Stress eating. Comfort food. The post-breakup ice cream binge. These are some of the many ways that emotional binge eating is normalized by our culture. And while it's true that sometimes a little bit of chocolate is exactly what you need to get through the anxiety following that crazy hard Gen Chem test, binge-eating habits like these may eventually become more damaging than you initially think. 

Because a lot of the time, it's hard to stop after just that one piece of chocolate. So maybe you eat two or five. Or maybe you keep eating chocolate to the point that you don't even like the taste anymore, but it's easier to keep going than to stop. And when you finally do realize how much you've had, maybe you feel guilty, gross or ashamed.

If this has ever happened to you, know that you're not alone, and it's not your fault either. Binge Eating Disorder is actually the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting about 5.5% of the total population. So why is it that most people have never even heard of Binge Eating Disorder? Is what I described above even a disease? Isn't it just overeating or a lack of self-control? 

What is Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?

vegetable, chips, guacamole
Jennifer Cao
Unfortunately, Binge Eating Disorder is very real, but it manages to fly under the radar due to stigma and shame. BED is a medically recognized condition in which someone "binges" or compulsively eats large amounts of food past the point of hunger and often past the point of being uncomfortably full. Unlike the comparable but distinct condition bulimia nervosa, a BED binge is not followed by purging. In the period after a session of binging, BED victims experience deep shame, guilt or self-loathing. 

Why haven't I heard more about this?

coffee, beer, pizza
Nancy Chen

Because shame is such an integral and intense part of this condition, those who suffer from it rarely seek help. They often learn to avoid eating in public and feel that their condition is not legitimate—that if they tried to get help, people would just tell them to make better choices and avoid gluttony.

There's a stigma against BED as a "lesser" eating disorder; it's a common misconception that anorexia and bulimia are truly medical afflictions, while binge eating is just a lack of self-control or will power. Not only is Binge Eating Disorder unhealthy in its own right, but it is also closely linked to anorexia, bulimia, anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide.

We need to more openly discuss BED and recognize it for what it is—a valid illness that needs to be treated—in order to avoid allowing those who suffer from it feeling forced to live in continual shame or develop one or more of the above conditions.

How might I detect BED in myself or in a friend?

coffee, cake, tea, pizza, beer, kettle
Lauryn Lahr

Every time you find yourself or a friend eating a whole pint of Ben & Jerry's, that doesn't mean you or he/she has Binge Eating Disorder. Every time you or a friend finishes a half-and-half at 2 am and regrets that decision, that also doesn't mean you or he/she has Binge Eating Disorder. 

On the other hand, if you feel like you often find yourself in a cycle of compulsive eating and regret, consider reaching out to someone you trust. Food is great, we should love and enjoy food—but we shouldn't allow food to run our lives in a damaging, way.

As a young woman in society frequently tainted by stereotyped images of objectified females, body image is a big deal to me. How I look is something that I feel as if I am endlessly thinking about. While I've struggled with a variety of eating issues for a significant part of my life, I've often felt the pressure not to talk about it—and that's exactly why I want to talk about it now.

If you believe that you or someone you know is suffering from BED, know that there are lots of available treatment options, and there is no shame in reaching out for help.