By all appearances, Ron Saxen had it all.
At 6'3", with flowing blond hair and chiseled features, Saxen was a handsome 21-year-old living his dream as a successful, up-and-coming model. He graced the covers of magazines and walked the runways for top fashion designers. Ron's life seemed perfect.
Except for one thing.
Underneath his confident exterior, Saxen was living with a deep and shameful secret.
Saxen was a binge eater -- a person who compulsively eats large amounts of food in a short period of time without purging.
"I spent so many years in the darkness of binge eating disorder," Saxen recalls. "It was a way to cope with stress, good or bad. It would just numb me out. So maybe it would be a stressful situation, and I would start to feel real jittery and I would think, 'Oh, I can have some food.'"
While eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia attract more publicity, it is binge eating disorder, or BED for short, that experts say is the most prevalent eating disorder in this country, affecting four million people -- nearly 40 percent of them men.
That startling estimate may even be low, according to Marilyn Kotcher, a psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders.
"I do think it's a growing problem nationwide that men are really suffering from eating disorders," Kotcher says. "There is more pressure on men to look better. And eating has become a way that people feel that they can control some part of their lives that they can't control any other way."
For Saxen, the pressure started as a confused child living in fear, in a household governed by military-style discipline.
"My mother used to keep a note pad if we did things wrong," Saxen recalls. "And when my dad got home late from work, she would give him the note pad. And sometimes he'd wake us up and discipline us."
Saxen said the trepidation of laying in bed "waiting for my father" made him sweat profusely and, ultimately, take refuge in food.
"I had maybe 20 pounds of chocolate in my closet because we had a school candy sale every year and the Saxen boys, we always won first place," he says. "And so I reached in there, grabbed a five-ounce Ghirardelli chocolate bar, went back in my bed and ate it. And when I ate it, it felt good. I forgot about what was about to happen, and then I went back and did it again and again and again."
As Saxen got older, the binge eating became all-consuming. He isolated himself from friends and family and drowned his sorrows in cheeseburgers and candy bars.
"I'd pull up to a McDonalds and get a couple of Big Macs, large fries, cheeseburger and a chocolate shake," Saxen says.
As soon as he left the drive-thru, he was already thinking about going next to Taco Bell.
"I'd pull my jacket over the food so the person in the Taco Bell drive-thru wouldn't look at me and say, 'I'm giving you food and you've still got food,'" he says. "Then I'd go from there and pick up a king-size Snickers, king-size Reese's, king-size Nutrageous. And then that'd be kind of too sweet. So, you might come back and have another burger or something like that."
After nights of this kind of binging, Saxen says, he felt ashamed and vowed "never to do this again."
Kotcher says that binge eaters like Saxen tend to dismiss their affliction as something they can control themselves without letting others know. She says that male binge eating is often intermingled with substance abuse, anxiety and depression.
"It's hard to diagnose because most people think that they can cope with it themselves," she says. "And there's a lot of shame and embarrassment connected to it. So a lot of people aren't forthcoming."
In Saxen's case, he would have spurts of manic exercise and near starvation. He ballooned up to 280 pounds by binging at times on 15,000 calories. But as a male model, Ron ate less than 1,000 calories a day and dropped more than 100 pounds within months.
"You need to be thin in order to be a model," says Kotcher. "And if you have to be thinner than your normal size, weight and shape, then that would put a lot of pressure on you to keep it up."
Saxen couldn't handle that pressure. Just six months into his modeling contract, he gained 70 pounds, which cost him his career. He had hit rock bottom.
"I just decided for me, BED was a coping mechanism," Saxen said. "Instead of using food to cope, I coped with it by finding out what I need to do to make things right, which is the healthy way."
So far, Saxen's "cold turkey" approach is working.
These days, the 40-something leads a happy and healthy life. He is married and a successful author. In fact, his latest book "The Good Eater," tells the story of one man's battle with food and how he overcomes the overwhelming desire to binge.
The book is done, but the story itself is a work in progress.
"Do I think I'm going to go back to those dark days?" Saxen asks. "Absolutely not. It's a safe bet. Put your money on it. I'm not going back."