Termed the “new” eating disorder, binge eating has risen in prevalence over the past couple of years, quickly becoming the most common eating disorder among the general population. College students in particular are disproportionally affected by binge eating disorder.
BED affects about one in 50 people in the United States; about three to five percent of women and two percent of men struggle with the disorder. While 15 percent of women in the U.S. have an eating disorder, the number soars dramatically for college women, of whom 40 percent have an eating disorder, according to the Massachusetts Eating Disorders Association.
“If someone is going to develop an eating disorder – and not everyone will – the times that are more likely are areas of transition,” said Jennifer Smith, Director of Outpatient Treatment Programs at Walden Behavioral Care, located in Northampton. According to Smith, the transition to independence and adulthood that accompanies college, combined with the chaotic eating practices of many students, often acts as a catalyst for the emergence of an eating disorder.
Walden Behavioral Care is the only clinic in New England dedicated to treating eating disorders, and offers a full continuum of care. Its Northampton clinic offers intensive outpatient care to after-school adolescent programs, and often treats students from Smith and the other Five Colleges. Smith cited the heavy college presence as a driving force in establishing a satellite clinic in Northampton.
The clinic often works in cooperation with Health Services, provided the student wishes Health Services to be involved. Each year, about 25 percent of Smith students utilize Counseling Services on campus; many of these students come to discuss eating problems.
While BED is the most common eating disorder, it is often misunderstood and frequently goes unrecognized. It currently does not qualify as a separate disorder in the DSM-IV, the manual covering mental health disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association and used by mental health professionals.
“Our culture is pretty judgmental,” Smith said, when asked why BED and other eating disorders are seldom discussed. “Increasing awareness is something I’m trying to do all the time. This is a bona fide illness and can be responsive to treatment.”
“Be aware of one’s own prejudices and biases and the assumptions that we make about people,” Smith advised. “I can’t tell by looking at someone whether they have an eating disorder. Be more educated and sensitive about what it means. An eating disorder is not a choice.”
The Walden clinic strives to restore normative eating habits to its patients. Unlike groups for food addiction, Walden does not seek to set up strict boundaries and rigid sets of rules for its patients.
“That sort of all-or-nothing approach can be for some people the very thing that leads to binge eating behavior,” Smith explained.
Those suffering from binge eating often do not realize that they have an illness, and do not seek treatment. People with BED often hide food and eat in secret, feeling great shame about their behaviors. Other symptoms include eating when stressed or anxious, eating when not hungry and feeling like one has no control over their eating habits.
While research on BED has not been extensive, it is believed to be a combination of chemical imbalances and genetic predisposition, as well as cultural body image ideals or traumatic past experiences.
Smith advised students who believe they or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to speak up. “Do not ignore it,” she said. “Don’t talk about weight or shape, and encourage them to talk to somebody. Students can always come down for an evaluation, with no commitment to entering a treatment program.”
Students interested in raising awareness can check out www.nationaleatingdisorders.org: National Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from Feb. 26 to March 3.