Fat people can have eating disorders, too

An additional, key takeaway from the recent article I posted about, which examines the morality assigned to certain body types & disorders, was that the media, and society at large, don’t believe that overweight/obese people can have eating disorders. This is due, in large part, to it being ingrained in our culture, via the “pulling ones self up from one’s bootstraps” mentality and other factors, that being fat is a CHOICE, and that with WILLPOWER any fat person can, you know, NOT be fat.

Let’s talk about what is being called binge eating disorder, also known as food addiction. Binging disorder is essentially like bulimia but without purging — an individual is compelled, beyond reasons many can understand, to binge on massive quantities of food. Unlike bulimics, they don’t purge that food (vomit or take laxatives). Here is the Mayo Clinic definition of binge eating disorder:

Binge-eating disorder is a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food. Almost everyone overeats on occasion, such as having seconds or thirds of a holiday meal. But for some people, overeating crosses the line to binge-eating disorder and it becomes a regular occurrence, shrouded in secrecy.

When you have binge-eating disorder, you may be deeply embarrassed about gorging and vow to stop. But you feel such a compulsion that you can’t resist the urges and continue binge eating.

Although binge-eating disorder is the most common of all eating disorders, it’s still not considered a distinct psychiatric condition. But if you have binge-eating disorder symptoms, treatment can help you.

How sad is that? It’s one of the MOST COMMON eating disorders (hello “obesity epidemic”), yet is not considered a distinct psychiatric condition, like anorexia nervosa.

I would reckon that binge eating disorder sounds familiar to a lot of you. It does to me. While I don’t see myself as a comic picture of a woman sitting on the couch shoveling ice cream, chips and candy into her mouth, I know I have an inappropriate relationship with food, and eat for the wrong reasons. I definitely eat when I’m full and/or not hungry — two of the many symptoms. And I can PUT AWAY massive quantities of food in a relatively short period, for no reason. The only difference between me and the “average” obese American is that I’ve been binging on “healthy” things for the last ten years. This is why we can’t assign moral values to food — it’s not about WHAT you are eating. It’s WHY and HOW. Any unhealthy relationship with food is concerning — not just those who eat “bad” foods.

In the Saguy/Gruys study, finding articles that talked about binge eating disorder was difficult, and in fact articles from the main analysis time frame didn’t exist. Two articles from 2007-on were found, but even those refused to believe that obese/overweight people could have a legitimate disorder, like an anorexic or bulimic.

This, I find, is ridiculous. These eating/food/body disorders are all related, but I believe they manifest in people differently. We always read stories of the high-flying, popular, pretty (middle class white) girl who suffers from anorexia — how could she she is so successful and has it all? Cue (very accurate) discussion of how the individual is so desperate for control over the one thing they have complete autonomy over — their body. I think it’s the same in people with binging disorder — I know it is for me. I was that high-flying (middle class white) girl who had all my shit together — but instead of seeking to control my body by restricting food and striving for a super idealized body type, I rebelled against it — food and eating (and binging) was the one area of my life where I could LOSE control without it having what I saw as “real” consequences (ie: grades wouldn’t drop, etc.). I also think some part of me wanted to rebel against body standards — to my own detriment. (does that give me more feminist street cred, or is it just kind of sad?)

People need to break away from the idea that fat people are to blame for their problems. Do individuals make choices? OF COURSE. But you know what? Someone who is anorexic or bulimic makes a choice not to eat, or to eat and then purge. We examine WHY they make those choices. And we recognize that there are complex, underlying reasons for these compulsions, generally beyond individual control and most often times requiring professional, long term help. Yet we deny this same reasoning and help for the chronically overweight/obese – who quite likely have an eating disorder equally as insidious. The difference is that society heralds thinness, but reviles fat. And the chronic fat hate and negative, critical talk that obese individuals face make their disorder worse, never better. (shaming never works!)

This is why I advocate dropping food guilt. It’s why I don’t believe in the SHEER WILLPOWER diet. It’s why I embrace body positivity and community support. There are dozens of complex factors at play with weight struggles and food addiction. Everyone is already telling you you don’t have “real” problem, and that you just have to be stronger, better, faster, thinner.  STOP saying that shit to yourself — someone needs to stand up for fat people with real, clinically diagnosable problems.  I’m afraid, at this juncture, that it needs to be YOU (and me).

What do you think? Do you think you have a problem with food addiction and/or binge eating disorder?

14 thoughts on “Fat people can have eating disorders, too”

  1. I’ve talked to you about this before, but I definitely don’t have any sort of issues of binge eating besides the occasional Thanksgiving dinner or four star restaurant meal… and maybe a tiny bit at brunch on Sunday. As someone who very rarely and for non-emotional reasons overeats well beyond the point of fullness, it seems so freaking obvious to me that repeatedly doing it in non-extreme circumstances is a psychiatric and emotional issue with some deep control-related roots. Sure, food may be tasty and all that, but eating when you’re already stuffed is not being greedy and wanting more tasty food, it’s punishing yourself with something that in the immediate term will make you feel even more full and physically ill. It seems so clearly something deeper than a willpower issue.

    I have a lot of issues with the categorizations of eating disorders, not just the exclusion of binge eating, but also in terms of the definitions of anorexia and bulimia. I have known people with these disorders at ALL weight ranges. It is the behavior and the underlying thought patterns that are the problem, not the weight. If someone who is severely overweight refuses to eat a life-sustaining amount of food, it is STILL anorexia. Maybe that person would eventually be thin enough to get diagnosed by the formal criteria, but 1) the behavior is just as problematic at 800 pounds as at 80 and 2) if we are able to get people into treatment earlier (and help people at ALL sizes have a truly healthy relationship with food), it would help produce better outcomes. Waiting until someone is so thin that menstruation has stopped and low body weight is threatening his or her life does nothing except reinforce the notion that thin = healthy until it’s way, way too thin.

    1. You’re absolutely right that those compulsions can be present at any size. I think it’s why many people may not recognize that a friend or loved one is anorexic or bulimic, or a compulsive exerciser or what have you. All people see is “you’re losing weight, that’s wonderful — you have such will power!” People seem to not care HOW people lose weight, even if the way they do it is to develop a dangerous disorder. They only care when they get so thin, they are close to death.

      Generally, I am prone to compulsions, period, and have always been hyper aware of my tending towards eating disorders. Because I didn’t think of compulsive overeating as an eating disorder, I wasn’t frank or honest with myself about it, and didn’t police myself the way I did with the other kinds. So, across the board, we need to reframe the way we think about compulsive eating/body disorders, I think.

      1. I think it’s why many people may not recognize that a friend or loved one is anorexic or bulimic…

        Though it may be worth noting that for anorexia, the diagnostic criteria include being underweight or at low body weight. Which, while I understand that one can be diagnosed as ED-NOS while displaying symptoms of anorexia at other weights, it still strikes me as effed up. If it’s the disordered relationship with food that is the problem (and it is), then body weight shouldn’t be a disqualifying criterion.

        1. Yes! That drives me nuts. I was really hoping that (and the addition of some sort of orthorexia/excessive restriction and food preoccupation with the focus being on content not minimal consumption definition) would be something that got amended with the next DSM.

          What’s very frustrating to me is that not only do people have so much trouble understanding that binge eating is a mental illness or addiction issue (which… again… flabbergasted that people can fail to see this), but that binge eating, anorexia at non-emaciated BMI, mixed bulimia and anorexia, orthorexia, and a whole host of other sometimes related sometimes totally unrelated disorders are all called the same freaking thing. I know that it varies wildly by therapists and providers, but it gives off this attitude of not caring enough to treat the disorder unless it fits into one of the two “real” categories. Which then I think leads people to subconsciously (or consciously) want to get worse so they feel like they have a real problem.

          1. Yep. I was reading around on one website (that I don’t really want to send link traffic) about how they viewed anorexia and bulimia versus eating patterns that would be classified by ED-NOS. They actually posted a spectrum with anorexia and bulimia at one end, healthy eating habits at the other, and ED-NOS in the middle.

            Which basically sends the pictorial message that other disordered eating behaviors don’t deserve the same level of attention/intervention as do anorexia and bulimia.

  2. Do you think you have a problem with food addiction and/or binge eating disorder?

    Food addiction or binge eating? No.

    My food/body/control issues gravitate much more toward the “restricting” end of the spectrum (orthorexia, anorexia) combined with tendencies toward compulsive exercise. My habits are in healthy ranges right now, but the balance — particularly with food — is always precarious.

    But like Robin suggested, because I’m obese, the trend has been not to view my behaviors as problematic, even though I can guarantee that they were at times psychologically detrimental. I think it’s not only warped but also dangerous to pathologize behaviors for people in one weight range but to outright reward the same behaviors when it’s fat people engaging in them.

    1. I totally agree. It was something that really bothered me watching season seven of The Biggest Loser. I had heard all this positive talk of the contestant Tara, who became an “athlete.” What I watched as a fat woman who used to be thin who hated herself, genuinely hated herself, fat. She became a compulsive exerciser on the show, and had moments where she seemed close to a mental breakdown when she was unable to work out. I was flabbergasted — why applaud that? Compulsive exercise is NOT HEALTHY… even if you’re “fat.”

      1. The thing with Tara though is that she does have the competitive nature of an athlete and when paired against the average person, does come off as compulsive. But if you stand her next to relatively devoted or good athletes, she wouldn’t even stand out. Even high school sports, an 8 hour day of exercise is just an 8 hour day of exercise. And if you have to sit on the sideline while everyone else is getting better, it bums you out.

        1. The episode where she wept and acted like a basket case because she gained a pound (or didn’t lose any; I can’t remember) and obsessively said she had to work out? Didn’t seem like an issue of relative comparison. It was bizarre to watch. From what I know of how Jillian conditions her contestants, I don’t think she was in a healthy place at that point. The whole season had very few people who were relatable or easy to root for, TBH.

  3. Pretty much from age 10 on I suffered from compulsive overeating. (It is very real.) I think it stems from my mother basically being undiagnosed bi-polar, which more or less resulted in me having a pretty severe anxiety disorder. (Pretty much my mothers reactions, actions and emotions were like a box of chocolates.) It was very confusing and scary to me growing up.

    I know that I found some sort of freedom when I could prepare food for myself in the kitchen and when no one else in my family was home.

    When I am in a full-out binge my mind goes blank – I think that’s what I find most comforting. The self-doubt and self-criticism stops. (Unfortunately, when I would come up for air it would all feed into my general pattern of “failure.”

    I feel like I can honestly say for the last year or so I am as close to being in “recovery” as one can be with food. (I got to this point after lots of therapy and trying to surround myself with good friends and “safe” goals.) I had to quit my “dream” job and find a more stable “normal” career. (I worked in the music industry and in a way my bands were almost a vessel by which I gauged my success/worth – because on my own I am worthless.)

    Tonight was a good example … I had a hard day at work, where I felt like I failed. (I stepped up in the office and took on some extra “responsibility” and put myself out there, and left myself more open for criticism. Anyway, some of it went good and some went bad … but I felt like I am flawed and maybe people could tell etc.

    I went with friend to a place where we go to eat and ordered this weird thin crust chicken/bacon pizza they have. (It’s a 12″ and really too big for one person.) I ordered it/ate it for all the wrong reasons tonight. I got a little less than 1/2 way and I looked at my friend and said, “I’ve had enough, is it OK if I throw the rest away?” My friend said, “SURE!”

    I did it and I feel really good about it. (I am also not mourning the loss of the leftovers etc.)

    I’ve only had a handful of binges in the past year and 1/2. It use to be a nightly/daily occurrence. I am not sure what changed … but a lot of therapy, directing my life in positive ways and trying to find people to hang out with that really care about my well-being. (Which is hard because I basically now have my husband and two “real” friends that I hang out with and my family.) I also find that sometimes I act out in different ways … hyper emotions or maybe say going a little overboard shopping for cute fat clothes online. Trying to be aware and adjust and not just give up can be hard and the process is really frustrating. (Though I think it’s totally worth it.)

    I don’t think people understand what it is really like to have a binge eating disorder.

    It’s almost like demonic possession … also I use to run into a lot of therapists that would get all excited when I was on a diet/food restriction binge … it was like they thought I was fixed, and then when I would fail it was like they did not know what to do with me anymore. I just feel so lucky that I am starting to “normalize” with food and things are getting better. (I can even eat “just one” cookie!)

    None of it ever makes sense … and especially to the person suffering from the disorder.

  4. I do agree with the points you made, and it’s a shame that fat people are seen as lazy slobs who eat 9 chickens and are not recognized as people who may have actual underlying disorders – and this is the type of comment I feel ashamed to leave cuz it’s lame- but that picture made me salivate for donuts. Oh the shame, the horrible horrible shame!

  5. Iam age 65, Iam a type 2 diabetic still struggling to get over some post truma stuff which lead me to become addic to using food from a very early age. Now Iam at age 65 still having problems with eating , In addition I have adhd to go with it .Ihave learned that go vegan is best for me. Ibing on meat and cheese and sometimes sandwishes and left overs .Going to oa did help and have had a lot of thery for a history of childhood abuse and know very well many over weight people are connected aclchloics. It takes time to learn what to do and then to do which includes stress mangement!and money mangemnt as well lol

  6. I am very convinced that I am addicted to food. I have had a very hard 4 years when nothing in my life has seemed to stay the same. I have always been overweight and I am so tired of it. Every few months when I go to the doctor I find more and more medical issues that I have and I am only 21. I do go to therapy and I am too embarrassed to talk about my addiction. Though I have decided to just suck it up and get over it and face it.
    I am in a place of feeling more hopeless than I thought was possible. I need help and I just don’t know how much longer I can even try to fight it and continue to fail like I am now. In the situation I am in it will kill me in the next 10 years and I have so much to offer the world. I am not ready to go. Please I need help. Any advice?

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