Binge eating is a behavior that occurs when people eat unusually large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time. This behavior plays a central role in two officially diagnosable eating disorders, called bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Some affected individuals truly consume excessive amounts of calories, and therefore participate in something called objective binge eating. However, other affected individuals only believe they eat excessive amounts of calories; these people participate in something called subjective binge eating. According to the results of a new study published in August 2013 in the Journal of Eating Disorders, subjective binge eaters suffer from their condition just as much as objective binge eaters.
Binge Eating Basics
Binge eating is defined by two core features: periodic spikes in normal food consumption and a feeling of helplessness regarding the ability to control these spikes. Some people may only binge on rare occasions, and therefore may not experience any serious consequences related to their overconsumption. However, others may binge often enough to gain substantial amounts of weight and qualify for a binge-eating disorder diagnosis, or combine food binging with the purging behaviors that characterize the presence of bulimia (and also appear in a small number of anorexia nervosa cases).
Objective Binge Eating
Binge eaters can consume as much as 5,000 to 15,000 calories in a single binging episode; this level of intake far exceeds the calorie recommendations for both men and women for an entire day. Although the official guidelines for diagnosing bulimia and binge-eating disorder don’t specify the amount of calories that affected individuals must consume during their binges, doctors still commonly use this type of obviously excessive food intake as a key marker for making their diagnoses. Since the level of consumption in diagnosed cased of bulimia and binge-eating disorder is commonly notably extreme to an outside observer, doctors refer to this behavior as objective binge eating.
Subjective Binge Eating
Some people who perceive themselves as extreme binge eaters don’t actually eat extreme amounts of food during their binges; instead, they eat relatively small or moderate amounts of food. Doctors refer to individuals who misperceive the amount of food they consume during binges as subjective binge eaters. Technically speaking, these people still meet the general definitions for binge eating as long as they feel a loss of control regarding their eating behaviors. However, the authors of the study in the Journal of Eating Disorders explain, subjective binge eaters are commonly excluded from binge eating-related mental health diagnoses, and therefore commonly don’t receive treatment for their condition.
In the study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, a multinational research team examined the effects of objective binge eating and subjective binge eating in a group of 70 obese individuals seeking treatment for binge-eating disorder. Some of these individuals experienced episodes of both objective binge eating and subjective binge eating, while others only experienced episodes of subjective binge eating. Comparisons were made between these groups regarding a number of relevant factors, including gender, level of body fat, relative inability to control binge-eating behaviors, age, the impact of binge eating on mental health and the presence of depression (a condition which frequently coexists with binge-eating behaviors). After reviewing their findings, the study’s authors concluded that people affected by subjective binge eating experience essentially the same level of life disruption as people affected by objective binge eating. Manifestations of this shared disruption include roughly equal amounts of loss of control over binging behaviors, equally severe overall binge eating-related symptoms, roughly equal chances of developing moderate symptoms of depression, and roughly equal chances of experiencing other simultaneous mental health problems.
The authors of the study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders believe that their findings demonstrate that, despite their lower level of food consumption during binging episodes, people affected by subjective binge eating experience negative consequences that are just as severe as the consequences associated with objective binge eating. This is critically important, since subjective binge eaters frequently don’t receive treatment, even when they seek medical help to deal with their eating behaviors. The authors also believe that the national and international organizations that set the guidelines for diagnosing eating disorders should seriously consider adding the presence of a subjective pattern of binge eating to the list of criteria used to define those disorders. (In the U.S., the organization responsible for setting the accepted guidelines for eating disorder diagnosis is the American Psychiatric Association.)