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Myths & Causes Of Binge Eating Disorder: Q&A With Ellen Shuman

Binge eating disorder (BED) is common. According to a 2007 Harvard University and McLean Hospital Study, 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men suffer from the disorder at some point in their lives.

In fact, more people have BED than bulimia and anorexia combined.

Still, BED is very misunderstood, and many people are ashamed to seek help.

But BED is highly treatable.

I’m honored to present my interview with BED and emotional eating expert Ellen Shuman. Below, in part one of our interview, Ellen dispels common myths about BED and discusses the causes.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!

Q: What are some of the most pervasive misconceptions about BED?

A: The most pervasive misconception is that ‘It’s hopeless, I’m hopeless!’ I hear that from so many people who say they have tried absolutely everything and have not been able to stop bingeing.

Whenever I hear that desperation, it brings to mind a client who told me she binged because she felt she “deserved to binge.” She said that was the only way she knew to give to herself, to self-soothe, to take care of her emotional needs. She worked hard on her recovery.

Then one day she knocked on my office door. She couldn’t wait to share her new insight. With a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes she said, “I get it now. I deserve NOT to binge.”

There is recovery from binge eating disorder!

Another common misconception…many people don’t know that binge eating disorder is a separate and distinct eating disorder from bulimia.

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent binge eating episodes during which a person feels a loss of control and strong feelings of embarrassment and guilt, similar to bulimia.

But unlike bulimia, BED binge eating episodes are not followed by any type of purging behavior like vomiting or laxatives, excessive exercise, or fasting.

Also, we’re not talking about run of the mill overeating here. For a diagnosis of BED, these binge episodes must have occurred a minimum of once a week over the last three months.

These episodes leave the person feeling quite out of control and distressed. Living with BED impacts every aspect of a person’s life.

What does “binge eating” look like?  When people hear the word binge, I think it conjures up those early TV movies about bulimia where you’d see a woman plowing through her kitchen frantically eating a whole cake and a gallon of ice cream, a whole box of cookies, and a casserole.

Some people do eat large amounts of food in shorts periods of times, but we see other patterns of eating, as well. Some people regularly engage in what we call “grazing.” For example, they might be food-focused from the moment they get home from work until the time they go to bed, eating one snack, then a little while later another, then another, and another.

Other people say once they start eating it’s like a switch gets flipped and they just can’t stop eating.

Sometimes bingeing is driven by food-deprivation; the person has been ‘dieting’ or restricting all day long, in an attempt to feel “in control” or to hold down the number of calories because she fears she’ll overeat that night.

In these instances, “craving,” and “grazing,” and feeling “out of control” with food might actually be driven by physical hunger and the body’s nutritional needs.

Another misconception is that everyone who has BED must be fat. Not so. Over the years, I’d say about 30% of the people we’ve worked with in our therapy and coaching practices were not, although most people in that 30% still expressed significant distress about their body shape, size, or weight.

Below is the new diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder. This will appear in the 2013 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Diagnostic Criteria for Binge Eating Disorder; DSM-5

A. Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:

  1. eating, in a discrete period of time (for example, within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
  2. a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (for example, a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)

B. The binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:

  1. eating much more rapidly than normal
  2. eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  3. eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
  4. eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating
  5. feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards

C. Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.

D. The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months.

E. The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behavior (for example, purging) and does not occur exclusively during the course of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.

Q: Do we know what causes BED?

A: We’re still trying to tease out what puts a person at risk for any/all eating disorders.

Genetics, biology, brain chemistry, psychological factors, life experiences, cultural norms, dieting history, lack of effective skills around emotional regulation…any or all of these factors may play a role in the development of a binge eating disorder.

Studies show that binge eaters tend to score higher than the general population for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and impulsivity.

One study that I found particularly interesting mentioned that people with BED tend to have high “interpersonal sensitivity.” That would mean a comment that might roll right off another person’s back, might be very upsetting and more difficult to tolerate for a person with high interpersonal sensitivity…maybe leading to the need to use food to self-soothe?

There is so much more we need to understand to answer this question!

More about Ellen:

Ellen Shuman is the founder of Acoria Eating Disorder Treatment, A Weigh Out Life Coaching, and the A Weigh Out Members’ Circle,  She is an emotional eating and binge eating disorder recovery coach, the Vice President of BEDA; The Binge Eating Disorder Association, and Co-Chair of the Academy for Eating Disorders “Health at Every Size” SIG. She can be contacted at [email protected] or (513) 321-4242.

Thanks so much, Ellen, for your insight!

Ellen also offers a free informational telephone seminar about emotional eating issues and binge eating disorder. If you’re interested, you can register at

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two where Ellen talks about her own struggles with binge eating, how she recovered and more!

P.S., Christie is hosting a free teleclass on sugar on Monday, January 31st. What I’m excited about is that you’ll not only learn the differences among natural sugars, white sugar and artificial sweeteners but also how to make choices that honor your body – without falling into the diet mentality.

What part of Ellen’s interview resonated with you? Are you familiar with binge eating disorder? Have you recovered from BED?

Myths & Causes Of Binge Eating Disorder: Q&A With Ellen Shuman

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). Myths & Causes Of Binge Eating Disorder: Q&A With Ellen Shuman. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Jan 2011
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