When Your Son Has Binge Eating Disorder

Father And son hugging

At age 30 Martin sought treatment for binge eating. At 5’8” he was at an unhealthy weight, was pre-diabetic, and had chronic back pain. Five years earlier, he had stopped all alcohol consumption for fear it was becoming excessive.

But he began to “switch substances,” using food as a means for numbing and soothing. Over-eating episodes became more severe and grew into frequent binges. Over the next five years he gained an excessive amount weight. Typically Martin would stay up into the wee hours of the morning playing computer games and watching TV.

Sleeping and Binge Eating

With symptoms of bi-polar II, his mood fluctuated, and getting to sleep was sometimes difficult. Between 11:00-12:00 PM he would make a trip to the grocery store to prepare for the night’s binge.

Often that would include a rotisserie chicken, and sweets- brownies, cupcakes, and chocolate chip cookies. Within an hour all the food would be consumed, and eventually he would go to bed around 3:00 AM, sleep restlessly until 11:00, and wake up feeling like he was in a fog of listless depression.

Martin’s Early Years

Young man reading small BibleMartin’s early years were troubled. His parents ran a very successful real estate business that was started by his grandparents. The major theme in the family was “work hard, make money.” He and his two older brothers were expected to go into the family business and eventually run it.

His brothers were tall and athletic and excelled in sports, which made the parents proud. Martin was different- more sensitive and artsy. He would cry over sad parts of books or movies, and his brothers would tease him about being a “wuss.” A chubby child, he would sneak food into his room and eat to escape from hearing the arguments between his workaholic father and anxious emotional mother.

Family meals were tension filled, with the father’s venting about work stress and setting food rules: no dessert unless you finish your plate, extra dessert if you complete your chores or get good grades. In the summers Martin was sent to weight-loss camps, while his brothers stayed home and played competitive baseball and tennis.

How Martin’s Story Explores BED in Males

Martin’s story can be used to explore important issues regarding boys with BED.


Awareness of BED can be the beginning of healing, if help is sought, but it can be difficult to identify the presence of BED. Typically binges are done secretly- Martin’s occurred when he was alone in his room. Shame may be associated with binges, and to reduce the shame, bingeing occurs privately. Weight might be gained even when the public eating looks normal.

Food or money may go missing, or food wrappers found in drawers or closets. There could be a progression of behavioral symptoms: alcohol or other substance use, weight gain from over-eating, then bingeing. “Co-morbidities” associated with bingeing are common: signs of depression, isolation, low self -esteem, social anxiety.

Often parents will notice these signs as possible symptoms, and seek professional help. Martin was overweight, had mood instability, and low self-worth – but the opportunity to connect this to BED was missed.


Meth withdrawal depressionChildren with mental health or behavioral problems may function as the “identified patient” of a support system that is dysfunctional. For Martin, his parents had marital problems, his father was mostly absent due to “workaholism”, his parents unfairly compared him to his brothers, who then felt justified in teasing him over the ways he was different.

BED will test the openness of parents to see the problem as family matter, not just the child’s problem, and willingness to get involved in treatment. With professional input and openness to having a system perspective, dysfunctional patterns will soften and personal growth for each family member is potentiated.

Food Rules and Roles

A study of adult subjects who endorsed a high level of “food rules” in their childhood experience were found more likely to be bingers or emotional eaters (1). When food was used as a reward or withheld as a punishment, or used to console a child- these children were more likely to become adult bingers.

In a related study, binges were found to serve as a crutch and as a means to numb and disconnect (2). Martin’s parents used food as a means of controlling him – either depriving dessert or providing extra dessert.

The role of food then becomes emotionally charged and more likely to be used for escape or soothing. Identification of food rules and roles helps the family shift the function of food toward nutrition and away from control.

Emotional IQ

A study exploring the triggers for binges found high rates of bingeing to blunt negative emotions, avoid intimacy, confront frustration or powerlessness, and cope with conflict and anger (3). Martin’s early years set him up for all these reasons to binge, and he used food to “stuff” vulnerability.

Aware and willing parents, through exploration of the relationship dynamics and emotional culture in the family, can help raise the emotional IQ of all members. The result can be validation of feelings as vital signals, respect for individual differences and boundaries, improved active listening and assertion, and support and acceptance of emotionally based communication.

A Bill of Rights

iStock_000030996078LargeAn article in the Eating Disorders Today newsletter proposed the therapeutic value of believing in a basic “bill of human rights “(4). Among the rights included are: to have needs and wants; to have feelings, pleasant and unpleasant; to have your own ideas, opinions and convictions; to ask for help and emotional support; to put yourself first; to be yourself, just the way you are.

Eating disorders are complex and developed through a combination of genetics and environment.  In Martin’s case, his early relationships invalidated his needs, and binges became his dysfunctional way to meet them. A son with BED challenges his support system to explore what code or messages are operational (feelings are weakness, you are not good enough) and to nurture basic human rights for each member.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What is your experience with males and binge eating disorder, what is your advice for providing them with support as a loved one?


  1. Puhl, R. and Schwartz, M., If You Are Good You Can Have A Cookie: How Memories of Childhood Food Rules Link to Adult Eating Behavior, Eating Behaviors Vol. 4 (2003).
  2. Jeppson, J., Richards, P., Hardman, R., MacGranley, H., Binge and Purge Processes in Bulimia Nervosa: A Qualitative Investigation, Eating Disorders: 11: 2003.
  3. Wasson, D., A Qualitative Investigation of the Relapse Experiences of Women with Bulimia Nervosa, Eating Disorders, 11: 2003.
  4. Rubel, J. Bill of Human Rights, adapted from The ANRED Alert, Eating Disorders Today, Fall 2008.

Contributor: Lee Kern, MSW, LCSW, is the Clinical Director at Structure House

About the Author:

Lee Kern, MSW, LCSW, is the Clinical Director at Structure House, an internationally recognized, psychologically based residential weight control center in Durham, NC. He supervises a team of therapists and contributes to the development of the clinical program, providing psychotherapy and psycho-educational workshops.

He received a Masters of Social Work from the University of North Carolina and serves as an Adjunct Instructor for the UNC-CH School of Social Work. He was a regular contributing author to WLS Lifestyles Magazine, and has conducted studies and authored publications on successful weight management.

In 2011 his articles were published in a collection called LOSING LESSONS. In addition to working with weight and eating issues his professional interests include psychodynamic therapy, stress management, relapse prevention, lifestyle change, motivation, life goals and addiction.

Eating Disorder Hope is Pro Family and gratefully acknowledges all the loving and supportive families that help eating disorder sufferers find healing and recovery.

Abuse of any sort is unacceptable and detrimental to an individual. For those in our community who have survived abuse, our heart goes out to you. We admire your strength and courage to deal with and overcome this suffering.

It is not the fault of the family that an individual develops an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex and developed through a combination of genetics and environment. Trauma can be an environmental factor that contributes to the underlying issues beneath an eating disorder, as can genetic predisposition toward anxiety, depression, and other personality factors.

Ongoing research is being conducted and greater understanding of eating disorders will further enlighten us over the months and years to come.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.


Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 13th, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com