Story Highlights• Binge eating is America's most common eating disorder, new research shows
• Binging affects one in 35 women, three times as common as anorexia nervosa
• Doctors starting to understand fine line between overeating and binge disorder
By Elizabeth Cohen
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(CNN) -- For Natalie, it started in high school. She had always been a hearty eater, but increasingly, when life got stressful, she turned to food for comfort.
At first it was relatively harmless, she says, but in college, as her life pressures grew, her habit escalated to a full-fledged eating disorder called binge eating.
"I would maybe eat lunch with friends and eat a normal-size lunch," she says. "And then after lunch, when the people would leave, I would go and get more food and I would eat until I was very full or just couldn't eat any more."
Natalie, who doesn't want her last name used, remembers one of her biggest binges: two pints of ice cream and then "a sleeve of Ritz crackers with peanut butter, Triscuits, some cheese from the refrigerator, maybe some cream cheese straight out of the carton, maybe some mayonnaise right out of the jar."
While many of us overeat but never reach this extreme, doctors are becoming alarmed at the number of Americans who are becoming binge eaters. Binge eating has now become America's most common eating disorder, affecting one in 35 women, making it three times as common as anorexia nervosa, according to new research.
Doctors are also starting to understand how easy it can be to go from overeating to binge eating. (Are you a compulsive overeater? Answer Overeaters Anonymous' questions. )
"There can be a very fine line, and it can be very easy to cross," says psychologist Linda Craighead, author of "The Appetite Awareness Handbook."
From overeating to binge eating
Natalie says that in the beginning, she never knew she had a problem. "I just thought I had a big appetite," she says. "I've always loved food."
That's a fairly typical beginning for an eating disorder.
"Many individuals really like food, and like to pig out sometimes. They do that and they're not distressed about it," says Craighead, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University. "But someone with binge-eating disorder, whenever they lose this control, they feel really bad afterwards."
Another hallmark of binge eating is secretiveness. Natalie says her eating was "sneaky." She binged in private and even went so far as to buy small amounts of food at different stores, so no one would see her buying huge amounts. She burned the extra calories by exercising excessively.
Eventually she couldn't keep it a secret anymore. In college, about five days a week she would binge and pass out, exhausted from the eating. She had to drop out of school. "It was like a feeling of being drunk. That kind of passing out," she says. "I thought I was going to die. I just thought, 'I'm really killing myself.' "
Why people binge
Natalie -- and experts on binge eating -- say food becomes an addiction, like alcohol or drugs. While using her chosen drug, Natalie felt a high. She said it distracted her from the problems in her life. "I was binging every day and it was a way that I was coping with the stress of school," she says.
The eating is a way to numb feelings, Craighead says. "The person is feeling bad and eating allows them to kind of temporarily tune that out," she says. "I call it the magician's trick: If you create a diversion -- which is the eating -- then you won't have to feel the feelings." (Interactive: What you can do if you think you might be a binge eater. )
Another cause of binging is compensating for a severe diet, experts say.
"When people are binging, it usually means that the rest of the time they're trying to eat really super healthy and so they get this psychological deprivation," says Craighead. "When you eat only broccoli, then when you binge, you're gonna go for something that you've been denying yourself."
Overcoming binge eating
When binge eaters come to see Craighead, one of the first things she tells them is to eat every few hours, so they won't feel deprived and go on a binge.
"We really insist that they eat breakfast, that they eat lunch, that they eat a midafternoon snack, and people surprise themselves that when they do that shift in their schedule, they actually feel less pressure to binge," she says.
Eating on a schedule helped Natalie, as did joining a support group.
Now 31, Natalie is a teacher and hasn't been on a binge in seven months. She still remembers the days when she felt alone. "I just thought something was wrong with me," she says. "I didn't know there was help, or that this actually existed as a disorder."
CNN Medical News Senior Producer Jennifer Pifer and Associate Producer Sabriya Rice contributed to this report.