Jul 9, 2024 Binge-Eating and the Mental Health Crisis in the U.S.: Understanding the Hidden Epidemic

Eating disorders rank among the deadliest mental illnesses in the U.S., presenting a consistent public health issue that, unfortunately, has been met with insufficient access to treatment, underscoring the severe impact they have on individuals' lives and their contribution to high mortality rates. Intense mental health struggles, including anxiety, depression, and a high risk of suicide, further amplify their harm. Binge eating disorder has historically been overshadowed.

What is a Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a behavioral disorder identified by compulsive overeating. While occasional overeating is normal, an eating disorder interferes in an individual’s daily life, affecting mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Binge eating means consuming large quantities of food in a short period of time and feeling unable to stop.

Binge eating disorder can be diagnosed by criteria including:

  • Eating more food than most people would within a limited period.
  • Associating a sense of compulsion or lack of control with eating.
  • The occurrence of binge eating episodes at least once a week, which have been consistent over several months.
  • Feelings of distress and/or self-loathing about binge eating.

Dr. Frank Ghinassi, Senior Vice President of Behavioral Health Services at RWJBarnabas Health and CEO and President of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, emphasizes: “Recognizing these symptoms early and seeking appropriate intervention is crucial for preventing the long-term health effects associated with binge eating disorder.”

The devastation of eating disorders is undeniable. While noticing the above signs can trigger a desire to help an individual suffering, expressing concern in a sensitive way can be surprisingly challenging.

How to Approach Someone with BED

Initiating a conversation with someone you suspect has an eating disorder demands sensitivity and compassion. Some key considerations to keep in mind when navigating the discussion effectively are timing and location. Choose a private, comfortable space like your home instead of a public setting, especially one involving food.

Express your concern with care, avoiding any judgment. Actively listen to their feelings without offering solutions. Refrain from blaming or shaming them, and resist commenting directly on their weight or eating habits. Maintain a supportive stance and gently encourage them to seek professional help. Frame it as a sign of strength and a crucial step towards recovery.

What kind of treatments are available?

Dr. Ghinassi encourages those who are suffering from binge eating disorders to seek treatment, as they should feel empowered by taking control of their health and thinking positively about their healing journey.

“For so long, we’ve swept eating disorders such as this under the rug and allowed for such negative association with asking for help”, Dr. Ghinassi says. “Now, so many exceptional resources are available to guide patients through the recovery process, further addressing underlying emotional issues and treating more than just the physical illness.”

BED is treated with a combination of approaches, typically centered around therapy, nutrition counseling, and sometimes medication:

  • Therapy:
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps examine the thoughts and feelings that lead to binge eating and develop strategies to interrupt those patterns.
  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT): IPT focuses on resolving current life stressors that might be contributing to BED.
  • Mindfulness and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): Mindfulness techniques taught in DBT can help in managing emotions, coping with stress, and improving relationships as it relates to BED.
  • Nutrition Counseling: A dietician can help develop a meal plan that promotes regular eating, reduces feelings of deprivation, and fosters a healthy relationship with food, all while fitting an individual's specific needs. This includes tailoring daily calorie intake based on factors like age, gender, and activity level, ensuring the plan effectively supports your individual health.
  • Supervised mind body and exercise practices: Supervised mind-body practices like meditation can help those with eating disorders manage stress and improve body awareness, while supervised exercise programs can reduce cravings and promote a healthier body image, both contributing to a more positive relationship with food.

Programs and resources, such as those offered at RWJBarnabas Health’s Eating Disorders Program at RWJ University Hospital Somerset, provide comprehensive treatment that addresses every physical, mental, and emotional aspect involved when treating individuals with eating disorders.

Binge Eating Disorder is a complex and serious condition that requires compassion, understanding, and appropriate intervention. By recognizing the symptoms and approaching the conversation with care, you can support someone seeking the treatment they need. With the right combination of therapies and support, individuals with BED can recover and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.