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It’s Not Laziness; Binge Eating Disorder Is a Disease

One of the most common things eating disorder therapists hear from their clients is a sense that they are perceived as being somehow lazy or weak-willed.  Even with the widespread presence of binge eating disorder treatment centers around the country, too many people still believe that binge eating disorder (BED) is a choice that people make, and this causes an amplification of the feelings of shame that normally accompany BED in the people who suffer from it. As with many other mental health disorders and those which require stays in binge eating treatment centers, it’s crucial to spread understanding of the symptoms, causes, and effects of BED in order to avoid the misunderstanding and stigma surrounding it.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

Eating disorder therapists, working in conjunction with specialists at binge eating disorder treatment centers and psychiatrists in the field, have identified several possible causes of the disorder.  The balance of these will be different from person to person.  Normally, BED is a combination of “nature” and “nurture” factors in a person’s life.

  • The “nature” aspects of BED include genetic factors (in that people with behavioral disorders tend to pass them onto their children) and biological factors (women, both cisgender and transgender, have higher rates of BED than others).


  • The “nurture” aspects can also relate to parenting, but instead of a genetic inheritance, it has been noted that parental pressures surrounding weight or beauty can impel young adults to engage in disordered eating. Likewise, pressure from peers and the media to reach a certain weight or beauty goals can trigger or exacerbate BED symptoms.

While binge eating treatment centers have not isolated a single cause of BED, it’s clear that a combination of biological factors and social pressures are present in most cases.  The positive news is twofold here; first, identifying the causes allows binge eating disorder treatment centers to devise strategies for treatment based on this knowledge.  Second, it helps to dispel the idea that people with BED are somehow gluttonous or lazy as compared to experiencing a disorder.

What to Look Out For

BED can be slightly misunderstood by the general public; many people assume all eating disorders are about avoiding food intake via extreme dieting or purges, as seen in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, respectively.  This is quite unfortunate, as BED is actually the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting about 2.8 million people.  Understanding the signs and symptoms of BED can help you identify it in yourself or a loved one, and begin getting help from a binge eating treatment center if needed.

  • Eating large amounts of food in a very short period of time
  • Eating beyond the point of “fullness” during these episodes
  • Hiding or hoarding food for these binge eating episodes
  • Feelings of guilt or shame following binge eating episodes
  • Hiding or strategically throwing away food wrappers
  • Visiting several different groceries (to hide the amount of food being purchased)
  • Avoiding regular meals
  • Avoiding eating in groups at home or restaurants
  • Frequent dieting
  • Dissatisfaction with one’s body or a sense of perfectionism around it

Because the binge eating episodes that characterize BED often consist of “junk” foods or high-fat foods like chips or pizza, and because unlike bulimia nervosa there is no purging behavior associated with the disorder, people with BED are often overweight or obese.  These factors can result in serious health complications, including heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and others.

Saying “Just Eat Normally” Isn’t the Answer

Because the perception that people with BED are just “eating too much” still persist, the feelings of guilt that already come with the disorder may be made more extreme when hearing they are simply eating too much (even more so when told they need to lose weight, which can encourage further dieting).  Often, when dieting, people with bed will avoid meals, making the inevitable binge eating sessions even more extreme.  To truly help people with BED, it’s important to understand the nature of the disorder and the feelings surrounding it.

By showing respect and sympathy for the causes and symptoms of BED, and not treating the individual as though they are simply being weak-willed or lazy about their eating patterns, you can promote a full recovery from BED, and more importantly, you can support yourself or a loved one on their journey.


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.