The hidden shame of binge-eating disorder

BY Helena L Davies (from the March 2021 archive)

Most of us are familiar with the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia and the difficulties faced by individuals diagnosed with these conditions. But awareness of binge-eating disorder – recurrent spells of compulsive and excessive eating but without the purging associated with bulimia – is minimal.

In February 2020, King’s College London launched the Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI), the UK’s largest genetic research project into eating disorders. Since then, nearly 4,000 people have taken part.

But, despite binge-eating disorder being twice as common as anorexia, only 8% of the participants report experiencing it, whilst 43% report a history of anorexia.

In order to uncover which genes are involved in the development of binge-eating disorder, scientists need a large number of people to donate their genetic data. The latest genetic study into anorexia, for example, had almost 17,000 participants. Ultimately, knowing which genes are involved may allow us to identify those most at risk of developing binge-eating disorder.

“Anorexia dominates the conversation so much,” explains Professor Gerome Breen, who leads EDGI, “that it seems people with binge-eating disorder frequently don’t recognise themselves as having an eating disorder. There’s a lot of stigma around not being able to control your eating.”

A recent survey by the eating disorder charity Beat, found half of the 1,139 participants felt they have been judged unfairly as a result of their binge-eating disorder. “I was told by my mother,” one participant revealed, “that she preferred I had anorexia because it was more acceptable than stuffing my face”.

Public conversations surrounding binge-eating disorder are sparse, according to Tom Quinn, Beat’s Director of External Affairs: “Last year, 29% of people contacting Beat’s Helpline wanted to talk about their binge-eating disorder, but only 6% of the press coverage we generated discussed the illness”. Such a revelation prompted Beat to select binge-eating disorder as its focus during Eating Disorders Awareness Week (1st-7th March).

It is time binge-eating disorder is recognised as the serious psychiatric illness it is. When Beat survey participants were asked what they would like people to know about the condition, a number simply responded: “That it exists”.

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