This article was originally published on Psychology Today on October 18, 2016.
College football players aren’t exactly who come to mind when thinking of someone with an eating disorder. However, earlier this month Penn State’s kicker Joey Julius publicly shared in a Facebook post that he struggles with Binge Eating Disorder (BED). With support from his coach, Joey missed spring and summer workouts to enter treatment. Given all the media attention, including his interview on Good Morning America, Joey is now doing far more than kicking footballs - he’s kicking the stereotype that eating disorders only affect young, white females.
The reality is Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the U.S., affecting an estimated 2.8 million adults. If BED is more prevalent than anorexia and bulimia combined, why is it given so little attention? In part, it’s because BED wasn’t an official diagnosis until 2013. Before that it was lumped into a catch-all category called Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).
During a talk I attended at the National Eating Disorders Association conference this month, globally-renowned tennis player Monica Seles shared her experience with BED. “My breakthrough was talking to my doctor about my problem - it was a huge relief. I realized this wasn’t about my lack of willpower.” For far too long, she thought if she could apply the willpower resulting in her success as a tennis player, surely she could do the same with food.
I asked Julie Friedman, Ph.D. Vice President of Eating Recovery Center's Compulsive Overeating Recovery Effort (CORE) program why BED is rarely recognized as an eating disorder. She explained, “Many people can’t identify what they’re doing is actually binge eating disorder. The problem is that everyone binges – it is part of the continuum of normal eating behavior. What differentiates BED patients is the frequency and duration of their binges. People assume their eating disorder pathology is a reflection of their will power and that losing weight will solve their problems. They think – everyone else can diet and lose weight but I can’t – and as a result, that they lack will power, control.”
If part of the problem, like Dr. Friedman points out, is an inability to identify BED, let’s look at the characteristics:
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating occurring at least once a week for three months
- Eating a larger amount of food than normal during a short time frame (any two-hour period)
- Lack of control over eating during the binge episode (feeling you can’t stop eating or control what or how much you are eating.
Binge eating episodes are associated with three or more of the following:
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
- Eating much more rapidly than normal
- Eating alone out of embarrassment over quantity eaten
- Feeling disgusted, depressed, ashamed, or guilty after overeating
Did you notice that obesity wasn’t part of the criteria? It’s a common myth, however, weight is not an indicator of whether someone struggles with this disorder. BED is seen among all age groups, races, and income levels. Though most prevalent among women, it’s the most common eating disorder among men, and also effects adolescents.
In my recent interview with Andy, 33-year-old alumni of CORE, he opened up about having BED: “Like all eating disorders, it’s a vicious beast that feeds off of its anonymity to entrap its victim. I suffered from its effects for 25+ years before I’d even heard of it. Shame consumes the life of anyone with an eating disorder.” He shared the following about recovery: “Being free of the repetition of acting on my urges has changed my life for the better in countless ways. Most of all, I love myself like I never have before; and once I loved myself, it seemed everything else began to work out. Not necessarily how I thought it would or wanted it to, but in a different way, in a new way, in an "I like where this is going" way.”
Not only is there a lack of awareness of BED, but Dr. Friedman also emphasized that people often don’t know there’s specialized treatment. Eating disorders, including BED, are best treated with a multidisciplinary treatment team consisting of a therapist, dietitian, and medical doctor.
It’s imperative to seek out professionals who are trained to treat eating disorders. Too often I’ve seen in my clinical practice individuals who’ve sought help with an untrained clinician who reinforced the faulty assumption that by losing weight the disorder will resolve.
I asked Andy what the turning point was for him to get professional help, he said, “I physically felt my body shutting down…I truly felt myself dying.” He shared that treatment was one of the best things he did for himself. “Overeaters Anonymous was huge for me; it was my first glimpse into the world of possibility that I might be sick.”
Once he started to understand that BED is a legitimate disorder, he sought specialized treatment. “I was educated on BED, taught skills and tools to deal with the different urges and challenges I face, which in turn helped me establish my true life's values that had fell by the wayside at some point during my struggles.”
Perhaps if Andy would’ve known about BED, along with available treatment options, he wouldn’t have suffered in silence for so long. My hope, with a male college athlete like Joey Julius and pro tennis player Monica Seles disclosing their battles and recovery from BED, is that the shame and stigma around this illness will lift, allowing people to get the treatment they deserve and need to recover.
The Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) is an excellent resource to access further information, including their annual conference, blog/book recommendations, as well as providers.
Check out Monica Seles' book where she shares her experience with BED - Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self.