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Why aren’t we talking about Binge Eating Disorder?

BED affects three times the number of people than anorexia and bulimia combined, but despite how common it is, research into and awareness of the condition remains limited.

In our image-obsessed world, the fact that so many people suffer from an eating disorder is plausible and saddening.

Every day, despite body positivity movements and calls for social media platforms to better regulate toxic trends, the amount of individuals struggling with a ‘morbid preoccupation with food’ increases.

Currently, the figure stands at nine per cent of the entire population.

Of course, since the height of heroin chic, we’ve become far more considerate towards those impacted and our understanding of how to support them has improved tenfold.

However, amid our determination to reject the fixation with skinny-worship that’s brought on waves of anorexia, bulimia, and other restrictive behaviours, there’s one condition in particular that seems to have slipped beneath the radar.

Binge Eating Disorder, or BED, is defined as someone having recurrent and persistent episodes that involve consuming large quantities over short periods of time.

Is it Binge Eating Disorder (BED) or are you stuck in a vicious cycle? - MEDA - Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association

It can take the form of eating much more rapidly than usual, eating until uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry, eating alone due to embarrassment, and/or feeling disgusted with yourself afterwards.

Yet although it’s incredibly common and affects three times the number of people than anorexia and bulimia combined (a study in 2017 found that BED made up 22% of eating disorder cases, with anorexia accounting for 8%, and bulimia 19%), research and awareness remains strikingly limited.

This is because bingeing is a fundamentally misinterpreted act.

Culturally, it’s viewed as an absence of willpower and, owing to prevailing weight stigma, is often inaccurately associated with people who are obese.

But as Beat clarifies on its website: ‘BED is not about choosing to eat large portions, nor are people who suffer from it just “overindulging” – far from being enjoyable, binges are very distressing, often involving a much larger amount of food than someone would want to eat.’

‘People may find it difficult to stop during a binge even if they want to. Some people with binge eating disorder have described feeling disconnected from what they’re doing during a binge, or even struggling to remember what they’ve eaten afterwards.’

At its core, BED is marked by the emotional distress and sense of a lack of control that drives it, by the guilt surrounding bingeing, and by the absence of compensatory habits like purging so that episodes happen in cycles and can last for weeks on end.

Using food as a weapon to combat intense feelings they’re unable to tolerate, people with BED are trapped in a pattern of self-loathing, which our failure to recognise the eating disorder as being on par with those we already take seriously is doing nothing to avail.

Clearly a mental health issue and a symptom of something considerably more complex than simply ‘eating too much,’ BED wasn’t recognised as such until 2013.

It’s for this reason, alongside our refusal to move away from ideas of greed and an inability to resist food, that very few are willing to openly admit they’ve a problem and start seeking the help they need.

Our superficial perception of eating disorders is centred around thinness and perfectionism. This means we’re ignoring a condition erroneously thought to be a result of weakness.

‘There is this idea that we should all have self-control and so often people with BED have just been labelled greedy and that’s not the case at all,’ says clinical training lead at Beat Jess Griffiths, who stresses the importance of noting these distinctions.

The facts and figures show the scale of Binge Eating Disorder | Action Mental Health

‘People with BED will binge on anything, it’s not a process they necessarily enjoy. It’s quite punishing.’

Fatphobia and our confusion about what BED actually entails isn’t solely to blame for why people who reckon with it feel so alienated, however.

In a medical setting, damaging stereotypes are rife, and those with enough courage to speak to a professional in the first place (daunting given the context) frequently wind up with their pain invalidated and or dismissed pointed in the completely wrong direction.

‘So often when people try to talk to a health professional about binge eating disorder, they will be advised to lose weight,’ adds Jess.

‘We hear from people that if they have a negative encounter with a health professional then it takes so much time, like years, to come back again and ask for help.’

She explains that reinforcing the belief we must lose weight at any cost pushes people with BED to further extremes to absolve themselves of their ‘moral failing.’

This keeps the wheels of a bingeing cycle turning and the possibility of a life-changing diagnosis out of reach.

‘Medical professionals need better understanding of eating disorders and better training to counter the anti-fat bias that actively damages their patients,’ writes Sadhbh O’Sullivan for Refinery19.

‘On a wider scale, disordered behaviours around food need to be questioned too, with empathy and understanding instead of flagellation and shaming.’

‘And diet culture (even in its new wellness jacket) needs to be interrogated when it buys into the idea that food is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’.’

Ultimately, it’s essential we continue advocating for a more inclusive conversation around eating disorders.

We need to offer those battling with BED empathy, not judgement, so they can access the support they deserve free from unnecessary shame.