How to Support a Family Member Who Has Binge Eating Disorder
by Chevese Turner, Founder, President & CEO, Binge Eating Disorder Association
Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. Binge eating disorder affects three times the number of those diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia combined. It is more prevalent than breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia.
Also called compulsive or emotional overeating, binge eating disorder affects 3.5% of women and 2% of men—more than 9 million people. But the actual number is likely much higher, as binge eating disorder is the least recognized, diagnosed, and treated eating disorder.
Binge Eating Disorder and Obesity
While it is estimated that 70% of those who suffer from binge eating disorder are obese, not everyone who has binge eating disorder is obese. The “cure” is not to lose weight. Prescribing weight loss and blaming the individual further entrenches the disorder, causing shame and resulting in weight gain.
Binge Eating Disorder and Weight Bias
Judgment and discrimination based on body size is everywhere—in our homes, schools, and offices. This is weight bias, and it includes shaming, blaming, and bullying.
Binge Eating Disorder and Bullying
Studies show that bullying of any kind, but particularly weight-based bullying,1 leads to increased occurrence of low self-esteem, poor body image, social isolation, eating disorders, poor academic performance, and even suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Children and teens who are overweight can be victims of many forms of bullying, including physical force, name-calling, derogatory comments, mean-spirited teasing, and being ignored or excluded.
Research2 conducted by Dr. Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the UConn Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity, has found:
- Weight-based teasing predicted binge eating at five years of follow-up among both men and women, even after controlling for age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
- Peer victimization can be directly predicted by weight.
- 64% of students enrolled in weight-loss programs reported experiencing weight-based victimization.
- One-third of girls and one-fourth of boys report weight-based teasing from peers, but prevalence rates increase to approximately 60% among the heaviest students.
- 84% of students observed other students perceived as overweight being called names or getting teased during physical activities.
Puhl’s research on obesity and weight stigma3 has also found that adults who live in larger bodies are often excluded and discriminated against and are often victims of vicious public fat shaming:
- The prevalence of weight discrimination in the United States has increased by 66% over the past decade and is comparable to rates of racial discrimination.
- Weight bias translates into inequities in employment settings (such as lower wages), health care facilities (such as lower quality of care), and educational institutions, often owing to widespread negative stereotypes that overweight and obese people are lazy, unmotivated, lacking in self-discipline, less competent, noncompliant, and sloppy.
- These stereotypes are prevalent and are rarely challenged in Western society, leaving overweight and obese people vulnerable to social injustice, unfair treatment, and impaired quality of life as a result of substantial disadvantages and stigma.
Binge Eating Disorder and Weight Stigma
Weight stigma is what people feel when they are the objects of weight bias—when they are shamed, blamed, bullied, excluded, or discriminated against. Weight stigma causes increased disordered eating and weight gain, decreased psychological functioning, and lower self-esteem. It is a form of trauma.
Bullying Is Trauma
Bullying because of body size can have a major negative impact on this vulnerable population. We know binge eating disorder has the highest rate of trauma of all eating disorders—that is, individuals who have binge eating disorder have experienced trauma at some point during their lives.
Types of trauma include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; a divorce or death; and, yes, bullying. Trauma doesn’t have to be catastrophic to have lasting catastrophic effects on a person’s psychological, social, and physical health.
People living in larger bodies experience trauma every day by being assaulted by negative attitudes and messages about weight from all angles: in the media; at home, school, and work; even in doctors’ offices. This type of trauma increases stress and leads to internalized weight stigma, which further entrenches disordered eating patterns.
What to Say and Do
Like with other mental disorders, people who have eating disorders often lack the self-awareness to recognize they are in distress. Because shame and secrecy characterize binge eating disorder, people who struggle may not acknowledge that they have a problem.
There are many things you can do to support a family member who has binge eating disorder. Above all, be kind and compassionate, because your loved one is suffering much more than you can know.
- Learn about binge eating disorder so you know the signs.
- Talk about things other than food, weight, body size, calories, and exercise.
- Discuss feelings instead.
- Listen with respect and sensitivity.
- Express your concern and desire to help.
- Be available when you are needed.
- Share your own struggles.
- Suggest seeking help.
- Stay calm and be persistent; you will encounter resistance.
- Try to solve the problem for your family member; he or she needs a qualified professional.
- Comment on appearance—concern about weight loss may be taken as a compliment, and comments about weight gain may be experienced as criticism.
- Get involved in a power struggle around eating.
- Threaten or use scare tactics to get your loved one to change or seek treatment.
- Focus on weight, body size, calories, eating habits, or exercise.
- Blame your family member for doing something wrong.
- Use food as a reward or punishment.
- Be afraid to upset or talk to your loved one.
- Reject or ignore your family member; he or she needs you.
There are also many things you can do to help stop weight-based bullying:
- Talk to your child about bullying and what to do if it happens.
- Learn to recognize signs of being bullied.
- Learn to recognize signs of binge eating disorder.
- Learn to recognize signs of emotional distress, anxiety, and depression.
- Don’t ignore any signs.
- Educate yourself on what to say and do if you think someone is being bullied, is being a bully, or may have binge eating disorder.
- Talk to your child about the incident.
- Seek help from school administrators and counselors.
- Seek help from a qualified mental health professional if you see signs of binge eating disorder.
- Become an advocate.
How to Get Help
Eating disorders are not fads, phases, or choices. They are complex, serious mental illnesses. Binge eating disorder requires professional evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment.
Encourage your family member to seek help from a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional, and offer to accompany him or her for emotional support.
Recovery from binge eating disorder is a journey that is different for everyone, but it is possible!
About the author –
Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer
Recognizing the need for an organization to advocate on behalf of affected individuals and the providers who treat them, Chevese Turner founded the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) in June 2008. A well-rounded career in the non-profit healthcare sector, pharmaceutical industry, and on political campaigns performing a variety of leadership roles including advocacy, education development, marketing, and government affairs prepared Turner to serve this under recognized population through social action, education, and outreach.
Turner has in-depth knowledge of health care policy development and organizational advocacy which she utilizes in BEDA’s efforts to increase access to quality-care for those with BED. Over the past 5 years she monumentally increased the recognition of binge eating disorder as a distinct condition and insisted that it no longer be relegated to a footnote in the eating disorders field. She is recognized as a leading voice on the continuing need for increased BED recognition, research and advocacy across many stakeholder communities and was instrumental in bringing the topic of weight stigma to the forefront through BEDA’s annual National Weight Stigma Awareness Week to draw attention to the stigmatization of individuals living at higher weights and the important role this can play in the development and/or maintenance of eating disorders.
Turner is passionate about and dedicated to the BED community, having struggled with the disorder for many years prior to finding treatment and recovery. She is steadfast in her journey to bring the disorder and the need for specialized treatment in to the light for those who suffer in silence. She is a regular speaker about her own journey and issues related to advocacy work around binge eating disorder and weight concerns, bias, discrimination, and bullying.
Turner attended Temple University in Philadelphia where she received a BA in Political Science. She is a past Committee Woman to the City of Philadelphia’s 21st Ward and cannot imagine engaging in a profession that is not related to working to better the human condition. Turner lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband and two sons, and is an avid Yankees fan.
- Eisenberg, M.E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M. (2003). Associations of weight-based teasing and emotional well-being among adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Aug;157(8):733-8.
Eisenberg M., Neumark-Sztainer D. (2008). Peer harassment and disordered eating. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health. Apr-Jun;20(2):155-64.Libbey, H.P., Story, M.T., Neumark-Sztainer, D.R., Boutelle, K.N. (2008). Teasing, disordered eating behaviors, and psychological morbidities among overweight adolescents. Obesity. Nov;16 Suppl 2:S24-9.
- Puhl, R.M., Luedicke, J. (2012). Weight-based victimization among adolescents in the school setting: Emotional reactions and coping behaviors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Jan;41(1):27-40.
Puhl, R.M., Luedicke, J., Heuer, C. (2011). Weight-based victimization toward overweight adolescents: Observations and reactions of peers. Journal of School Health. Nov;81(11):696-703.
Puhl, R.M., Peterson, J.L., Luedicke, J. (2013). Weight-based victimization: Bullying experiences of weight loss treatment-seeking youth. Pediatrics. Jan;131(1):e1-9.
- R.M. Puhl and C.A. Heuer (2009). The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update.