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Is binge eating a psychiatric disorder?

As the American Psychiatrics Assn. considers including it in its diagnotic manual, skeptics object and possible treatments are debated.

November 23, 2009|By Melissa Healy >>>

Rina Silverman's refrigerator is almost always empty. She keeps it that way to avert episodes of frantic food consumption, often at night after a full meal, in which she tastes nothing and feels nothing but can polish off a party-sized bag of chips or a container of ice cream, maybe a whole box of cereal. The food she's eating at these moments hardly matters.

In short order, the nothing that Silverman feels and tastes will give way to nauseating fullness, and a bitter backwash of guilt, shame and self-reproach.

The fullness, in time, passes. But the corrosive shame and self-reproach are always there.

Silverman, a 43-year-old executive assistant from Sherman Oaks, is one of the 145 million Americans who are overweight or obese. But the frenzies of consumption put her in a far smaller category of Americans, not all of whom are even overweight.

Silverman is a binge eater, one who is slowly inching her way toward recovery. She and as many as 1 in 30 Americans -- roughly 7.3 million adults -- are at the center of a psychiatric debate over whether and how to recognize binge eating as a mental disorder.

A decision on the matter is expected early next year, as the American Psychiatric Assn. updates the diagnostic manual that guides the mental health profession.

In light of new research and a seemingly growing population of patients who fit the broad description of binge eaters, psychiatrists must decide whether "binge eating disorder" should stand alongside anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa as a separate psychiatric condition -- identifiable by a distinct set of symptoms, a recognizable pattern of progression and a track record of response to certain treatments.

Silverman's symptoms offer a textbook definition of the proposed disorder. Overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger or stress trigger episodes of eating unusually large quantities of food, often when she's not at all hungry. The guilt and shame that follow these episodes sustain her low opinion of herself, and Silverman assumes that her excess weight prompts others to share that opinion. At her lowest points, the binges might occur several times a week, usually at night and away from others' prying eyes. She skips meals and eats erratically in an effort to compensate for her binges.

Overeating may be an American pastime -- and at this time of year, a revered tradition. But a holiday stuffing -- or even the regular practice of eating beyond the point of satiety -- would not qualify as a binge eating disorder.


A 2007 study by researchers at Harvard University-affliated McLean Hospital found, in a national survey of adults, that the set of behaviors widely agreed to define binge eating are present in 3.5% of women at some time in their lives and 2% of men. That would make binge eating a disorder far more common than bulimia and anorexia put together, said Dr. James I. Hudson, lead author of the study.

Many mental health professionals point to those numbers and to the distress that plagues many binge eaters as compelling reasons to recognize this complex of symptoms as a new disorder.

To many skeptics, however, the recognition of binge eating as a psychiatric disorder does nothing but absolve weak-willed people of their responsibility to rein in a dangerous habit. And some suspect that the diagnosis is a sneaky way to sweep an entire nation of overeaters under psychiatry's umbrella -- and possibly into the marketplace for new drugs.

Christopher Lane, author of "Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness," says that the formal elevation of binge eating disorder in psychiatry's guidebook would have many unfortunate consequences. Physicians and the public, he said, would quickly recast a behavior that is powerfully rooted in psychological conflicts about food, pleasure and self-image as a brain disorder. "The treatment options then tilt invariably toward medication" over talk therapy aimed at unearthing the behavior's complex underpinnings, he said.

Beyond that, psychiatrists will have to contend with a shortcoming that plagues virtually all of their diagnostic definition: "The cutoff point between normal and pathological" is seldom a sharp line, Lane says. People who binge in response to a difficult life passage could wind up as lifelong patients. And, invariably, many who are overweight but not emotionally hobbled would get a diagnostic label instead of advice to exercise more and eat a bit less.

In short, the specialists involved in the deliberations are picking their way through a minefield of controversies: the causes of a national obesity crisis, personal responsibility versus the medicalization of risky behavior, the nature of addiction and compulsion, even the respective roles of nature and nurture in shaping who we are and how we behave.

"It's a tricky business," says Columbia University psychiatrist B. Timothy Walsh, who chairs the American Psychiatric Assn.'s work group on eating disorders.

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