Here’s What You Should Know
Though only recently recognized, binge eating disorder affects more people than anorexia and bulimia combined.
Hearing the words eating disorder, most people automatically think of anorexia and bulimia. But actually, neither of these is the most common eating disorder people struggle with.
For years, there were essentially three buckets into which eating disorders were grouped: the two we’ve all heard of, and, well, everything else. If you were dealing with something that was neither anorexia nor bulimia, it was usually referred to as either “eating disorder not otherwise specified” or “other specified feeding or eating disorder.” But these catch-all designations are falling out of favor with experts who know that within them, there are more accurate diagnoses that could actually describe what people are experiencing—we just don’t know what to call them yet.
About three years ago, one particular diagnosis was plucked out of the muddle of EDNOS and OSFED, and today it is considered the most common eating disorder in the U.S. (At least, the most common one that actually has a name.)
Known as binge eating disorder, the condition affects 3 to 5 percent of women, which is about 5 million sufferers nationwide. In comparison, up to 1 percent of women have anorexia, and 1 to 2 percent are afflicted with bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. And it’s estimated that 57 percent of people with BED never receive treatment.
Here are nine important facts you need to know about binge eating disorder, including how to recognize signs of it in yourself and loved ones, and what to do if you think there’s a problem.
Binge eating disorder is more than just eating too much food.
Insatiable cravings that lead to eating large amounts of food, often quickly and to the point of physical pain, and followed by intense shame and self-loathing, characterize binge eating disorder, says Kathleen Murphy, licensed professional counselor and clinical director at Breathe Life Healing Centers, where the Breakfree at Breathe program specializes in treating binge eating disorder. Unlike bulimics, who also binge, those with this disorder don’t purge afterward. Since most sufferers feel so ashamed, they often eat alone or in secret. The ensuing emotional distress affects work, school, and personal relationships.
Unlike other eating disorders, nearly as many men get it as women.
While BED does affect more women, who make up 60 percent of patients, men account for a significant 40 percent of cases. “We often see that binge eating disorder in women is more likely to occur in early adulthood, while it frequently occurs mid-life for men,” says Murphy. Caucasian, Hispanic and African American populations are equally impacted, causing many experts to call it an “equal opportunity” disorder. Up to 1.6 percent of adolescents of both genders suffer from binge eating disorder, though individuals who seek treatment for binge eating disorder are often older than those who suffer from bulimia and anorexia, says Murphy.
BED was only recently recognized as a disorder.
In 2013, BED was finally categorized as a recognizable and treatable diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) produced by the American Psychiatric Association. This was incredibly important to the treatment of the disease since a diagnosis that can be documented leads to greater access to care for sufferers. For example, most health insurance companies won’t provide coverage for mental illness treatments that don’t have an officially recognized DSM-5 diagnosis. Since it’s now listed as a disorder, many insurance plans cover treatment.
Binge eating disorder is a habitual eating pattern, not something you do once or twice a year.
Who hasn’t overeaten and felt guilty after an indulgent holiday like Thanksgiving or an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch? BED is not occasional overeating, however. “Episodes must take place at least once a week over a period of at least three months,” explains Murphy. Additionally, binge eating disorder is marked by a considerable amount of distress and a deep feeling of shame over the eating behavior. The overeating-guilt pattern is a vicious cycle that makes people feel completely out of control.
Emotion—not hunger—is what appears to be the driving force behind binge eating disorder.
The disorder is still newly classified, so research is underway and all of the causes of binge eating disorder aren’t known just yet. However, there are correlations between binge eating disorder and different manifestations of sadness and emotional stress. “The most common trigger for an episode is feeling bad or depressed,” says Murphy. This could be due to relationship and work problems, stress from battling weight fluctuations and body image issues, feelings of loneliness, and even boredom.
Certain personality types are more prone to the disorder.
High-risk factors for having an eating disorder, including BED, have been identified by scientists. Personalities that are inclined toward perfectionism, difficulties regulating emotion, having a rigid thinking style (like there is only one way to do things), and stress eating, are all more likely to fall victim. Those who suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem, or harbor obsessive-compulsive tendencies, are all more likely to have binge eating disorder too, says Murphy.
There’s a genetic predisposition to binge eating disorder.
A close family history of depression or addiction—whether to drugs, alcohol or painkillers—has been shown to coincide with eating disorders, including BED (though BED itself is not classified as an addiction). Those with genetic conditions such as celiac disease and Crohn’s, which require restricted eating regimes, have been shown to be more prone to developing binge eating disorder, Murphy says, though no actual genetic link between the two has been found.
Not all people with binge eating disorder are overweight.
While many binge eaters are overweight, you can be of normal weight while suffering from the disorder. “It’s interesting to note that most obese people don’t engage in recurrent binge eating episodes,” says Murphy. Experts say giant portions, a diet high in factors like calories, saturated fat and fast foods, as well as a sedentary lifestyle all contribute to obesity much more so than the loss-of-control binge eating episodes that characterize binge eating disorder.
You have a better chance of recovering from BED than other eating disorders.
Prognosis for treatment is very positive—remission rates are higher in binge eating disorder treatment outcomes than in bulimia or anorexia, says Murphy. Careful attention to structure and emotional health are still essential to successful long-term self-care. Sufferers know they shouldn’t binge, but the frustration and struggle occur when that knowledge seems to fly out the window during triggering moments when all they want to do is eat, says Murphy. Most binge eating disorder treatment programs include a combination of methods such as psychotherapy, support groups, nutrition counseling, and even alternative therapies like mindfulness and yoga.
If you or someone you know is suffering from binge eating disorder or another eating disorder, here are some helpful resources to learn more and find help:
Binge Eating Disorder Association Provider Directory
National Eating Disorders Association resource links and help and support, or call the toll-free, confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237
The Alliance For Eating Disorders Awareness
By Grace Gold