supposed to be a healing tool for people with eating disorders. When eating disorders are so commonly aided by — and even caused by — a diet mentality gone awry, why would you even entertain including this utterly unnecessary information? Considering the workbook’s target readership and that readership’s unhealthy relationship with food, wouldn’t it have been a more intelligent, editorially sensitive decision to leave the weight loss “bonus” of some of these medications out of the discussion? Why tempt people who have food issues (and in all likelihood dieting issues), to select a treatment option that winks “weight loss” at them? It makes you wonder if Carolyn Coker Ross, or Andrew Stropko, Ph.D., with whom this particular chapter was written, have a truly firm grasp on the mindset of people with these disorders. Before going to print, perhaps New Harbinger should’ve given the manuscript to a couple of binge eaters or compulsive overeaters in recovery to nitpick for careless nuggets like these.

My mouth literally dropped open while reading Chapter 11, “Tools to Manage Stress”, when I came upon a section that at first glance looked completely reasonable, titled “Getting a Good Night’s Sleep”. But suddenly, the text wags a finger at the already vulnerable, eating-disordered reader, warning that “You may think you’re doing fine with just four or five hours of sleep a night. But remember: not getting enough sleep increases your risk of obesity (emphasis mine).”

In a single line, the workbook goes schizophrenic. It reads like a typical scare tactic from some cheap women’s magazine. Get your sleep, or god forbid, you might get fat! As if sufferers of BED/CO aren’t self-conscious enough about their weight. What happened to all that feel-good body image stuff served up in Chapter 7, “Mirror, Mirror”, which claims it “explores how to develop a healthy relationship with your body by moving from an external focus (your image of your body) to an internal focus (being in a relationship with your body)”? This chapter tells us that “When you struggle with body image issues, you rarely see your body for what it is. You see the surface but miss the depth and wonder inside.” Talk about your mixed messages! By all means, appreciate the depth and wonder of your internal body, but while you’re stoned on all that pure internal wonder, make sure you keep one eye on that external bod at all times, lest it should get fat! And isn’t that the worst possible thing anyone could be? Thanks for the shot of self-esteem, there, workbook!

Besides, if one is eating mindfully and enjoying a good nutritional balance from day to day, there’s no need to worry about obesity. Why does the workbook even go there?

With a little conscientious tweaking, this workbook could be a powerful tool for sufferers of BED/CO. As-is, however, it’s got a few too many awkward and disorienting messages to be a resource to which one can trust their recovery.

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