Binge eating disorder, or BED, is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting an estimated 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men.
“Binge” is a word that’s tossed around a lot lately, often in the context of TV shows (“We binge-watched Season 2 of ‘House of Cards’ last weekend”), but I frequently hear people use it to describe their eating, even though what they’re describing is, medically speaking, far from a binge. There’s a big difference between eating a few extra cookies or overindulging on vacation, and true binge eating, which affects both body and mind and has the ability to destroy lives.
Binge eating disorder, or BED, is the most common eating disorder in the U.S., affecting an estimated 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men, according to the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDAonline.com). That’s three times the number of people affected by anorexia and bulimia combined.
BED is about eating in response to something other than physical hunger. It’s an attempt to numb unwanted or uncomfortable emotions that goes beyond emotional eating or compulsive overeating. A BED sufferer experiences out of control, unstoppable urges to eat, sometimes eating to the point of physical pain or discomfort.
During a binge, someone with BED might eat thousands of calories, which can pose its own health risk. After the binge, they may feel desperate and hopeless and try to hide their excessive eating from others, in part due to intense shame and guilt over the amount of food eaten.
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BED is about more than simple overeating. It’s a real medical and psychological condition and, as with other eating disorders, it’s likely that a combination of genetic and environmental factors contributes.
In 2013, BED was added to the 5th Edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which makes it a diagnosable condition alongside anorexia and bulimia. Official criteria for diagnosis include:
• Eating a larger amount of food than normal in a short period of time.
• Losing control during the binge episode.
• Binging at least once a week for at least 3 months.
• Not using any compensatory behaviors, like purging or exercising.
While people with BED may have a “normal” weight, about 70 percent have a weight in the obese range, which can contribute to other health conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis or heart disease.
Many people with BED also struggle with other psychological issues such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These can trigger binges and make BED worse. Weight stigma, shaming and bullying may cause further emotional distress, triggering more binging.
BED can result in feeling out of control almost all the time. It’s not enough to try to ignore binge urges and the thoughts of food. Highly palatable, pleasure-producing foods are also the most common binge foods, which gives BED something in common with food addiction. In fact, how the brain of someone with BED reacts to food is similar to how the brain of a drug addict responds to a drug.
Tennis player Monica Seles, now a spokesperson for BED awareness, suffered from BED for years, calling it “as tough as any opponent I faced on the court.” That’s why treatment is generally multifaceted, including medical, psychological and nutrition care.
The treatment goal is elimination or reduction of binge eating episodes, not weight loss. And treatment is important, because while turning to food to deal with uncomfortable emotions or situations may help you feel better initially, eventually binging creates more problems than it solves.