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6 Facts That Will Help You Understand Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is among the most important and yet misunderstood mental health disorders in the world. It is surprisingly common and can have dangerous health consequences if left untreated, like obesity, heart disease, sleep apnea, and many others. Even beyond the health risks, experts at eating disorder recovery centers have noted the emotional distress that comes with the disorder can disrupt a person’s life in a variety of ways. This list should help you understand just what binge eating disorder is and how it can affect a person’s life.

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

Unlike more-publicized eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder doesn’t feature any behaviors that drive weight loss (aside from dieting, as we’ll see shortly). Binge eating disorder, instead, causes people who are unsatisfied with their weight or appearance to compulsively engage in binge eating episodes, often caused by hunger from their dieting. According to the DSM-V, the main criteria of binge eating disorder are:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
    • Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2 hours), an amount of food that is larger than most people would eat in a similar period under similar circumstances
    • The sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)

The binge eating episodes must occur at least once a week for a period of three months for the diagnostic criteria to occur, although less frequent binging is still a sign that a problem might be brewing. Other signs of binge eating disorder include eating when the individual isn’t hungry, eating past the point of feeling full, and feeling embarrassed or ashamed about their eating habits – the last one often results in secret binges. People with binge eating disorder often hoard or hide the foods they prefer to eat when binging.

Health Risks of Binge Eating Disorder

As evidenced by its being listed in the DSM-V, binge eating disorder is a serious mental health condition. In addition to the other mental health disorders it can accompany, such as depression and several kinds of anxiety, it can bring about serious health risks as well. These on the most part revolve around weight gain and obesity, although some shorter-term effects such as painful swelling are a direct result of the binge eating episodes themselves. Some of these health risks include:

1. Heart disease

Weight gain and obesity can make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood, as well as clogging the arteries. The strain put on the cardiovascular system increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Higher cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar are also common when an individual becomes obese.

2. Depression and Self-Harm

It’s hard to tell whether depression causes binge eating or vice versa. Most mental health professionals think they work in a cycle, where negative feelings cause binge eating, which then causes further guilt, and so on. Depression causes a lack of motivation, loss of pleasure in formerly pleasurable activities, and on some occasions self-harm and suicide. The link between depression and binge eating disorder is well-established; the risks of either are worsened by the presence of the other.

3. Type 2 Diabetes

Changes in blood sugar caused by obesity can result in type 2 diabetes, which can cause vision impairment, heart disease, organ failures, and other deleterious effects. High blood sugar interferes with the body’s ability to produce and regulate insulin, which helps the body process sugars and carbohydrates. Although Type 2 diabetes is treatable, it can take years to treat and dramatically influence a person’s quality of life.

Other Facts About Binge Eating Disorder That Help Put It in Context

Here are six facts about binge eating disorder that might help you understand binge eating disorder:

1. Binge eating disorder doesn’t see race or color

Although reported cases of binge eating disorder are slightly higher among white women, it’s thought that it’s also underreported among people of color. This perpetuates the false idea that eating disorders only affect white women, and that attitude does a real disservice to the millions of people of color who share a strong need for eating disorder recovery assistance. Understanding how binge eating disorder touches far more races and ethnicities than the common perception may suggest will hopefully help more people of color receive a correct diagnosis and get help.

2. Binge eating disorder and dieting are usually linked

Binge eating disorder is defined by repeated episodes in which a person eats a large amount of food in a short period, usually beyond the point of feeling sated. This often results in the individual gaining weight, which brings on a sense of shame about their eating habits. They’ll then publicly go on a series of diets so that other people think they are trying to lose weight – this continues the shame cycle. In almost every case of binge eating disorder, the individual struggles with a negative body image and weight.In a way, the cycle of controlling what is eaten and then losing that control is an encapsulation of binge eating disorder.

3. Binge eating disorder affects men almost as much as women

Although it’s a fact that eating disorders like bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa affect women more frequently than they do men, eating disorders are more common in men than most people think. It is almost a cliché that eating disorder treatment is only for women. Unlike most forms of eating disorders, however, binge eating disorder affects men almost as often as women.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), as much as  40 percent of the total cases of binge eating disorder occur in men, making it many times more common in men than anorexia or bulimia nervosa are.There are some social stigmas about discussing eating and body image in men, even to this day, that lead many men suffering from binge eating disorder to avoid seeking help or even admitting a problem. However, the many health risks that are associated with the disorder and obesity can cut short men’s lives as easily as women’s, so families must be aware of how common this disorder is in men.

4. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States

In the same study that NEDA performed that confirmed the high incidence of binge eating disorder in men, it was found 3.5 percent of women and 2.0 percent of men experience binge eating disorder at some point in their lives. That makes it more than three times as common as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa combined, despite those disorders being more well-known in general.

Those percentages make binge eating disorder one of the largest health concerns facing Americans, even though many people don’t understand how common and dangerous it is. Binge eating disorder has a higher incidence than HIV or schizophrenia, or even breast cancer. With continued efforts from the psychological and eating disorder recovery communities, we can hope that public awareness of this common disorder is raised, and this national health concern can be better addressed.

5. Binge eating disorder was only officially recognized by the psychiatric community recently

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–V), which is the official listing of mental health, behavioral, and psychiatric disorders, has listed bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa for decades. And yet, binge eating disorder, despite being the most common eating disorder, was only added to the DSM-V in 2013.

By gaining official recognition in the DSM-V, binge eating disorder is more likely to be recognized by family practitioners, family and child psychologists, and other medical professionals. Hopefully, as it gains more prominence among mental health and medical professionals after being added to the manual, more people will be able to get the eating disorder treatment they need to overcome binge eating disorder.

6.Binge eating disorder usually begins later in life than other eating disorders

Other forms of eating disorders usually begin earlier than binge eating disorder. Some like, pica and phobia-based eating disorders, usually begin in childhood. They are not usually related to body image concerns like other eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which are related to body dysmorphia and a compulsion to lose weight, generally start in early adolescence, from the ages of 12 – 14 years old. Puberty and increasing body consciousness are primary triggers for these kinds of disordered eating.

Binge eating disorder, on the other hand, can start in early adolescence, but it’s more commonly known to begin in early adulthood. Most long-term cases of binge eating disorder start from the ages of 19 – 24 years old. It’s also much more likely to develop in older adults. This may be related to the body’s metabolism slowing down as people age, resulting in weight gain and subsequent dieting.

Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder treatment is available from individual counselors as well as more dedicated eating disorder treatment facilities.It’s usually a combination of nutritional education, meal planning, mindful movement education, traditional talk therapy, and behavior modification techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). These help people in recovery from binge eating disorder understand the relationship between eating, emotions, body image, and physical health. Co-occurring disorders like depression may be treated with medications, but binge eating disorder itself normally is not. If your eating behaviors or those of a loved one are getting out of hand and beginning to affect your life, don’t hesitate to reach out for treatment. The first step is the hardest – but a recovered life is achievable.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.