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Binge Eating Disorder – A Short FAQ

 Binge eating disorder, even though it’s the most common eating disorder in the United States, isn’t as well-known among the general public as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa. Because binge eating disorder doesn’t typically include the self-starvation associated with anorexia nervosa or the well-known binge/purge cycle that’s symptomatic of bulimia nervosa, it’s less dramatic and garners less attention. However, binge eating disorder (BED) carries health consequences every bit as dangerous as other eating disorders if it’s left untreated.

The potential health risks that come with binge eating disorder are many and they compound as time goes on. These health complications include high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, and even strokes – are caused by the repetitive binge eating episodes that define the disorder. BED also often co-occurs with other mental health disorders such as acute anxiety disorders and depression, which compound the effects of BED and carry various health risks of their own accord.

What Do I Need to Know About Binge Eating Disorder?

If you are reading this, the chances are high that you or someone you know has had an experience with binge eating disorder. Even though it’s the most common form of an eating disorder, most people don’t know all that much about it – it might even be casually dismissed as simple “overeating” or an occasional “cheat day” on a diet (more on that later). We’re here to set the record straight about this misunderstood disorder Here are eight facts about binge eating disorder you may not have known.

1. Binge eating disorder affects men nearly as often as it affects women
Most people who aren’t involved in the professional world of eating disorder treatment might think eating disorders only affect women, especially young women. Certainly anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa affect women much more frequently than men. It’s almost become a cliché that eating disorder treatment is only for women. Unlike those disorders, however, BED affects men almost as often as it does women.

40 percent of the total cases of binge eating disorder occur in men, with the other 60 percent being in women, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). This puts men with BED at further risk, because of certain social attitudes about masculinity and mental health treatment that persist, like the mistaken idea that asking for help is a sign of weakness. However, the many health risks that are associated with BED can impact men’s lives as easily as women’s, so men with BED need to get help just as much as women do.

2. Binge eating disorder affects every race and ethnicities
Unfortunately, the idea that eating disorders only happen to upper-class white women keeps persisting despite outreach and knowledge campaigns by eating disorder treatment professionals and other groups.This ongoing misconception puts millions of men and women of color at a disadvantage when it comes to eating disorder diagnoses and getting help. Binge eating disorder and other disorders concerning body image and troubled relationships with foodaffect far more races and ethnicities than is commonly thought.

There are some organizations like the website Nalgona Positivity Pride that are shedding light on these mistaken ideas and shedding light on the reality of the situation. This organization and others like it put a premium on sharing the voices of every ethnicity and the struggle with body image distortion. They often discuss their experiences with fad dieting, poor and flawed body image, and other eating disorder-related concepts.

3. Dieting and binge eating disorder are intricately linked
Because there isn’t extreme weight loss and calorie restriction like found on anorexia nervosa or frequent purges such as in bulimia nervosa, BED isn’t associated with body image distortions as frequently as the others. However, people with BED almost always have a troubled relationship with their bodies and often engage in fad or yo-yo diets punctuated by binge eating episodes.

In almost every case of binge eating disorder, the person in question wrestles with a negative body image and a sense of dissatisfaction with their body weight and shape. Engaging in fad diets, like paleo or meat-only diets, is extremely common with people who have BED. This link to dieting is associated with the sense of losing control that comes with binge eating episodes.

4. Binge eating disorder affects more people than anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa
According to NEDA, 3.5 percent of women and 2.0 percent of men will display the signs and symptoms of BED for at least a short period during their lives, which makes BED the most common eating disorder in the United States. That makes it more than three times as common as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa combined, a truly frightening statistic considering how dangerous BED can be when left untreated.

These figures underscore just what a public health concern binge eating disorder truly is. BED has more cases in the United States than either HIV or schizophrenia. Despite the yearly national press attention it gets, breast cancer is less common than BED. With continued efforts from the psychological and eating disorder recovery communities, we can hope that public awareness of BED and other eating disorders can be increased, and more people can receive the binge eating disorder treatment they need.

5. Many cases of binge eating disorder aren’t diagnosed properly
According to registered dietitian nutritionists who took a survey about their clients’ motivation to change their diet patterns, almost 30 percent of the people they consult with regarding weight management also show clear signs of binge eating disorder. Despite this, most of those people have never received a BED diagnosis or even suspected that they may have a disorder. Part of the problem is that RDNs are trained to help people lose weight and balance their nutrition, whereas eating disorder treatment is more commonly associated with increasing weight.

This means binge eating disorder treatment can begin with an RDN but requires a multidisciplinary team including medical doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists. All too often by the time a diagnosis of BED is made, the individual in question will have been engaging in binge eating episodes for extended periods.

6. Binge eating disorder was only officially recognized quite recently
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), which is the official listing of mental health, behavioral, and psychiatric disorders, has included other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa for at least 50 years. On the other hand, although it is the most common eating disorder and affects millions more people than AN or bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder wasn’t officially recognized by the DSM-V until 2013.

The good news is that BED’s inclusion into the DSM-V makes it more likely than in previous years that non-specialists in eating disorders will be able to correctly make a diagnosis of binge eating disorder since they are more likely to know the signs and symptoms.This can reduce the risk of hypertension, heart disease, and so on because it’s more likely that BED will be caught earlier. As with every kind of mental health disease, early intervention makes the recovery process easier and more complete.

7. Food insecurity is linked to binge eating disorder
Food insecurity, all too common in densely populated areas, refers to the inability to afford or secure a healthy, balanced, and nutritious diet. That’s a roundabout way of saying that food insecurity is commonly associated with poverty. Food insecurity is also closely linked with “food deserts,” where access to nutritious, non-junk food is out of range for consumers, whether that range is financial or geographical. 

Compounding the risk factors for these populations is the fact that many of the health issues associated with food insecurity require specialized medical treatment, including in some cases binge eating disorder treatment. The aforementioned populations, in addition to food insecurity, also have “medical insecurity” in which they have no insurance or insufficient insurance to meet their needs.

8. Binge eating episodes usually revolve around “forbidden” foods
As discussed in point #3,cases of binge eating disorder are often associated with a history of extreme and frequent dieting. In many of these diets, food groups are strictly avoided. These foods usually include what are called “junk” foods,which contain trans fats, starches, and sodium. Aside from these unhealthy foods, some fad diets may restrict even essential food groups, such as the Atkins diet which forbids carbs. However, this denial of certain kinds of foods makes them even more likely to be hoarded and binge-eaten in secret.

These junk foods, when eaten in binges (a binge eating episode can vary in the amount eaten from person to person, but it generally means more food than is necessary to feel full, in a short period)might produce an influx of “empty” calories with little to no nutritional value. Eating “forbidden” foods, especially when eaten to excess, often causes feelings of guilt and shame in the individual, which then might lead to more and more restrictive dieting. This, of course, prompts the urge to binge eat once again, in a vicious cycle.

Binge Eating Disorder Isn’t a “Lack of Willpower;” It’s a DIsorder

It’s far too easy for many people to dismiss BED as a simple case of overeating from time to time. Some people even ask, “Well why don’t they just stop eating? It’s as simple as that.”
It’s the same as saying to a person with depression, “Just stop feeling sad!” Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health condition that requires professional assistance for recovery. The consequences of untreated BED are clear – as well as blood sugar imbalances leading to type 2 diabetes, BED is linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks and arrhythmia, sleep apnea, strokes, and many other conditions.

Fortunately, hope is at hand in the form of specialized binge eating disorder treatment programs. Facilities like those offered by Monte Nido & Affiliates can provide treatment on an outpatient (day treatment) or inpatient (residential) basis. The program follows a standard pattern of building on previous breakthroughs to identify and address the disordered thinking and emotional patterns that cause BED behaviors. Although it’s a standard process, each program is tailored to the person going into treatment. Our counselors, psychiatric specialists, and medical professionals are experienced and compassionate leaders in the field of BED recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with BED, don’t wait. Call us today at 888.288.1253.


Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido, 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.