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It’s Not a Lack of Willpower: Four Myths About Binge Eating Disorder

It is estimated as many as 2.8 percent of adults in the United States will suffer from binge eating disorder (BED) in their lifetime, which is an astounding statistic to consider. Even with the instances of BED at such an alarming rate, this is perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood eating disorders. Part of the reason people who need binge eating disorder treatment do not get help is due to the fact that many people do not see the condition as a serious disorder.

The myths surrounding this condition are partially to blame for the lack of seeking and accessing treatment. Loved ones can be quick to blame obvious symptoms of BED on everyday problems and those with the condition often feel like their symptoms are not all that serious. As a society, the best way to foster understanding is to first disprove the myths and misconceptions. Take a look at some of the most common myths associated with binge eating disorder symptoms. 

Myth 1: A binge eating disorder is just overeating. 

In casual conversation, the terms binge eating and overeating are sometimes used as if they are the same thing. For example, some people make jokes about binge eating and watching TV or binging during the holidays. However, binge eating disorder and overeating are two different things. If someone is having a meal they enjoy and go back for seconds even though they are full, it does not mean they have an eating disorder. People who have a true binge eating problem may feel they are out of control when they are eating, and this episode goes beyond simply eating past feeling full or satisfied. 

The difference between BED and overeating can be determined by looking at the symptoms that go beyond just the act of eating more than what would normally leave someone feeling full. Some of the binge eating disorder symptoms include:

  • Experiencing a loss of control while eating; being unable to stop eating
  • Consuming food in a hurried, almost frenzied, fashion 
  • Eating to the point that it causes actual physical pain
  • Consuming food in secret so others do not see the behavior
  • Feeling high levels of guilt, shame, disgust or extreme mental anguish after eating too much

The primary difference between someone who needs binge eating disorder help and someone who is merely overeating is the person with BED will have an inability to control the act of eating. While some people who overeat feel guilty about taking that dessert after a meal or going for a second helping, they can and will choose to stop eating. Someone who has BED would be more likely to continually take in more and more food in spite of knowing they need to stop or feeling the physical effects of what they are doing. 

Symptoms of BED can also vary according to the individual, which can make the condition hard to catch. For example, some people who have BED will binge on food daily or most days, while other individuals may only binge on food once a week or a few times a month when they are emotionally triggered. 

Myth 2: All individuals with a binge eating disorder are overweight. 

People who need binge eating disorder treatment do not all have the same body types or sizes. It is a common misconception that if someone is taking in large amounts of food frequently, they would be overweight. However, there is no truth to this misconception. It is true people who have a binge eating disorder may be intently focused on their body image or losing weight, and some do gain weight because of their eating patterns. Yet, just as many get by without seeking treatment for long periods because no one suspects they have a problem due to their slim build or low weight.

Those who have had bariatric surgery do sometimes have problems with BED after surgery. It is estimated 25 percent of people in post-bariatric phases after surgery have binge eating symptoms. This is an unfortunate side effect of drastically changing someone’s ability to consume large amounts of food.

Myth 3: Overcoming binge eating disorder only involves eating less. 

Simply eating less is not the solution for someone who has BED. Binge eating disorders are classified as psychological conditions. This condition is listed in the latest DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which was published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association. According to the National Eating Disorder Association

“The previous DSM-IV was released in 1994 and binge eating was only listed in Appendix B and had to be diagnosed with the non-specific “EDNOS” (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).”

In other words, before the recent release of the DSM-5, there were no specifics for diagnosing the disorder. Unfortunately, this made it difficult for those with BED to obtain proper binge eating disorder treatment because professionals had no set of rules to follow for specifically treating the condition. The most recent publication, however, made an update to include BED as a standalone, diagnosable condition with definitive actions involved in helping the individual. Before that update, there were at least 1,000 research studies performed and submitted to prove people with binge eating symptoms could have a real, psychological condition that needed treatment. 

Treating BED through binge eating disorder help is a highly diverse process that has a lot to do with the individual who is being treated. Some individuals will seek private counseling or day treatment programs, while others with BED may have to enter residential or inpatient treatment. The process of treatment can involve multiple forms of therapy, including:

  • Psychological counseling sessions 
  • Cognitive behavior therapy 
  • Individual nutrition counseling sessions 
  • Nutritional rehabilitation and stabilization 
  • Family therapy and education to create a positive family support system
  • Food and feelings therapy sessions to establish the underlying causes of behavior

Binge eating disorder treatment is designed to help the individual with BED learn to cope with their psychological feelings and relationship with food. This kind of treatment allows the individual to recognize things that trigger binge eating behaviors and understand how they can control their symptoms. The act of eating less, following a diet or controlling food intake is not going to treat BED. In many cases, people who are diagnosed with BED have attempted to follow diet plans or restrict their eating, but have no control over their damaging behaviors. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for other psychological conditions to be at play, such as mood disorders or even substance abuse problems. Therefore, it is critical for those receiving treatment to find a treatment center that can build a unique, individualized plan for treatment. 

Myth 4: Binge eating disorders do not affect children. 

Binge eating disorders can affect people of all ages, including both males and females. Up to 1.6 percent of adolescents have BED, compared to 3.5 percent of adult women and 2 percent of adult men. Therefore, it is important parents keep a close eye on their children if they suspect binge eating disorder symptoms are present. Children can sometimes be harder to diagnose with binge eating problems. There are a few things to be alert to as a parent who suspects their child may be struggling with BED, including:

  • Missing large amounts of food 
  • Seeing a sudden spike in what is spent on groceries
  • Finding hidden food containers/packaging in the child’s room
  • Witnessing a change in the child’s behavior, such as staying in their room more or shying from social interactions
  • Seeing a major change in the child’s eating patterns, such as when they eat
  • Noticing drastic changes in weight

It is also important to realize that just because a child eats a lot, it does not necessarily mean they are portraying binge eating symptoms. Kids and teens can and do eat a large amount of food at times, especially if they are at a stage when their bodies are growing at a faster rate. Some parents can inadvertently cause damage to their child by being overly concerned with how much food they eat when there is no problem present. 

Binge eating symptoms are more likely to emerge in adolescence than in early childhood, and the causes can be hard to pinpoint. There is some evidence that suggests children under a lot of stress or who have problems with anxiety and depression may be more at risk of developing eating disorders in general. Plus, about half of people who are diagnosed with BED have a comorbid mood condition, such as an anxiety disorder. Some studies also report that about half of the risk for BED can be based on genetics. However, there are no definite causes for the condition. This fact can make it difficult for parents to come to the realization their child is developing a problem in the early stages. 

In Closing

The more the general public is aware of binge eating, the better the understanding and treatment of the disorder. The mistruths, misinformation and myths that surround eating disorders, in general, allow these issues to not be taken with the seriousness they should be, especially when it comes to BED. However, BED is a serious issue that does need professional attention to the health of the individual.

At Monte Nido, we treat all individuals with eating disorders with the professionalism and compassion required for the delicate situation. We provide both outpatient care and counseling and residential programs for those who have displayed binge eating disorder symptoms. Our homelike facilities are designed to provide comfort during treatment, and we are capable of treating co-occurring disorders in a professional and experienced manner. Reach out to us for a consultation.