When most people think about eating disorders, images of emaciated teenage girls come to mind. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are well-known diseases, affecting about 11 million people in the United States alone. These diseases are deadly and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
But anorexia and bulimia are not the only types of eating disorders; a little known, but just as pervasive and dangerous eating disorder exists and affects approximately 1-5% of the general population. This disease is known as binge eating disorder or BED and is characterized by the compulsion to overeat and can affect all genders, races, and ages.
Despite its lack of media coverage and research funding, BED is one of the most prevalent eating disorders among adults.
While nearly everyone overeats every so often, those who suffer from BED cannot resist the urges to keep eating. Overeating is not only regular, but also uncontrollable. They feel powerless to stop and shame over their actions.
Binges generally last about 2 hours, but some binges can last days or even weeks. Binge eaters will eat far past the point of fullness, which generally leads to weight gain and obesity. Unlike those suffering from bulimia nervosa, binge eaters do not try to make up for their overeating through purging or exercise.
The health consequences of BED are varied and life threatening. The most common health risk associated with BED is clinical obesity, but there are many others: high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, gallbladder disease, and musculoskeletal problems. In fact, health care costs for those suffering from BED are significantly higher than those not suffering from an eating disorder.
The reasons why people develop BED are diverse. BED is closely linked to depression; the incidence of depression is very high in individuals with BED. Many people eat as a solace from sadness, but after the binge feel a sense of shame and regret, further fueling the depression.
Genetics is a contributing factor in BED as are environmental factors. BED frequently occurs in people who have a history of restrictive dieting. Restricting and binging becomes a vicious cycle that many cannot escape.
Treatment for BED focuses on reducing the number of binges, addressing the psychological reasons behind the binges, and sometimes, losing weight. Some of the more popular treatment options for BED are cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. Medications like Vyvanse, Topamax, and SSRIs are also sometimes prescribed in order to treat the symptoms and underlying depression.
Weight loss can be particularly difficult for those trying to recover from BED, as restrictive eating is one of the biggest triggers and causes of the disease. Weight loss is usually only taken on after mental health symptoms have been treated and only under strict supervision of a medical professional.
Despite the large number of people who suffer from BED, the disease has only recently become a recognized eating disorder. It first received its own category in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. Research funding has been minimal and media coverage is almost non-existent.
BED is now the most common eating disorder among adults and affects all genders and races. Unfortunately, the disorder isn’t taken seriously by many. Because of the emphasis put on thinness in our society, BED is sometimes dismissed as a made up disease created to make overweight people feel better. However, with approximately 2% of men and 3.5% of women suffering from the disease, BED is even more common than both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
BED is a serious but treatable disease that is only now coming to the forefront of eating disorder and mental health discussions. Thankfully, remission rates are generally high, but some form of treatment is almost always necessary to overcome it. Help for BED can be found at the Binge Eating Disorder Association or with mental health professionals who specialize in eating disorders. Remember: you can’t tell what someone is struggling with just by looking at them.