A new survey by researchers at Harvard University finds that frequent binge eating is the nation's most prevalent eating problem, outpacing better-known disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The results come from what researchers say is the first national census of eating disorders.
Psychiatrist James Hudson with Harvard's McLean Hospital says binge eating "absolutely" qualifies as a stand-alone mental disorder.
"An eating binge is when you eat a large amount of food in a short period of time and have a sense of loss of control over the eating," he says.
That may sound a lot like what many think of as nervous eating, something most people do from time to time when they're under a lot of stress. Hudson acknowledges that people who binge occasionally don't necesarily have a disorder.
"But there are certainly cases where individuals have a striking loss of control over their eating," he says.
That doesn't mean an extra bag of chips at lunch or the occasional pint of ice cream in bed. By Hudson's definition, binge eating means gorging — eating amounts of food that leave you uncomfortably stuffed at least twice a week for a period of three months or more.
"Once you get to that level, you've really identified a group of individuals that really is out of the realm of normal behavior," he says.
Hudson's new survey — based on face-to-face interviews with 9,000 adults — offers evidence that binge eating is more of a problem than people realize. The study found that 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men struggle with binge eating, suggesting that it is more common than anorexia and bulimia combined.
But that estimate seems quite high to psychiatrist David Feinberg of UCLA.
Feinberg was not involved in the McLean Hospital study. But he says that in clinical practice, most of the people who come in seeking help for eating problems are diagnosed with the classic disorders — marked by binging and purging — or by a refusal to eat, as in the case of anorexia. He says it's rare to see binge eating all alone.
"You have to be careful that you don't start over-pathologizing people who just eat too much," Feinberg says. "And in particular in this group, there doesn't seem to be much impairment."