Binge Eating Disorder Myths and Facts

Eating too much is not unusual -- just think of Thanksgiving, when you stuff yourself to the gills. But there’s a big difference between occasional overeating and the medical condition known as binge eating disorder (BED).

Binge eating is about feeling depressed, guilty, and out of control. It's not about celebrating -- that’s just one of the common myths about this disorder. Here are some more.

Myth: BED isn’t a real disorder. After all, who hasn’t eaten an entire bag of chips or a whole pint of ice cream in one sitting?

Fact: Plenty of people eat too much once in a while, especially on holidays. For people with BED, though, overeating is an urge that causes major distress. It also happens regularly. People with the condition binge at least once a week for at least 3 months. It's a psychiatric disorder, according to the DSM, a manual used to identify mental health conditions.

Myth: People who binge eat are all overweight or obese.

Fact: You can’t tell if someone has BED just by looking at them. People who binge eat come in all shapes and sizes. How is this possible? Consider that the amount of food and the number of calories taken in during a “binge” -- as well as the rate at which calories are burned -- differs from person to person. Still, many people with the disorder also have trouble controlling their weight. It’s believed that about two-thirds of people with the disorder are obese.

Myth: BED is the same as bulimia.

Fact: On the surface, bulimia and BED seem similar. People with the disorders both compulsively eat large amounts of food, and as a result, feel distressed, ashamed, guilty, and out of control. There is one key difference between the conditions, though: After a binge, people with bulimia try to rid themselves of the extra calories by “purging,” which may mean vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics (water pills), or over-exercising.

Myth: BED is rare.

Fact: BED affects far more people than other eating disorders do. It’s believed to be the most common eating disorder in the U.S., striking more than 6 million Americans at some point during their lifetimes.

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Myth: Binge eating is just something women do when they’re feeling stressed.

Fact: Other eating disorders mainly affect women. BED tends to strike both sexes. Men are about five times more likely to have BED than another eating disorder. And though the condition is linked to negative emotions and greater stress, remember that it’s not the same as an average case of overeating -- for example, polishing off a box of cookies after a breakup. Instead, people with the disorder feel compelled to binge regularly and aren’t able to control their behavior.

Myth: Only teenage girls get eating disorders like BED.

Fact: Teenagers aren’t immune. BED affects about 1.6% of adolescents.

But more so than other eating disorders, this one can strike at any time. The average age of onset is 25. Among men in particular, the condition is more likely to happen in midlife.

Myth: Binge eating isn’t dangerous like anorexia.

Fact: Just like other eating disorders, BED can put you at risk for serious health issues. Many people with it have other emotional or mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. They're more likely to develop substance abuse problems. And those people who are overweight or obese are also at risk for related issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Myth: It’s impossible to really help someone with an eating disorder like BED.

Fact: People who get treatment for eating disorders, including BED, can greatly improve their health and the quality of their life. Psychotherapy can help address the emotional issues that may contribute to the disorder and put people on a path toward healthier thoughts and habits. Prescription medications such as antidepressants, certain anti-seizure drugs, and possibly psychostimulants (drugs that induce alertness, wakefulness, and movement), such as amphetamine salts, have also been shown in early research studies to help -- particularly when combined with therapy. It might also help to work with a nutritionist or enroll in a weight loss program for people with eating disorders.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on January 15, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Weight-control Information Network: “How do I know if I have binge eating disorder?” “How common is binge eating disorder?” “How is binge eating disorder different from bulimia nervosa?” “Should people with binge eating disorder try to lose weight?”

American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Development: “Eating Disorders”

Rebecca Berman LCSW-C, clinical supervisor at the Renfrew Center

Russell Marx, M.D., Associate Medical Director, Eating Recovery Center, Denver

Office on Women’s Health: “What are the health consequences of binge eating disorder?”

American Psychological Association: “What should treatment target?”

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