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Could you have an eating disorder?

Posted Apr 13 2010 12:00am
When you think of somebody with an eating disorder, what comes to mind? A teenage girl with anorexia or bulimia?

Until recently, experts considered anorexia (intentional self-starvation) and bulimia (bingeing and purging) to be the only true eating disorders. That viewpoint, however, has changed. The upcoming fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM -- the official reference book used to diagnose mental illness -- will include “binge eating disorder” as a new category .

Studies now reveal that binge eating disorder strikes far more people than anorexia and bulimia combined, affecting people of all ages and both genders.

What is binge eating disorder, exactly? According to the National Eating Disorders Association , it is characterized by
"...periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. While there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets and often feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge."
Symptoms also include eating when not hungry, and eating in secret.

If this behavior sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. The definition of binge eating disorder could conceivably apply to anyone who falls off their diet and says to themselves, "Well, I've blown it. I might as well pig out on everything I've been denying myself for the past few weeks (or months). I feel terrible about myself! I'll start another diet on Monday."

That’s a lot of people with eating disorders -- and therefore mental illness, if you agree with the DSM.

Do all unsuccessful dieters have serious psychiatric issues -- or is something else going on? Could it be that dieting itself is causing this epidemic of binge eating? Think about it. The minute you go on a diet, you set up a tug-of-war situation. It's you against your body. You want to lose weight. Your body wants food. You are determined to succeed. But your body's voice is insistent. Sooner or later, you have a moment of weakness, cheat on your diet, and your body wins this round.

While the emotional pain caused by your inability to live up to your own and society’s expectations is very real, I’m somewhat uncomfortable that we’re now labeling this a psychiatric condition.

By doing so, we’re pathologizing a behavior that is actually a basic survival instinct. Simply put, if you are not getting enough nourishment, your body will send you signals to eat. Those signals occur for a good reason. The longer you resist them, the more out-of-control your binge will feel when you finally do cave in.

If calling this phenomenon an eating disorder allows some people to get help who otherwise wouldn’t, then that will be a good thing, of course. But personally, having overcome binge eating and helped others to do the same, I prefer not to think of it as a manifestation of mental illness. I consider it a perfectly natural response to a diet that falls short of your body’s needs. What do you think?

text copyright © 2010 Eleanor Kohlsaat LLC
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