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Eating Disorders

Binge Eating Disorder: Struggling in Silence

Exploring a complex condition and why so many struggle in silence.

Key points

  • Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the U.S., yet many people struggle in silence.
  • Shame, missed diagnosis, and lack of access to care are among the barriers people with BED face.
  • We can destigmatize binge eating by empowering recovery through empathy, support, and resources.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious mental health condition characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food, in a discreet period of time (i.e. 2 hours), often to the point of discomfort and distress. There is typically a strong sense of urgency or loss of control while eating. Individuals with binge eating disorder commonly report eating very quickly during episodes, often beyond the point of fullness, with a veil of secrecy around the experience. Binges are often described as temporarily soothing but followed by feelings of shame and disgust.

According to recent statistics, BED affects millions of individuals worldwide, with prevalence rates varying across populations. In the United States alone, it is estimated that approximately 2.8% of adults will experience BED at some point in their lives. Women are disproportionately affected, comprising around 60% of diagnosed cases; however, it's important to note that BED can affect individuals of any gender, age, race, or socioeconomic background.

Despite its prevalence, BED often goes undiagnosed or untreated, leading to significant physical and psychological consequences. There are a range of common barriers to getting help:

Missed Diagnosis. BED often goes undiagnosed in healthcare settings since providers often lack sufficient training to recognize the symptoms, which can differ from other eating disorders and may not always result in noticeable weight changes. Established protocols for screening could capture those who are struggling but healthcare systems do not regularly integrate screenings for BED during routine appointments. It’s also important to note that individuals with BED often avoid medical care altogether due to traumatic past interactions with providers who focus on body weight in shaming and inappropriate ways.

Shame. Individuals with BED often feel a great deal of shame about their behavior and are therefore reluctant to communicate their struggles to healthcare providers, family members, or other possible supports. Societal attitudes and stereotypes surrounding weight, food, and body shape/size contribute to feelings of embarrassment and self-blame. There's a pervasive misconception that overeating is simply a matter of lack of willpower or self-control, which frequently leads individuals with BED to internalize feelings of inadequacy or failure, further reinforcing a need to hide their struggle. The secretive nature of binge eating, where individuals often consume large amounts of food in private, only intensifies these feelings of shame and isolation.

Access to Care. Accessing appropriate care is a tremendous barrier to healing from binge eating. There is a shortage of specialized treatment providers trained in the diagnosis and management of BED, particularly in certain regions and healthcare systems. This scarcity results in long wait times for appointments and limited availability of evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Additionally, financial barriers, including high treatment costs and limited insurance coverage for mental health services, can prevent individuals from accessing the care they need.

The Toll of Silence

As with any mental health condition, secrecy perpetuates the disorder's hold, hindering individuals from seeking the support and treatment they desperately need. Without a safe space to open up about their experiences, they may spiral deeper into unhealthy behaviors, exacerbating the physical and emotional toll of binge eating. Moreover, the absence of external validation or understanding can amplify feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, further complicating recovery efforts.

Overcoming the silence surrounding binge eating disorder requires destigmatization, compassionate understanding, and accessible resources for support. Creating an environment in which individuals feel empowered to speak openly about their struggles is essential for breaking down barriers to recovery. By fostering empathy and providing non-judgmental support, we can help those affected by binge eating disorder find their voices and embark on a path toward healing and recovery.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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