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Binge eating disorder now affects more people than anorexia and bulimia

During a blackout at the age of 4, Jenny lost half of an apple, which was part of her dessert. She spent most of the next day crawling on the floor, searching for it.

“All I could think of was where the other half was,” Jenny said. The first time Jenny binged on food was a year later, when she attended a friend’s birthday party. There she had unlimited access to sandwiches, cake and other sweets. She took full advantage and ate as much as she could. When she got home that day, she threw up.

The binge eating, Jenny said, “became a trend from that point on.”

Jenny, who considers herself a compulsive overeater, is just one of many people affected by binge eating disorder, also known as compulsive overeating. Binge eating is defined as eating a large amount of food twice a week, usually past the point of feeling uncomfortable, and being unable to have control food intake.

A recent survey led by Dr. James Hudson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at McLean Hospital, found that binge eating is more prevalent in the general population than anorexia and bulimia combined. Binge eating affects 5.5 percent of the general population, while anorexia and bulimia affect 1.2 and 2 percent of the general population, respectively. The study is the first national eating disorder survey of its kind.

Because there is such a limited amount of data on eating disorders, information about the binge eating disorder is just starting to emerge. But its prevalence in society has lead to a discussion of it being added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used to diagnose mental illnesses.

The study also found that the binge eating disorder lasts for 8.1 years, which is much longer than the duration of anorexia, which is 1.7 years. The average duration of bulimia is 8.3 years.

Now 28 years old, Jenny admits that she was conscious as a teenager that her relationship with food was different.

“I knew I was doing something wrong,” she said. But still, Jenny felt it was something she could not control. “I was born this way," she said. "It was a craving that turned into an obsession.”

Once, she tried the Atkins Diet, which she affectionately termed the “meat binge diet” because the diet focuses on unlimited amounts of meat-—within reason.

Hudson notes that the duration of the binge eating disorder illustrates that the disorder is part of a major health crisis.

Hudson hopes that the study will “lead to recognition that binge eating disorder is a major health problem.” He also said that it is an important cause of obesity, and that investigations into it “may have an impact on the obesity epidemic.”

Although there are no clear definitions of who is “at-risk” of developing the binge eating disorder, Hudson said that there is a genetic link to the disorder.

“People are twice as likely to have it if a relative did,” he said.

Marc Lerro, executive director of the Eating Disorders Coalition in Washington said the binge eating disorder is more than just bad eating habits.

“We know of situations where people have died from binge eating disorder practices," he said. "People with eating disorders have an underlying mental condition.”

The health risks of binge eating are often the same as obesity, and include high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Jenny’s health scare came about a year ago after she woke up in the middle of the night suffering from chest pains. Then weighing around 300 pounds, she had been suffering from them for a couple years. However, these were particularly bad: she feared she was going to die in her sleep. When she woke up the next morning, she vowed to change her lifestyle.

“I’d been committing suicide slowly over a number of years,” she said. “Really, I was dying inside and I couldn’t stand it.”

With the help of Overeaters Anonymous, Jenny has been in recovery for about a year. Since then, her life has changed dramatically: she now weighs 173 pounds. But she is quick to point out that the change is more than physical.

“I want to live and there’s less of an obsession," she said. "I still find myself getting preoccupied with food, but I know that if I eat inappropriately I will put food before everything else.”

E-mail: alb2145@columbia.edu