How many of these phrases have you heard or thought to yourself: “Doesn’t she have any self-respect? How does he live that way? Why doesn’t she do something about her weight? He needs to just put down the donuts, get off the couch and exercise!”
I’ve heard them all and, regardless of your pants size, I’m fairly certain you have too. It perplexes and saddens me that in a country known for its diversity and freedom, people can be so harshly judgmental of another human for no other reason than the size of their body.
Perhaps because of the extreme shame the above comments evoke, obesity in general and Binge Eating Disorder specifically are subjects that are often swept under the rug. This silence creates conditions ripe for misinformation and erroneous assumptions that are not conducive to change.
So let’s start with some facts:
1. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is, in fact, an eating disorder. While the typical patient with BED may look quite different than typical patients struggling with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, the patterns and internal demons that create BED are similar to these more-understood conditions.
2. Just because someone is overweight does not mean he or she binges or overeats.
3. Likewise, just because someone is underweight or of normal weight does not mean they don’t binge or overeat.
4. As with other eating disorders, people who binge or compulsively overeat tend to eat very restricted diets during the day, leaving them vulnerable to binging at night.
5. Most binge and compulsive eaters feel shame and anxiety when eating in front of others. Similar to anorexics, they feel that everyone is watching and evaluating their food intake.
6. As with anorexia and bulimia, overcoming Binge Eating Disorder is not about learning more discipline or self-control. (You would never tell an anorexic to control him or herself.) Instead, healing is about understanding how the person has come to use food (or lack of food) as a mechanism of emotional survival.
7. Binge eaters are no more or less “out of control” than anorexics, bulimics or those struggling with other addictions.
8. Binge and compulsive eaters—overweight or not—are not lazy. In fact, like with anorexia, binge and compulsive eaters tend to be perfectionists and work non-stop (which makes them more susceptible to binging and overeating). The management of binge eating (or any eating disorder) is hard work.
9. Binge and compulsive eaters tend to feel an unspeakable amount of shame about their behaviors and their bodies. Many state that they feel damaged and inferior. Whatever harsh criticism society can and does offer, binge eaters have already inflicted worse upon themselves.
10. As with any eating disorder, criticism, lectures and “pep talks” focusing on what binge eaters should and should not do, do not motivate permanent change. Binge eaters know what they should and should not do. Long lasting results come from compassion and deeper insight into the function of the disorder. Commenting on their food and exercise choices does NOT help.
11. Eating-disordered behaviors including binging or overeating cause the brain to release dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter) and opioids (the active ingredient in heroin, cocaine and other narcotics). This chemical release makes disordered eating literally addictive.
As clinicians and researchers, we are constantly learning new things about the causes and treatment of Binge Eating Disorders. On one side of the disorder is the continual emergence of useful information and understanding of each individual’s unique struggle. On the other side is misinformation and superficial assumptions. One is helpful and leads to permanent change over time and the other is hurtful, shaming and perpetuates the problem. The only way to clear up popular, negative misconceptions about Binge Eating Disorder, obesity and disordered eating is with continual open discussion that educates and moves towards greater understanding.