Binge Eating Disorder: Surprisingly Common, Seriously Under-treated

March 29, 2007

Binge eating disorder is more common than anorexia and bulimia combined, according to a national survey, but many physicians are unaware of the problem. The guidance and evidence discussed here highlight the key issues in recognizing and managing the disorder.

Though binge eating is not an officially recognized disorder, it is more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia; carries serious health risks; can be chronic; transcends racial, gender and socioeconomic boundaries; and frequently occurs along with other mental disorders.

Given these findings -- taken from the first nationally representative survey of eating disorders in the U.S. -- experts say primary-care physicians should routinely screen for binge eating disorder, particularly among overweight and obese patients.

Physicians have a crucial role to play in detection, referral and follow-up of the disorder. Most physicians, however, aren't aware of the problem, says James Hudson, MD, director of the Psychiatric Epidemiology Research Program at McLean Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard.

"Doctors certainly see obesity as a problem, but they're not tuned into binge eating. It's just not as well known," says Hudson, lead author of "The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication". The study, published Feb. 1 in Biological Psychiatry, found that 2.8 percent of the general population has binge-eating disorder -- more than bulimia (1 percent prevalence) and anorexia (0.6 percent) combined.

Findings reveal 'major public health problem'

The study also found that:

•Binge eating disorder (BED) is strongly associated with severe obesity, which can lead to diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.

•Although eating disorders overall are about twice as common among women as men, 40 percent of binge eaters are men.

•78.9 percent of those with binge eating disorder met the criteria for at least one other psychiatric disorder.

•The average duration of BED was 8.1 years, compared with 8.3 for bulimia and 1.7 for anorexia.

•Less than half of those with binge eating disorder had sought treatment for it.

"Binge eating disorder represents a major public health problem," Hudson said. "It is imperative that health experts take notice of these findings."

While physicians are well aware of bulimia and anorexia, they tend to overlook binge eating, for reasons including its lack of obvious physical signs and its lack of official recognition. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) currently classifies BED as an "eating disorder not otherwise specified" and needing further study. Many researchers, however, believe there is now sufficient evidence to classify it as a separate disorder. A working group for the DSM-V, to be published in 2012, will decide the question.

Detection is also hampered by physicians' reluctance to discuss eating disorders, Hudson notes. "It makes the doctor uncomfortable; it makes the patient uncomfortable. But we need to be asking about it."

Questions to ask

Since binge eating is most common among the overweight and obese, those populations are the logical place to start screening. "I would start by saying, 'Your BMI indicates that you're overweight. I'd like to discuss ways we can address that,'" advises Kelly Allison, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and a co-director at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders. " 'One problem that's often associated with gaining weight is binge eating. Have you had any problems with that?' "

Cynthia Bulik, PhD, director of the eating disorders program at University of North Carolina, says the ideal time to screen for binge eating, and other eating disorders, is when weighing the patient. "It's the perfect time to ask, and it can be done without losing time. While the patient is on the scale, the nurse can ask, 'How do you feel about your weight? Do you have any problems with eating?' "

If the patient says yes, the physician should ask about these key signs of BED:

•Do you eat unusually large amounts of food at one sitting (equivalent to two full meals)?

•Do you eat this way even when you're not hungry?

•Do you eat until you're uncomfortably full?

•Do you feel you've lost control and can't stop eating?

•Do you feel ashamed or depressed afterwards?

•Has this happened two or more times a week for six months?

Not a moral flaw

It's important to ask these questions in a non-judgmental way, being sensitive to the shame and stigma surrounding eating disorders, Hudson emphasizes. "Doctors need to convey that this is not a moral flaw, but a medical problem to be addressed."

Bulik has found that many patients want to talk about their binge eating, and are relieved when a doctor asks about it. "I can't tell you the number of e-mails I've gotten from people who have seen me discussing this. They say, 'Thank you so much for talking about it.’”

While there's sometimes a grey area between binge eating and simply overeating, the key distinguishing factors for BED are a loss of control when eating, and feelings of distress after binges. Bingeing is often rooted in a patient's low self-esteem, poor body image, and the use of food to comfort oneself.

Reassurance, referral, treatment goals

If the patient indicates a problem with binge eating, the physician should reassure him or her that it's a treatable condition and that help is available. The patient should be screened for other mental disorders including anxiety and depression.

"The biggest mistake doctors make is to trivialize the problem and say, 'Well, we all overeat sometimes,' and to tell the patient to just control their eating. It's more complex than that," explains Ruth Striegel-Moore, PhD, professor and chair of psychology at Wesleyan University and past president of the Academy for Eating Disorders. The treatment goals for BED are stopping the binges, losing weight, and correcting the self-defeating feelings, thoughts and behaviors that trigger binges.

Where to refer

To achieve these goals, many experts recommend a comprehensive eating disorders program. The programs take a multidisciplinary approach that typically includes nutrition counseling; a behavioral weight control plan with healthy meals spaced throughout the day; medication in some cases; and a strong foundation in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) -- considered the gold standard for treating the disorder.

According to an April 2006 evidence report on eating disorders, commissioned by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, CBT is effective in reducing the number of binge days or the number of binge episodes, though it does not lead to significant weight loss.

Eating disorders programs are offered by most academic medical centers and many hospitals. Or patients can be referred to a therapist specializing in eating disorders; the Academy for Eating Disorders and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies offer online searches to find a therapist. In communities without such resources, the physician can create a treatment plan involving a nutritionist, and a therapist with experience in CBT.

Because binge eating disorder is not an official diagnosis, insurance coverage is often minimal or nonexistent, and patients without coverage often can't afford to pay for treatments out-of-pocket -- another reason some are urging official recognition for the disorder.

Self-help a viable approach

For patients without coverage, and those wary of traditional therapy yet motivated to work on the problem, self-help treatment may be a viable option. The approach uses books or other materials to guide patients through a program built on cognitive behavioral therapy. Like traditional CBT, the programs help patients develop a structured eating plan and correct the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that lead to binges.

"Say your in-laws are coming this weekend, and you know it's a stressor for you. You make a plan for how you're going to handle that without bingeing," says Striegel-Moore. According to studies in 1998 and 2001, self-help approaches were effective in reducing binges and improving patients' attitudes about eating. Recommended self-help books include Overcoming Binge Eating and Getting Better Bite by Bite.

And the newest frontier in self-help is computer-based programs. With a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, for example, Bulik developed a program called Preventing Overweight with Exercise and Reasoning (POWER), which she describes as "therapy on a CD." The program uses realistic vignettes, self-paced lessons and interactive quizzes to help patients understand why they binge and to help them make better eating choices. "Patients love it because it's so interactive," Bulik says. "Computer-based programs are the future of self-help."

Other approaches

While cognitive behavioral therapy is the most proven therapy for binge eating disorder, other approaches have shown promise, such as interpersonal therapy, which explores issues in the patient's relationships. A 2002 study which compared CBT with interpersonal therapy to treat 162 BED patients found recovery rates were equivalent in both groups.

And while some may believe a conventional diet program is the answer -- from Atkins to Jenny Craig to Weight Watchers -- the approach hasn't been well-tested for treating binge eating disorder. Some studies have found that BED patients lose as much weight as non-BED patients in traditional weight-control programs. But some experts advise against the approach.

"My experience is, by the time patients are talking to their doctor about this problem, they've already tried dieting programs and it didn't help," Hudson says. Furthermore, "some of these programs say, ‘Our program can't fail -- it's you who failed.’ So if the patient doesn't succeed, they feel worse than before."

The role of medications

Although there is no FDA-approved drug specifically for binge eating disorder, several medications have been found effective in clinical trials.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most commonly used to treat BED. In randomized trials, they have been found more effective at reducing binge eating than in inducing weight loss.

•Some appetite suppressants have been shown to reduce binge eating and body weight in patients with BED.

•A small number of anti-convulsant medications have been tested in clinical trials for BED, and have been shown to decrease binges and reduce weight. The drugs often have troublesome side effects, however, including dizziness, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

The question of whether and when to use medication ultimately depends on the patient's, and the doctor's, preference. Hudson recommends first trying CBT, and if the patient doesn't show sufficient improvement, medication can be tried, either alone or with therapy. Striegel-Moore recommends using medication primarily for patients with comorbid anxiety or depression, and using it to complement, not replace, therapy. The AHRQ evidence report states that "combining medication and CBT may improve both binge eating and weight loss, although sufficient trials have not been done to determine which medications are best at producing weight loss."

No magic bullet

Unfortunately, successful treatment for binge eating disorder is neither quick nor easy, and relapses are common. Even the most effective treatments take 10-12 weeks to work. And, for reasons that aren't fully understood, the treatments that have helped patients stop bingeing have shown little success in helping them lose weight. This underscores the need for further study and better treatments -- and the importance of perseverance for those struggling to overcome binge eating. "It's incredibly hard to lose weight long-term," Striegel-Moore says. "We live stressful lives, we're surrounded by cheap unhealthy food, and we don't exercise enough. For anyone to get control over binge eating requires truly lasting behavioral change."

RELATED LINKSNews articles

Bingeing Now Seen as Most Common Eating Disorder
Washington Post, Feb. 1, 2007

3% of Americans are binge eating
WebMD Medical News, Feb. 1, 2007

Published research reports and clinical guidelines

The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication
Biological Psychiatry, Feb. 1, 2007

Management of Eating Disorders: An Evidence Report Prepared for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
April 2006

Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Eating Disorders: A Quick Reference Guide
American Psychiatric Association, July 2006

International Journal of Eating Disorders, special issue: The Current Status of Binge Eating Disorder
July 2003

Pharmacologic Treatment of Binge Eating Disorder
International Journal of Eating Disorders, July 2003

DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for Binge Eating Disorder
Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center

Patient resources and referrals

Information on Binge Eating Disorder, from National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Eating Disorder Referral and Information CenterAcademy for Eating Disorders, provider search

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, provider search

Have comments or questions on this article? Please e-mail the author, Sara Selis, at sselis@cmp.com.