Binge Eating Equally Common in Men as in Women

Often thought of as a “woman’s problem” binge eating is almost as prevalent in men as women—and puts both sexes at equal risk for obesity, depression, problems at work, and other impairments. Despite this, the disorder is often overlooked in men, a new study reports. An estimated 8 million Americans struggle with binge eating, characterized by frequent episodes of gorging on large amounts of food, often in secret, accompanied by feelings of disgust, embarrassment, guilt, and a sense of being out of control.

While up to 90 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia are women, binge eating is one of the few eating disorders that strikes men at nearly as much as it does women. About 11 percent of women and nearly 8 percent of men struggle with binge eating, according to a study of more than 46,000 adults ages 18 to 65, published in The International Journal of Eating Disorders. Overall, about 8 million Americans struggle with binge eating, putting their health in danger.

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What is binge eating?

Binge eating disorder is defined as episodes of eating large amounts (15,000 calories) of foods within two hours, occurring two or more times a week, accompanied by a sense of being powerless to resist gorging. For example, Ron Saxen—the 49-year-old author of “The Good Eater,” a memoir about his battle with bingeing—frequently ate 10,000 to 15,000 calories of Big Macs, French Fries, chocolate milkshakes, ice cream, and M&Ms, often within a 90-minute time frame, according to the New York Times.

Because men don’t think of themselves as being at risk for binge eating, it can take an extreme feeding frenzy before they’re willing to admit that they have a problem. For years, Andrew Walen, 39, had frequent bouts of gorging on 4,500 calorie’s worth of food at a single sitting, and often ordered takeout food for four when he was eating alone. But he remained in denial that his eating was out of control until the day when he downed 70 chicken wings in an hour.

“Ultimately, it was about numbing out and self-loathing,” Walen, now 39 and a therapist in Columbia, Maryland told the New York Times. “There was this voice in my head that said, ‘You’re no good, worthless,’ and I turned to food.”  

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The Risks of Binge Eating

Researchers report that binge eating causes just as much harm to men as women—or may even be more dangerous for men, because men are far less likely to seek help, often because they’re ashamed of having “a woman’s disease.” Doctors rarely screen male patients for this disorder, even though it can lead to dangerous or life-threatening health problems.

Because binge eaters don’t purge, 70 percent of them are overweight or obese, increasing the risk for such dangerous conditions as the following:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • stroke
  • metabolic syndrome
  • gallbladder disease
  • many forms of cancer

Binge eating also takes a devastating psychological toll, frequently causing intense shame, disgust, embarrassment, anxiety, and depression.

Yet this devastating disorder doesn’t even have its own listing in the DSM, the diagnostic guide for mental health professionals. Often men can’t find treatment facilities targeted at men, and almost all literature on the disease focuses on its effects on women. Or, like Saxen, they may be in denial, because eating large amounts of food is more culturally acceptable in men than in women.

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What are the symptoms of binge-eating disorder?

While most binge eaters are overweight, others are not. However, there are many warning signs of the disorder. Along with frequent feeding frenzies, typical symptoms include:

  • eating very rapidly during binges, even if you’re already full
  • frequently eating alone
  • frequent yo-yo dieting
  • feeling ashamed, disgusted, or guilty about how much food you’re consuming

Researchers aren’t sure what causes binge eating, but it’s strongly linked to depression. About half of people with the disorder are either currently depressed or have a history of mood disorders. Scientists suspect that genes may be involved, since bingeing often occurs in several members of the same family. Researchers are also studying the possible role of brain chemicals.

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Can binge-eating disorder be cured?

Although binge eating is challenging to treat (due to a relapse rate of up to 50 percent among people with the disorder) psychotherapy can often be helpful. Among the more effective forms of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, in which people identify the triggers and patterns that lead them to shovel down too much food, then work on finding healthier ways to address these issues.

For example, binge eaters often tend to restrict their eating during the day, only to lose control at night; so one treatment goal is to learn to consume three square meals per day, plus healthy snacks. However, for men, the biggest challenge of all can simply be getting them to step forward and admit they have a problem. 

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