Binge eating disorder affects more people than anorexia and bulimia, and has an impact on people’s physical and mental health. It’s a particularly damaging condition, in short, and because people who suffer from it are often secretive about their binges, it’s not always easy to spot.
For in-depth advice on how to identify binge eating disorder and what you can do about it, we spoke to Bari Stricoffi, dietitian for weight-loss app OurPath.
What is binge eating disorder and what are the symptoms?
Binge eating disorder is a severe eating disorder characterised by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very quickly and to the point of discomfort; a feeling of loss of control during the binge; feelings of shame or guilt afterwards; and not using compensatory measures like purging – although that’s unhealthy too – to counter the binges.
BED was officially classified as an eating disorder in 2013, meaning it’s now also treated as a mental health disorder.
How many people does it affect?
BED is the most common eating disorder, thought to affect 1.9%-2.8% of the population. It’s almost three times more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Additionally, 40% of those who suffer are male, which is higher than other eating disorders.
What factors tend to cause or trigger it?
The cause of BED tends to be multifactorial. There are several dynamics that increase the likelihood of binge eating, such as psychological, socio-cultural and family factors, as well as the presence of social media, societal norms, a history of dieting and social pressures.
However, it’s largely thought that bingeing is a habitual and automatic behaviour developed to cope with emotions. While emotional eating is not inherently a bad thing, the frequency and amount of food eaten during this time can be an issue. Also, the lack of alternative coping strategies to deal with emotions can be a concern that also needs to be addressed.
What health problems are linked with BED?
While BED is a mental health disorder and therefore taxing on the mind, it also causes a strain on the body. Consuming large quantities of food in a short period of time can put a large burden on the digestive system, resulting in gastrointestinal issues such as pain, discomfort, bloating and changes in bowel habits.
Binges can also cause big spikes in blood sugar levels, which are inevitably followed by large drops. This can increase the stress response in the body, resulting in inflammation and increased production of cortisol, which can lead to a decrease in the function of our immune system.
Additionally, extreme fluctuations in blood sugar, coupled with increased bodyweight, can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. In fact, those with BED are far more likely to have type 2 diabetes than the general population – 15.2% vs 2.2%. And because binges are usually comprised of unhealthy food choices, BED can also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and gallbladder disease.
How can you approach a friend if you believe they are affected by BED?
If you suspect a friend or family member is suffering from BED or emotional eating, it’s best to direct them to their GP. There are also several organisations and charities that are helpful including Beat. It’s always best to let loved ones know you are there for support, but ultimately encourage them to seek professional help from the appropriate healthcare professional.