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Correcting the Misconception That Binge Eating Disorder Is Simply Eating Too Much

Binge eating disorder, the most common eating disorder in the United States, is still widely misunderstood. In the common viewpoint, it’s just a simple case of overeating (or maybe just a lack of willpower or self-control). Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, binge eating disorder is a complex psychiatric disorder that affects the physical, mental, and social health of millions of individuals. Thankfully, this disorder has gotten more attention n the past decade, from both the psychiatric community and the general populace. The disorder was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the official psychiatric diagnosis manual.

Even with the acceptance of binge eating disorder into the DSM-V, too many people still believe that binge eating disorder is a choice that people make. While it may seem innocuous, this false idea can put up roadblocks to people getting help for their disease – this misunderstanding of the disorder can lead to an expansion of the feelings of guilt and self-disgust its sufferers often experience. That’s why raising awareness about what binge eating disorder is and what it isn’t; with awareness, more people can receive much-needed help.

As with many other types of eating disorders that are more understood by the general public, it’s crucial to spread understanding of the symptoms, causes, and effects of binge eating disorder to avoid the misunderstanding and stigma surrounding it. So, with no further ado:

What Are the Causes of Binge Eating Disorder?

Although the exact causes of binge eating disorder are still not completely understood (which is normal for mental health and psychiatric illnesses), there is a mixture of environmental, genetic, and psychological factors at play.  Although these factors are usually present in each case of binge eating disorder, the specifics vary for each person. This naturally makes a personalized treatment plan necessary when a person decides to enter binge eating treatment.

Normally, binge eating disorder is a combination of “nature” and “nurture” in a person’s life.

  • The “nature” aspects of binge eating disorder include genetic factors – children of parents with binge eating disorder are more likely to develop it themselves – and biological factors. These factors are still being studied, but indications are that genetics do play a role; twins are more likely to suffer an eating disorder if the other twin has one, in addition to the parental influence mentioned above.
  • Another “nature aspect is biological and gender-based. The stereotype about eating disorders is that only girls and young women get them. This is not true, although the tendency to develop eating disorders is higher in females than males overall. This remains the case for binge eating disorder, with 3.8 percent of women presenting signs of the disorder vs 1.5 percent in men. This is a much higher comparative incidence as compared to other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In case those percentages sound small, consider that 3.8% of women in the United States amount to tens of millions of people.
  • The “nurture” factor is often centered around parenting although other environmental factors come into play. It’s well-known in therapy circles that parental pressures surrounding weight or beauty can trigger disordered eating behaviors and poor body image in their children. In some cases, the parent may emphasize weight loss and portray weight gain as negative, or they may suffer from binge eating disorder themselves. However, peers and the media also play a role – society as a rule presents idealized body shapes and sizes that are often impossible to attain without extreme dieting and exercise. These attitudes are reinforced by the beauty and weight loss industries.

Although the causes of binge eating disorder aren’t completely understood, the resulting health risks are.  In addition to the social discomfort and poor self-esteem accompanying binge eating disorder, the non-purging nature of the disorder leads to many health complications associated with obesity. This can lead to a cycle of more binge episodes, lower self-esteem, fad diets, and back to the beginning. The nature of the food eaten during binges (usually “junk foods” and intermittent dieting can also lead to nutritional imbalances and endocrine/metabolic conditions like diabetes and anemia.

What Are the signs Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder is still considered to be just a simple case of “overeating” by far too many people. This level of misunderstanding is astonishing when you consider that the disease currently affects roughly 2.8 million people.  Understanding the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder and loved ones alike identify it, and know when it is time to seek treatment for it.  Here are a few common behaviors and symptoms to look out for:

  • Eating large amounts of food in a very short period
  • 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

A full listing of the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder can be found here. It lays out what psychiatrists are looking for when a client may have binge eating disorder and provides clear guidelines for a diagnosis. One thing to note is that disordered eating doesn’t always present as a single form or disorder. A person with binge eating disorder may not start by purging after binge eating disorders, but they may begin to do so as their body image worsens. For this reason, binge eating disorder is not diagnosed if the individual is showing behaviors associated with other disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Binge Eating Disorder Should Never Be Dismissed as Simply “Eating Too Much”

With the idea that people with binge eating disorder are just weak-willed or lazy being still all-too-present, insensitivity to the fact that binge eating disorder is a disease and not a choice can make things worse. Guilt about both body image and binge eating episodes is a big factor in binge eating disorder, and acting judgmental or dismissing a person’s problems is counterproductive at best. For example, telling someone with binge eating disorder that they just eat too much, or they should lose some weight can exacerbate these feelings and trigger them to go on another fad diet.

These kinds of statements can also inadvertently cause more binge eating episodes. Often, when dieting, people with bed will avoid meals, making the inevitable binge eating sessions even more extreme. Judgment or dismissal just increases the risk for dieting, food restriction, extreme hunger, and the eventual, resulting binge eating episodes.

Treatment Is Available

There is always hope, even in the depths of an eating disorder. By avoiding treating someone as though they are simply being weak-willed or lazy about their eating patterns, you can help your loved one make the steps they need toward a full recovery and a happier, more mindful life. And you can further that goal by seeking out professional help from a mental health professional and/or an eating disorder treatment facility.

Family therapy, group therapy, and a wide range of clinical treatments such as CBT, DBT, and CPT. Many facilities also include experiential therapies such as equine-assisted therapy or art therapy. There will also be a nutritional and meal-planning component to treatment normalizing body acceptance and mindful eating are key factors in a full recovery. Consider reaching out to a specialized therapist and engaging in family therapy with your loved one – you can make a difference.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

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.
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