4 Common Myths Surrounding Binge-Eating Disorder

Last month from February 22nd - February 28th, 2021, we celebrated National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) week. For those who are unfamiliar with this campaign, NEDA week is an annual, week long event that aims to bring awareness to eating disorders. Some eating disorders are generally more familiar to the public, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Others, like binge-eating disorder (BED) are much less understood and are highly stigmatized throughout our society. So, what are the facts on BED?

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), as having repeated binge episodes with no compensatory measures (like purging) taken afterwards. This causes the individual to feel shame, distress, or guilt. Please note that an episode of binge eating has specific, diagnostic criteria and is not the same as occasional overeating. Despite common media tendencies to focus on (and arguably glorify) anorexia and bulimia, BED is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. It affects anywhere from 2% to 3.5% of the population, and has actually been found to be 3x more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. In spite of all of this, BED was only just recognized as its own disorder in 2013, when the DSM-5 was published. This is incredibly recent: for reference, anorexia was included in the first publication of the DSM back in 1952. 

Unfortunately, individuals with BED tend to suffer from a lot of stigma. A lot of this boils down to the fact that this disorder is not very well understood by the public. As with many different topics, it can become easier to just assume certain things or accept the stereotypes rather than taking the time to look up correct information. With the hope of bringing awareness to this disorder, I have identified and challenged four common myths about BED.

  1. 1. BED is simply just overeating 

    Binge-eating disorder is, as the name implies, a disorder. It is neither a choice nor a lack of self-control. As I mentioned earlier, there are distinct differences between what is classified as an episode of binge-eating vs occasionally overeating. Research suggests that, compared to people who do not suffer from BED, people who suffer from BED may actually have different brain chemistry that interferes with the individual’s ability to control food intake and either creates or increases a desire for a particular food.

  2. 2. BED isn’t a serious eating disorder

    Binge-eating disorder is just as serious as any other eating disorder. Personally, I think that the idea that BED isn’t a serious eating disorder stems from the first myth I discussed. If it is simply seen as a lack of self control or voluntary behavior on the individual’s part, then it makes it seem as though the individual should just be able to stop the behavior. This thought process of a psychological disorder being something an individual can control is pretty common and is perhaps most often seen around depression (“they should just snap out of it” or “they should stop being so sad all the time”). People suffering from BED may also have difficulty in the social aspects of their life. On top of this idea that people who suffer from BED just lack willpower, the stigma that this disorder in particular tends to receive can make individuals feel isolated and embarrassed. Additionally, BED is often co-morbid, or occurs concurrently, with conditions like major depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and substance abuse disorders.

  3. 3. Everyone suffering from BED is obese 

    Binge-eating disorder is not about the person’s weight. It is a psychological disorder and is therefore centered on disordered thoughts, thought processes, and behaviors. BED can be diagnosed at any weight, and the only real symptom involving weight that a psychiatrist or psychologist would (or should) look for when considering a diagnosis of BED is a significant fluctuation in weight both up and down. It is not about a specific number on the scale, as every person has their own individual “set point”, or the number on the scale the individual’s weight tends to hover around (give or take a few pounds!). It should also be noted that most people who are labeled as clinically obese do not have BED.

  4. 4. Treatment for BED includes dieting and weight loss

    Treatment for BED should NOT include dieting and weight loss. First of all, as mentioned earlier, BED is a psychological disorder. In order for an individual to recover from BED, they need to work through the thought processes and internal struggles that affect their relationship with food. Secondly, many people who currently struggle with binge-eating disorder have tried dieting before. Dieting can, and often does, lead to what is called “yo-yo dieting”. This expression is used to describe a doomed cycle of dieting and then binging. This is a big reason as to why diets don’t work (95% of all dieters will regain the weight they lost). A study entitled “Psychological Consequences of Food Restriction” published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association noted that “starvation and self-imposed dieting appear to result in eating binges once food is available and in psychological manifestations such as preoccupation with food and eating, increased emotional responsiveness and dysphoria, and distractibility.” Your body recognizes when it is not getting the nutrition it needs and will take necessary actions to get that nutrition. Family therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and working with a dietician who specializes in eating disorders and emphasizes intuitive eating are some of the best treatments for individuals suffering from BED.

With the spread of research-based, scientific information, the stigmatization around BED has the potential to be significantly reduced. This NEDA week and going forward, take the time to educate yourself (using credible sources) on topics you have questions about. There are many topics out there that, along with eating disorders like BED, are misunderstood and stigmatized amongst the general public. 

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder and/or need any information on the subject, please visit the NEDA website.