Though Binge Eating Disorder (BED) was just categorized as an eating disorder in 2013, it is more common in the U.S. than anorexia and bulimia combined, with considerable evidence it is three times as prevalent. Maybe you have a mental picture of who suffers from BED: the “headless fatty” [showing obese bellies and lower body parts without revealing faces] the media propagates when they talk about the “obesity epidemic.”
The reality is that BED impacts people from every walk of life and every body type. One population most don’t think about includes elite athletes and military veterans. People in unexpected places have been opening up about their struggles in order to change the face of BED.
Tennis star Monica Seles recently told the world that she has lived with BED since the 1990s. She is among the many elite athletes who have developed BED; in fact, the rate of BED among athletes is higher than that of the general population.
A study published this year points out that risk factors for BED among athletes include “[e]xtreme, rigid dieting practices and preoccupation with body weight and composition.” A ruthless cycle is begun that can lead to BED. Athletes are often asked to adhere to strict diets and change the shape of their bodies in order to improve performance. When an athlete is placed on a restricted diet, they may lose touch with their hunger/fullness cues. Their body believes that it is being starved, and so it alters the levels of hormones that are released. The athlete experiences intense urges, binge eats, and then feels guilt and shame afterward. He or she returns to the strict diet required by the sport, and the cycle begins again.
Military veterans have also been a hidden face of BED. Since they are subject to strict weight requirements, members of military may be facing some of the same pressures as elite athletes. Studies show that veterans may be suffering symptoms of BED at rates much higher than average. One recent study found 45% of vets returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq repot binge eating and bulimic behaviors. Even if they don’t meet the full diagnosis of BED, members of the military may be using binge eating behaviors to cope with the stresses of combat deployments and the mental toll of trauma.
It makes sense that a tightly controlled eating style then contributes to the development of an eating disorder marked by feeling out of control while eating.
The good news is that BED is now better understood and effective, validated treatment is available. And the Department of Veterans Affairs is reaching out to destigmatize BED and offer mental health care treatment.
For tennis star Monica Seles, recovery included allowing herself to eat intuitively. As she told the New York Times, “I threw out every single diet notion I’d learned. I allowed myself to eat every single food group. I stopped dieting and I started living life.”