Binge Eating Disorder: A Diagnosis for Healing

Less understood than anorexia and bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder will soon receive an official diagnosis.

Woman thinking about her food choice inside refrigerator in kitchen at night
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By age 6, Chevese Turner had already begun binging. It started with a box of ice cream cones she snuck into her bedroom. She then proceeded to devour them all. "I was always sneaking food. I would hide it. I would store it," says Turner, founder and CEO of the Binge Eating Disorder Association. "It wasn't necessarily that I even ate more than most people, but I was preoccupied with food. I was essentially learning to use food to cope with life."

Her eating pattern of binging, followed by restriction – the latter a form of compensation and punishment that actually set her up for more binging – continued into adulthood. Eventually, Turner, now 45, conquered the disorder by accepting herself and learning healthy coping skills to handle stress.

[See How to Handle Extreme Stress.]

But it wasn't until receiving the right diagnosis that she could begin to recover, a process that only fully began in 2010. And that's why Turner and others are celebrating the fact that binge eating disorder will receive an official diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, the standard reference book for mental health professionals, scheduled to be released later this month.

"It's recognition that what we have experienced is an eating disorder," Turner says. "What that means on a larger scale is that people with issues around food, and a lot of the feelings that go along with it, will finally have all of that validated, that this is something that they're not alone in."

The move also paves the way for more research, treatments and, potentially, insurance coverage. However, payment hinges on parity laws, which call for equal coverage of mental health disorders, but vary by state.

[Read: How to Talk to a Friend About an Eating Disorder.]

"In most states, parity law only encompasses anorexia and bulimia, so what that has meant is that these conditions typically receive more comprehensive coverage for treatment," explains Jennifer Lombardi, a marriage and family therapist and executive director of Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program in Sacramento, Calif. The new classification of binge eating disorder could come under parity laws that offer people more treatment options, Lombardi says. "Hopefully this will begin a dialogue [and help health care officials] work with insurance companies to provide better care and more comprehensive care."

Binge eating disorder was included in the current DSM, released in 1994, as an "eating disorder not otherwise specified" – a catch-all category – requiring further study. Since then, more than 1,000 articles have been published on the subject. The articlesreveal the "significant distress," anxiety and mood disturbances associated with the disorder and the effictiveness of psychological treatments and medications, says Timothy Walsh, chair of the DSM-5 Eating Disorders Work Group of the American Psychiatric Association. "It was widely agreed that mentioning binge eating disorder only as an example of an eating disorder not otherwise specified was of limited help to individuals who suffered with the disorder and to the professionals attempting to assist them," he says.

Diagnosis requires more than the occasional binge, but frequent excess consumption as well as distress and dysfunction, Walsh says.

[See A Shame-Free Food Lifestyle.]

These parameters are critical for treating a condition that has been less understood than anorexia and bulimia, even though it affects more people.

In 2007, researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Ma., an affiliate of Harvard University, found that 0.9 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men experience anorexia during their lives, and 1.5 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men experience bulimia. Binge eating disorder, meanwhile, affects 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men.

"Everybody knows about anorexia and bulimia. However, binge eating disorder affects more people, is often associated with severe obesity and tends to persist longer,'' stated lead author James Hudson. "The consequences of binge eating disorder can be serious, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. It is imperative that health experts take notice of these findings."