Binging on food has become an acceptable cliché these days—think gorging on Ben & Jerry’s after a breakup. Few of us equate bouts of overeating with anorexia or bulimia. But just like them, binge eating can be an eating disorder, and it’s going to be on more people’s radars in upcoming months. An awareness campaign kicked off this week, with tennis great Monica Seles leading the way. As she revealed at an event, “Binge eating disorder was as tough as any moment on the tennis court.”
Listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is estimated to affect 2.8 million women and men. BED is different from bulimia, which is characterized by a cycle of eating large amounts of food and purging to get rid of extra calories. Unlike anorexia sufferers, people with BED aren’t bent on controlling their weight and shape.
The awareness campaign is funded by Shire (the pharmaceutical company that makes Vyvanse, recently approved by the FDA to treat BED), in partnership with the nonprofits the National Eating Disorders Association and the Binge Eating Disorder Association. As explained by Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, MD, a renowned expert on eating disorders, at the event I attended:
-The age of onset is typically around 21 years old; other eating disorders tend to start in the teen years.
-People with Binge Eating Disorder typically quickly consume abnormally large amounts of food in one sitting. They feel out-of-control and unable to stop themselves, and eat until they are over-stuffed—well past the point of feeling full.
-Binging at least once a week for three months is a defining criterion for having BED.
-People with BED come in all shapes and sizes—they can be overweight, underweight, normal weight, or obese. The condition occurs equally among men and women, and among all races. As Dr. Oliver-Pyatt said, “We have to get past the assumption that it’s just privileged white girls” affected by eating disorders.
-Binging is often done secretly, and the drive to do it is so consuming that a person will miss out on social events to eat. Dr. Olive-Pyatt described being “mugged” by the disorder.
-A heavy sense of shame follows the binge.
-The basis of BED is a mix of neurochemical reactions and family history.
Curious, I raised my hand about whether consuming a lot of one type of food could qualify as BED, and mentioned Girl Scout Cookies. “That’s mine, too!” Monica Seles said, smiling. (Full disclosure #1: I am a Girl Scout Troop Leader. Full disclosure #2: I have been known to consume an entire sleeve of Samoas in one sitting). Actually, binging can involve one food or a variety, Dr. Oliver-Pyatt responded. (My lack of shame about eating the cookies, and the fact that I only do it during cookie season, bodes well for me not having BED.)
Monica Seles first opened up about binge eating in her 2009 autobiography Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self ($2-$11, amazon.com). After being stabbed in the back by a deranged fan, she recounted, “I required a lot of comfort and found plenty of it in pints of ice cream and greasy bags of chips.” At the event, she described being trained and disciplined on the tennis courts, then recklessly binging once she got home. “You’re inhaling food,” she said. “Afterward, I felt I let down my coaches, sponsors, even my family.”
“I used to beat myself up and called myself a ‘pig’ and ‘freak,'” said Sunny Sea Gold, a journalist and eating disorder advocate who’s the author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug ($13, amazon.com). When she was in the throes of BED, she went on a trip to South Beach, Miami, with coworkers. The siren call of the hotel’s mini bar was powerful. One night, she recalled, “everyone was going out to a club and I didn’t go—I couldn’t wait to be alone in the hotel room and eat.”
Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder typically involves therapy sessions with a qualified professional. As is generally true of mental health conditions, the cure starts with awareness. If you feel like your relationship with food is out of control, talk with your doctor.