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Breaking Down the Complications That Come With Binge Eating Disorder

The best eating disorder treatment centers, eating disorder therapists, and even the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) states that binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common type of eating disorders in the United States, and one that comes with a litany of possible complications. It’s estimated that about 3.5 percent of women have or will have experienced binge eating disorder, a total that comes out in the millions. Unusually for eating disorders, an estimated two percent of males also have signs and symptoms of BED. However, since BED is not associated with weight loss or purging behaviors like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, it’s not as publicized as much as those more dramatic disorders.  That’s problematic because BED can come with serious risks and complications. 

While there is no exact cause of binge eating disorders, there are common co-occurring disorders and behaviors that can precipitate the disorder, and there are several health (both mental and physical) risks that come with BED. It is important to examine the underlying factors that contribute to the disorder to better determine how the treatment should take place. Let’s look at some of the risk factors and complications that can be associated with binge eating disorder, and when it’s time to seek out a center for eating disorders.

A Different Age of Onset

People of any age group can find they need help from an outpatient or residential eating disorder treatment center, including treatment for BED. However, unlike anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, which begin to show symptoms in early to mid-adolescence, the BED most often starts to develop in the late adolescent years or early twenties, according to NEDA. This suggests that adulthood is a possible risk factor in the development of BED. BED treatment at nearby eating disorder recovery centers can be delayed by the misinterpretation of the disorder by family doctors or other professionals (through no malice on their part, of course), and the beginning of treatment may be delayed because of that.

BED Is Also Associated With Other Eating Disorders

BED has been proven in studies to be more of a possibility if an individual has experienced or struggled with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa in the past – and it makes sense.  Although BED doesn’t include the calorie-reduction or purging behaviors of AN or BN, some of the traits of all eating disorders are the same. For example, from the three main eating disorder subtypes, (bulimia, anorexia, and BED), common traits can include:

  • Obsessive behaviors associated with food
  • Distorted body image (not seeing the body realistically or imagining flaws)
  • Difficulty eating in public or around other people
  • A history of dieting and compulsion to try new diets
  • Problems with depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders

Because the traits associated with these three eating disorders can be the same, it is not uncommon for the disorders to overlap and show up in the same individual. This means that people who have already experienced one kind of eating disorder, or even those who have had excessive exercise treatment may be at higher risk of experiencing binge eating disorder. 

The Connection Between BED and Dieting Is Undeniable 

Watching what you eat is a good thing. Most people have to be careful about what they eat. However, people who develop an eating disorder will oftentimes have a more obsessive tendency toward dieting or weight control. A history of excessive dieting, and of trying fad or yo-yo diets, on the other hand, is almost always a contributing cause in developing BED. People may restrict their food intake publicly to the point of starving themselves, and then have frequent and uncontrollable binge eating episodes in private.

Just because someone is dieting does not necessarily mean they have an eating disorder of any type – just to be clear on that point. Yet, it’s not uncommon for a reasonable diet can spiral into compulsion and stir up disordered thoughts and behaviors leading to BED. When a patient enters an eating disorder treatment center, they will work with nutritional and fitness experts to help them understand and implement proper techniques to replace the harmful dieting behaviors they may have been following for a lot of years. 

Society and Various Forms of Media Have an Influence

Body image distortions are common in all forms of eating disorder, including BED. Part of what causes them is the standard of beauty or attractiveness pushed by media such as TV, magazines, advertising, and the movies, which are largely impossible to attain. Beyond traditional media forms, social media has also played into setting beauty standards which play into women’s (and men’s!) self-images. A certain image is displayed by the media or online that is oftentimes completely illogical and unobtainable, which can leave vulnerable individuals constantly working to achieve an impossible appearance. 

Past Trauma (PTSD) Can Be Connected

Traumatic experiences can shape people in ways they may not even be aware of.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a kind of anxiety disorder that happens after a difficult, frightening, or dangerous experience. It used to be aligned solely with military experience, but it’s become clear that any traumatic experience, like an auto accident, or even a bad romantic breakup can trigger PTSD. PTSD can bring on flashbacks, panic attacks, general anxiety, and other anxiety symptoms – and disordered actions like binge eating episodes may be a kind of coping mechanism.

PTSD sometimes has to be treated along with BED when a client enters an eating disorder recovery center. If there are symptoms of PTSD present because of sexual abuse or other trauma, the eating disorder sometimes takes a back burner throughout therapy until those underlying issues are addressed. However, in most cases, both of the psychological conditions are addressed concurrently to achieve the best outcome for the client. 

Eating Disorders Run in the Family – and Can Be Learned 

Most forms of eating disorder have some kind of biological link. Children of parents with eating disorders, including BED, are much more likely to develop an eating disorder of their own. Scientists who study eating disorders, and eating disorder therapists working in clinical studies, claim there is a definite genetic component to BED development, just as there is for mood disorders like depression. Another risk factor of families with eating disorder histories is the possibility of inadvertently teaching these behaviors.

When children are raised in an environment in which eating disorders are present in a close relative, it can mean the child is more at risk of developing an eating disorder later in life. The link between family history of eating disorders and the development of eating disorders can be relative to environmental exposure as well as potential genetic predisposition. However, if there is a family history present, whether it is a parent, sibling, or otherwise, the risks are elevated. In some situations, eating disorder behaviors are learned from adults through childhood, which means the behaviors grow to be acceptable or comfortable. 

Other Mental Health Problems Are a Risk Factor

The vast majority of people who seek treatment for BED – by some accounts, over 90 percent – have also been diagnosed with co-existing mental health or behavioral health disorders, and substance abuse issues are also much more frequent in the population with BED than in the general population. These statistics about eating disorders and co-existing disorders strongly indicate a link between ED of all types and mental health issues.

Depression is one of the most common mental health problems associated with a binge eating disorder, as it is the most common mental health disorder otherwise.  Depression can be a cause of BED or a result, which makes it a potential contributing factor that’s difficult to treat correctly. Also common among BED sufferers in OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, which often has similar symptoms to BED, in which a person compulsively and repeatedly engages in a certain kind of behavior. 

Biological Vulnerability Could Be to Blame 

Genes and brain chemistry are both thought to be linked to the vulnerability of developing a binge eating disorder. The central nervous system, which plays a huge role in eating habits, is affected by genetics and brain chemistry. Therefore, people with a genetic predisposition because of central nervous system issues or issues with how the gut functions could be at a greater risk of developing a binge eating disorder. Research relative to underlying biological vulnerability and eating disorders is limited, but the proposed link is enough that greater attention is being placed on possible genetic influence among people who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. 

Certain Jobs and Personality Types Are at Greater Risk

Certain jobs and industries, and the personality types that are drawn to them are statistically at risk for a higher incidence for developing eating disorders. For example, the great attention paid to body image in modeling, advertising, and entertainment industries can exacerbate latent body image issues and grow into full eating disorders. Athletes and dancers are also prone to both excessive exercise and dieting, which can lead to a variety of eating disorders. 

Eating disorder treatment centers see a lot of clients who have occupations in these fields, and another commonality is a perfectionist personality type. It is suspected that even more occupational fields have employees who have binge eating disorders, but so many people keep the condition a secret out of shame or guilt that exact numbers are sometimes hard to gather for research purposes. 

Binge Eating Disorder Treatment at Monte Nido 

Binge eating disorder recovery can be a complicated process because every client who commits to recovery will have different underlying issues that can be playing a part in their eating disorder behavior. At Monte Nido, we create a personalized plan of action for treatment after in-depth consultations with incoming clients who know they need help. As part of this process, we take a look at all proposed risk factors and how they should be addressed. 

Monte Nido has been in eating disorder treatment for more than 20 years. The tenured, compassionate staff members, the luxury facilities, and the dedication to unique service for every client make Monte Nido a preferred place to seek treatment. Our programs combine multiple levels of therapy, an array of social and individual activities, and superior support to help clients face an eating disorder recovery process with the confidence they need to have a successful outcome.

Our binge eating programs are available in multiple locations in several states across the country. We provide inpatient and residential programs, intensive outpatient care, and partial hospitalization that requires so many hours a day of treatment. If you are looking for eating disorder treatment near you for yourself or a loved one, reach out to us to speak with a representative. 

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.