Living with Binge Eating DisorderIf you have binge eating disorder, please know that you’re not alone. Binge eating disorder (BED) is actually the most common eating disorder. It affects about 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men.

You’re also not weak, wrong or crazy. BED “is not a reflection of who you are as a person,” said Karin Lawson, PsyD, a psychologist and clinical director of Embrace, the binge eating recovery program at Oliver-Pyatt Centers.

Binge eating may serve many functions, according to Amy Pershing, LMSW, ACSW, the executive director of Pershing Turner Centers, an eating disorder recovery outpatient clinic in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Annapolis, Md.

It might soothe stress and help you escape, especially when you’ve experienced trauma or significant shame, she said. “You have survived, perhaps in part because your relationship with food was a powerful coping strategy. There are better strategies now; you can learn them, and you can heal.”

Some people can get better by using self-help strategies, but BED most often requires treatment. People with BED typically suffer for many years, have co-occurring physical and mental health issues and severe body image issues, which perpetuate weight cycling and exacerbate the disorder, said Chevese Turner, founder and president of the Binge Eating Disorder Association and co-founder and managing director of Pershing Turner Centers.

But the good news is that BED is highly treatable, and you can recover, said Judith Matz, LCSW, co-author of Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Comprehensive Guide to Treating Binge Eating Disorder, Compulsive Eating and Emotional Overeating.

Below, you’ll learn more about what BED is (and isn’t) along with treatments that work (and don’t work) and helpful coping strategies.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) defines BED in this way:

Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:

  • eating, in a discrete period of time (for example, within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
  • a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (for example, a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)

The binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:

  • eating much more rapidly than normal
  • eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
  • eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating
  • feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards

Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.

The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months.

The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behavior (for example, purging) and does not occur exclusively during the course Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.

Pershing stressed the importance of paying attention to the client’s experience with food, not just to the criteria. “[I]t is critical to remember that the most important issues are a lack of control over the eating behavior and distress/shame over the behavior.”

She noted that some clients may “graze” throughout the day, and eat significantly more than needed, but in a longer period of time than the DSM defines.

Lawson also defines BED more broadly. In addition to the lack of control and feelings of shame, she’s seen that most clients have a “preoccupation with food and/or body image [and] eating compulsively while feeling numb or checked-out.”

BED has a complex etiology. Family dysfunction, genetics, attachment ruptures, mood disorders, trauma (“rates are significantly higher with BED, especially complex trauma”) and environment (such as experiences with weight stigma) may all play a role, Pershing said.

It’s also serious. According to Turner, “Within the BED community, it is not unusual to hear of individuals who have experienced serious organ failure, suicidal ideation or completion, disability due to crippling co-morbid psychiatric conditions, and metabolic issues related to weight cycling and nutritional deprivation.”

Myths About BED

There are many myths about BED and its treatment. Here’s a selection:

  • Myth: If people had more willpower, they’d stop bingeing. BED has nothing to do with willpower. Again, it’s a serious disorder. This egregious myth only “contributes to the eating disorder voice that maintains and exacerbates the condition,” Turner said. “For people with BED, eating feels out of control … is disconnected from physical hunger, and is often connected to other issues such as anxiety or depression,” said Matz, LCSW, who treats BED in Skokie, Ill.
  • Myth: People with BED are “overweight.” Actually, they “come in all sizes,” Matz said. About 30 percent of people with the disorder are considered “normal” weight and one percent are underweight, according to body mass index, Turner said. (“There are people at higher weights who do not struggle with BED or other overeating problems,” Matz said.)
  • Myth: “BED is treated by a ‘sensible eating plan’ (i.e., a diet),” Pershing said. Diets are actually contraindicated for BED and may trigger it, she said. “[T]hey can lead to weight cycling (losing and then regaining weight), which is actually hard on the body and can lead to health issues,” Lawson said. Treatment requires that people with BED work through the psychological, physical and situational factors that trigger binge episodes, Pershing said. “Another diet will not change anything; all it will do it lighten your wallet and leave you with a 95 percent likelihood of regaining the weight in 3 years.”
  • Myth: BED doesn’t require the same level of intervention as anorexia or bulimia. Typically, it requires the same treatment as any other eating disorder, Pershing said. This may include: “individual therapy, nutrition professional, groups, expressive therapies [and] medication management.”