Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By Wesley H. Gallagher
Over the past several years, eating disorders have gained much needed exposure as real and often life-threatening health conditions. Thin is no longer “in,” as more awareness is raised about anorexia and bulimia and the unhealthy lengths celebrities and models go to in order to maintain their figures. The body positivity movement has emerged to counteract societal pressures to be thin, coining phrases like “real women have curves” in an effort to set people free from the temptation to take drastic measures to lose weight.
These are positive changes — society shouldn’t pressure people to look a certain way, and anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that should be taken seriously. But there is a forgotten eating disorder, one that affects more Americans than anorexia and bulimia combined, and it doesn’t fit the typical eating disorder image. One out of 35 Americans has binge eating disorder (BED), a disorder that was only recognized as a formal diagnosis in 2013.1
What Is Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?
Binge eating is characterized as eating a large amount of food, quickly and to the point of discomfort, and feeling out of control while bingeing. Binge eating is something we’ve probably all done at one point, and some people may do it more than others. For some, however, this is a regular habit. BED is typically diagnosed when someone binge eats at least once a week for three months or more, without any consistent purging behavior.2
Because it was only recently recognized as a disorder, research is still new and the causes of BED are largely unknown. It is likely caused by a mix of factors, including genetics, family history and life experience. It often goes hand in hand with disorders like depression and anxiety. What is certain is that BED is not just a lack of willpower or laziness, and no diet or exercise plan will fix it — it is a disorder that lives in the brain.
Misconceptions About Binge Eating Disorder
Our culture has a complicated history with weight, but despite advancements like the body positivity movement, people who are overweight are still often looked down upon. The shame that surrounds obesity has led to a lack of openness about issues like BED. It’s estimated that 57 percent of people with BED never get treatment, and the disorder is surrounded by misperceptions.3
People with BED often look quite different from those with anorexia or bulimia. The phrase “eating disorder” conjures images of rail-thin women and girls who look in the mirror and see a fat person. Not only the media, but also the medical community has neglected to focus on disorders that don’t cause their victims to slowly waste away. Few people look at an overweight person and think they might have an eating disorder.
The prevailing attitude about obesity is that it stems largely from poor eating or exercise habits due to a simple lack of willpower. Overweight people are often seen as lazy and told that if they would just stop eating so much and start working out more, they would lose weight. For someone who battles with BED, this way of thinking can actually be extremely detrimental to the process of getting the help they need.
In the case of binge eating disorder, laziness is not a factor. In fact, many who struggle are high achievers who can’t accept that they can’t just force themselves to stop overeating. Common traits of people with BED are perfectionism, difficulties regulating emotion, having a rigid way of thinking, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and stress eating. They often eat heavily restricted diets during the day, which leaves them vulnerable to bingeing at night. Not only have restrictive diets been shown to be ineffective in general, but they are actually harmful for those with BED. They tend to use food to soothe or ignore negative feelings, making it more of an emotional issue than a physical issue. Forty percent of people with BED are male, which defies another stereotype that it is mostly women who struggle with eating disorders.3
Another common misperception is that BED is synonymous with obesity. In fact, only about 70 percent of those with it are medically obese.1 And while successful treatment may result in modest weight loss, it does not guarantee dramatic change in weight. The physical health risks associated with BED are mostly tied to clinical obesity — risks like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes — but these are not the main focuses in treatment. The main goal is to stop the bingeing cycle, improve overall physical, mental and emotional health and change the way a person relates to food.
Can Binge Eating Order Be Treated?
Fortunately, binge eating disorder is highly treatable. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be extremely effective, with nearly 80 percent of patients abstaining from bingeing after 20 sessions and a high continuing success rate.1 Treatment may also include nutritional coaching and support groups. With the help of treatment facilities specifically geared toward eating disorders, like the Center For Change, those with BED can get the customized care they need to get well.
The designation of BED as an eating disorder was an important development to the treatment of the disease, as a documented diagnosis can lead to better access to care and better coverage for that care through insurance. Now it’s up to the medical community to see BED for the disorder it is, screen for signs of it and raise awareness so patients can get the treatment they need. If you or anyone you know is dealing with BED, talk to your healthcare provider about your options, check with your insurance about coverage or call us for more information about treatment.
1 Zulkey, Claire. “How Therapy Can Cure Overeating.” The Atlantic, August 23, 2017.
2 “Binge Eating Disorder.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
3 Gold, Grace. “Binge Eating Disorder Is The Most Common Eating Disorder In America – Here’s What You Should Know.” Self, February 25, 2016.