This is a disease of the brain, not the body.
What Is Binge Eating Disorder
There are numerous misconceptions about this disease, continues Walen, who is 13 years recovered from several forms of eating disorder behavior himself, including BED. “Most people think someone who is a binge eater is eating all the time, and they’re not,” he says. “More often than not, this person is skipping meals, trying to undo the binge they’ve had.”
Also, you can’t spot someone with BED based on body size. “We’ll see people at a normal weight with full-blown BED, we’ll see very large people who have normal relationships with food,” Walen says. “The key thing to remember is that this is a disease of the brain, not the body.”
Someone suffering from BED may not always go for junk food, either. “I’ve had clients who would graze on everything they had in their refrigerator — even the fruits and vegetables — just to avoid going to bed and having to be intimate with their partner,” he explains. “They were stalling from having to get undressed because there is so much body shame. This one person, her skin was turning orange from all the carrots she was eating.”
And by no means is disease restricted to women. In a July 2014 study, researchers found that more than 45% of male veterans, as well as 65% of female veterans, showed signs of BED and/or bulimia after returning from their military duties in the Middle East.
“Men and women who develop BED in near equal numbers do so because of the genetic predisposition.” Walen says. “They do it to numb out, space out, feel more relaxed, to find more heightened joy in food that is somewhat different from the rest of the population. It’s no different than the fact that many people drink alcohol, but only a small number will become alcoholics because they process the experience differently.”
Identifying BED vs. Occasional Overindulgence
So what’s the difference between people who have BED and people who say they’ve been “so bad” for “pigging out” too much lately?
“What you’re hearing is the development of an environment that shames our food behaviors,” Walen explains. “The fear is becoming fat. There are plenty of people who will do some disordered behaviors from time to time, but someone is either genetically predisposed to having an eating disorder or they’re not. We need to remember genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.”
When it comes to warning signs of BED, there are several emotional, mental and behavioral characteristics to consider. Eating in secrecy to the point of being painfully full and then feeling shameful or guilty at least once a week, every week, for three months could indicate a problem. “For an easy screening tool, the BEDS-7 questionnaire is a good starting point,” Walen suggests.
Recovery from BED involves working with specialized therapists who can help patients face their anxiety around food and figure out where they are struggling emotionally.
“Anecdotally, most binge eaters who are asked in treatment when they think their behaviors with food started, most will point to early childhood, as young as 5,” Walen says.
Most importantly, recovery is not about weight loss. “It’s a psychological recovery,” he adds. “It’s about making peace with your relationship with food and to find health and happiness within the body you currently have.”
From Patient to Professional
With the help of her therapist, Kronengold has learned coping skills for her emotions, which include meditation, listening to music and pausing before indulging in unhealthy behaviors.
“If I have an urge to binge, I’ll think, ‘What is this food going to do for me? What is this going to solve?'” she says. “It’s about talking myself through it.”
When she felt she was in a good place with her recovery, Kronengold coordinated a NEDA Walk on her college campus. “I kind of created my own support group,” she says. “I channeled my eating disorder into activism.”
Today she is a program coordinator for NEDA, having earned her master’s degree in clinical psychology. Kronengold — who adds that being in recovery is an ongoing process — strongly urges anyone who may be suffering from BED to contact the helpline.
“We can provide information about eating disorders and find treatment providers, but sometimes people just need someone to talk to about their concerns,” she says. “I want others to know they’re not alone.”
To contact a volunteer at the NEDA Helpline, call 1-800-931-2237.