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Eating disorder awareness week 2021

The 2021 Eating Disorder Awareness Week has been focussed on spreading awareness for binge eating disorder. According to research by the National Centre for Eating Disorders, one in two people who seek help for weight loss overeat compulsively – that’s a staggering 12 million people in the UK! It’s likely we’ve all been there. Juggling working from the dining room table, homeschooling the kids, worrying about COVID, wondering when we might get to see nan, and dealing with the monotony of life in lockdown (not another Groundhog Day!), has many of us reaching for a family-sized bag of Doritos or an entire tub of Häagen-Dazs.

But what’s the difference between eating a whole packet of hobnobs or 3 donuts in a row when we’ve had a crappy day and binge eating disorder (BED)?

BED is more serious than overindulging every now and then. It usually involves eating an inordinate amount of food in a short space of time, sometimes when not hungry, often very fast, and definitely past the point of feeling full. Stopping mid-way through a binge can feel absolutely impossible, like holding your breath and trying not to breathe. Often a binge is carried out in secret, alone, and afterwards there can be strong feelings of shame, guilt, or disgust. It’s not fun. Imran, a Beingwell member, bravely spoke to us about his experience recovering from binge-eating disorder:

“My Dad loves fig rolls. Growing up it was the only food in my household out of bound. That meant that at every single chance, I secretly ate those disgustingly soggy biscuits. I didn’t even like them. I guess it’s not surprising that today I’m in recovery for binge eating disorder.”

Aren’t bulimia and binge eating disorder the same thing?

BED differs from bulimia as there is no purging after the binge such as being sick, taking laxatives, or over-exercising. Surprisingly, binge eating disorder is actually much more common in the UK than anorexia or bulimia yet we don’t hear a lot about it. It’s commonly misunderstood and isn’t simply a case of someone being greedy, having no willpower, or being undisciplined. Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health illness. Someone with BED can have extraordinary willpower in every aspect of their life, yet when it comes to food or binging can feel wretchedly powerless.

“I used to joke that I was a ‘failed bulimic’, which is sad but true. I would binge until my stomach hurt but could never make myself throw up. I was always successful at dieting for a few months but eventually a binge would catch up with me. I had 3 different sizes of clothes. I thought I should just man-up.” Imran, Beingwell member Imran’s experience is common in people living with binge eating disorder where the issue can be seen as a weakness or a failing, rather than a potentially devastating disorder that treatment, therapy, and support is available for. When was BED first discovered? Binge eating disorder was first noted in 1959 by psychiatrist Albert Stunkard who observed ‘an eating pattern marked by consuming large quantities of food at irregular intervals’. He also noted that some of these episodes were linked to nighttime eating. He treated his patients with an anti-epileptic drug, which unsurprisingly didn’t help. We now understand BED better although experts still differ in how they think about it. For instance, some clinicians think of it as an addiction and others believe it’s an attachment disorder, a way of self-soothing after experiencing a difficult childhood.

“I felt like I had no control. I’d open the fridge and eat. I wasn’t necessarily hungry, just addicted – certain foods are like drugs. The more I ate the more I wanted. I would eat so quick, like there’s no tomorrow. I would even sneak food to bed, and in the morning I’d put the wrappers in an outside bin so no-one knew what I’ve eaten.” Imran

Some people don’t actually binge but go backwards and forwards to the fridge or graze all day. Others might find that it’s perfectly okay to eat some foods but that specific foods like chocolate or cake, can set off an uncontrollable craving for more. Binge eating disorder can also go hand-in-hand with periods of restricting or dieting, such as Imran’s case:

“A binge would usually occur anytime that I was planning to try a very strict diet, like a juice fast, a cabbage soup diet, a kidney cleanse, or completely avoid carbs (I tried it all!). The stricter my diet, the more drastic the binge would be. I was always convinced that if I could just find the perfect diet, or reach a certain goal weight or clothing size, that my issues would go away.”

I think I might have binge eating disorder, what can I do?

Whilst this disorder can feel really isolating, know that you’re not alone. There is a huge amount of support available. Be brave, make an appointment with your GP and be honest. The GP can refer you to specialist services. There are also hundreds of weekly support groups across the UK, many of them taking place online currently. Although it can feel like a world away recovery is possible.

“Today I have a positive relationship with food and with my body. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I have freedom from food obsession and I’m at a healthy body weight. I never thought that would be possible for me.” Imran

Click here to listen to audio shares from people in recovery from eating disorders. Overeaters Anonymous (UK) A worldwide charity with over 200 weekly support groups across the UK (currently online) for compulsive overeating, under-eating, food addiction, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, over-exercising, or body image issues. There are no fees or weigh-ins. Beat Eating Disorders A national UK charity that gives information, help and support for people affected by eating disorders. They have online support groups, peer support, message boards, and helplines. They also have a search facility (Helpfinder) for support groups and eating disorder services. Anorexia and Bulimia Care A UK charity offering personal, on-going, emotional support and practical guidance for recovery for people struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, in addition to related self-harm.

Getting help for someone else

It can be difficult to know what to do if we're concerned that someone we know has an eating disorder. People with an eating disorder are often secretive and defensive about their eating and weight and may deny being unwell. Let the person know we're worried about them and encourage them to book an appointment with their GP. Read more about supporting someone with an eating disorder here and here.


If you'd like to learn more about eating disorders please find our blog on understanding eating disorders here.


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