Across America and around the world, millions of people are dealing with an eating disorder.But if you try picturing who those people might be, chances are you’ll imagine someone who is painfully thin or someone purging over a toilet bowl, not someone suffering from the most common eating disorder of all — binge eating disorder.

That’s because people with this eating disorder don’t fall into either stereotype. People who suffer from anorexia tend to be obviously thin. Those who have bulimia might show telltale signs, such as bloating, swollen cheeks, and chafed fingers from self-induced vomiting. But it’s impossible to tell whether someone has binge eating disorder (BED) just by looking at them. This may be part of the reason why it wasn’t officially recognized as an eating disorder until 2013, when the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) was released.

Causes and Risk Factors of Binge Eating Disorder

The exact cause of BED isn’t known, but experts believe that genetics, biological factors, dieting habits, and psychological issues may determine a person’s risk.

As with all eating disorders, many factors play a role to different degrees in different patients. These factors include:

  • A History of Dieting Binge eating is paradoxical: A person diets hoping to achieve the cultural ideal of thinness and then punishes his or herself for failing to achieve that ideal by eating even more, note the Mayo Clinic.
  • Family History Like most psychiatric disorders, BED tends to occur in families. That means that if your parent or grandparent had the disorder, you’re more likely to have it, too.
  • Mood Disorders Depression and anxiety have been linked to binge eating disorder, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • Perfectionism
  • Work Stress
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies
  • Trauma This might include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
  • Food Insecurity This means a fear of not having enough food. Whether due to poverty, per a study published in April 2018 in the Journal of Crohn’s and Colitis,others controlling what you eat, or a medical condition that requires a restrictive diet — such as type 1 and 2 diabetes, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease — food insecurity can contribute to binges, noted a study published in June 2017 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

How Is Binge Eating Disorder Diagnosed?

Binge eating disorder is typically diagnosed based on a person’s symptoms and eating habits.

Additionally, doctors may perform a physical exam, recommend a psychological evaluation, or run other medical tests if the disorder is suspected.

An Unseen and Misunderstood Problem

Whether they appear fat, thin, or normal weight, most people with BED never get treated, says Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, PhD, a psychologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. One reason, shockingly, is that most doctors and many mental health professionals get little or no training in how to detect or treat any eating disorders.

“If you haven’t been taught about eating disorders, you won’t know what to look for and you won’t spot it,” says Dr. Warren, who also blames undertreatment on a widespread anti-fat attitude. “There is so much weight stigma, which I think oftentimes leads physicians to look at someone who is overweight and automatically think, ‘You’re fat. You eat crappy food and you take no responsibility for your health.’ The conclusion then is, ‘It’s not a real disorder that I can help with.’”

Prognosis of Binge Eating Disorder

A person’s prognosis depends on many factors. The good news is that people with BED have a greater chance of remission compared with those who struggle with other eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

Treatment and Medication Options for Binge Eating Disorder

BED is highly treatable. The first step: Give up dieting, says Dr. Ashton. “When we address binge eating disorder, weight loss is never our goal. It’s to focus on the eating disorder first with behavioral strategies to end the shame.”

According to studies, these psychological interventions have the best track record:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Eating Disorders (CBT-E) This treatment helps you regain control over your eating by sticking to a schedule (three square meals and one or two snacks daily), and reintroducing formerly “red light” foods, such as ice cream, in moderation to avoid the feelings of deprivation and frustration behind many binges. CBT also involves changing the negative thoughts about yourself and your body that fuel the disorder.
  • Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) This focuses on helping you find better ways to cope with and handle conflicts in relationships, difficult transitions (such as moving, changing jobs, and divorce), and unresolved grief, notes Psychology Today.IPT also involves learning to measure your self-worth by more than your weight and body shape, increasing your confidence and self-esteem.

“Both have demonstrated, long-term outcomes,” says Dr. Fitzsimmons-Craft. “But IPT may give you more bang for your buck, so to speak, because it’s also an evidence-based treatment for depression and anxiety, which are both contributing factors to binge eating disorder.”

Medication Options

The stimulant medication Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine) became the first FDA-approved treatment for binge eating disorder. The approval was based, in part, on a four-week study published in March 2015 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, in which one-half of participants given 70 milligrams of Vyvanse daily stopped binge eating compared with 21 percent of those taking the placebo.They also lost weight.

But there are some caveats. Vyvanse alone does not address the negative emotions, worries about body shape, and other psychological factors that are significant contributors to BED. What’s more, in addition to decreased appetite, patients may experience one or more uncomfortable side effects, such as irritability, jitteriness, difficulty sleeping, and dry mouth. It can also be habit-forming.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies

Some people with binge eating disorder discover that alternative and complementary remedies can help ease their stress and improve symptoms.

Common alternative therapies include:
  • Massage
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Acupuncture
  • Exercise

Prevention of Binge Eating Disorder 

While there’s no way to completely prevent binge eating disorder, a person may be able to lower their risk by:
  • Learning about the signs, symptoms, and risks of eating disorders
  • Avoiding crash diets and unhealthy weight loss behaviors
  • Learning to appreciate the body’s functionality and avoiding negative self-talk
  • Seeking help if behaviors become problematic
Getting professional help early on may improve your outcome. If you suspect that a loved one has binge eating disorder, try to encourage them to get treatment.

Research and Statistics: Who Has Binge Eating Disorder?

BED is by far the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5 percent of women, 2 percent of men, and up to 1.6 percent of adolescents — about 3 times the number of people diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia combined.

Related Conditions and Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

Some health conditions that are related to BED include the following:

  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance abuse disorders

Resources We Love

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

NEDA offers support and educational information about all eating disorders, including binge eating disorder.

Eating Disorder Hope

This online community lets you search for a therapist in your area and connect with others who struggle with eating disorders.

Office on Women’s Health

You’ll find credible information about BED on this government-backed site. The Office on Women’s Health is a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Academy for Eating Disorders

This organization provides a plethora of materials and resources for people struggling with eating disorders.

Learn more about additional resources and support for Binge Eating Disorder

Additional reporting by Julie Marks.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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