Binge Eating Disorder and the DSM-5: What the Changes Mean

DSM-5 (the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) introduces important changes in the diagnostic system for eating disorders that improves the ability for clinicians to arrive at an accurate diagnosis for binge eating disorder and will hopefully lead to better reimbursement from insurers.

Perhaps the most significant improvement with the DSM-5 is that Binge Eating Disorder (BED) has been moved from the obscurity of an appendix in the DSM-IV to being designated in the DSM-5 as a full-fledged diagnosis that parallels the other main eating disorders of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN).

A Previous Lack of Distinction Caused a Lack of Support

In the DSM-IV, BED was given the ignominious lack of distinction as an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) which, by its very title, made it seem to be of less clinical concern than AN or BN. Although unintended, the use of the EDNOS diagnosis had the effect of minimizing the seriousness of BED, and in some cases led to third party payers balking at reimbursement.

In reality, the psychological distress and potential medical consequences of BED can be formidable and delaying or denying treatment to those with this diagnosis is a matter of serious clinical concern.

The Most Common Eating Disorder

According to a national survey by Swanson et al. (2011), BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States affecting 3.5% of adult women and 2% of adult men and up to 1.6% of adolescents. It is most common in women in early adulthood but it is more common in men at midlife. It appears that BED affects blacks and whites equally and is associated with significant physical and psychiatric conditions.

Compared with normal weight or obese control groups, people with BED have higher levels of anxiety and both current and lifetime major depression. Although most people with obesity do not have BED, up to two-thirds of people with BED are obese and can have the medical difficulties associated with this condition.

Therefore, elevating BED to the status as a formal eating disorder should have a huge impact because of its high prevalence in the general population as well as the different gender and racial demographics it encompasses.

Inclusion of BED as a full-fledged diagnosis will also help to correct the public misperception that eating disorders are either uncommon or even trivial by being restricted to a narrow segment of the population. Hopefully, the changes introduced by the DSM-5 will also open up the study of eating disorders to men and minorities.

How Is Binge Eating Disorder Diagnosed?

What are the key diagnostic features of BED according to the DSM-5? They are:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating that is defined as an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances accompanied by a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (These features are important because they distinguish BED from simple overeating).
  • 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 being embarrassed by how much one is eating
    5. Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
    6. Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
    7. The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months.
    8. Absence of regular compensatory behaviors (such as purging) and does not occur exclusively during the course Bulimia Nervosa or Anorexia Nervosa.

Other Changes in the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria

An important change in the new DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for BED is reducing the frequency of binge episodes from 2 times per week for 6 months required by the DSM-VI-R to the DSM-5 standard of an average of one episode weekly for 3 months. Lowering the threshold for binge eating episodes has important public policy implications to the extent that reimbursement for treatment is contingent on receiving a formal eating disorder diagnosis.

Hopefully, this change will allow sufferers to receive interventions earlier in the course of the disorder. Perhaps the most important implication of the changes in the diagnostic status of BED is that it will likely result in increasing research on effective treatments.

Treatment for BED

Currently, there is evidence for the effectiveness of both outpatient Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Interpersonal Therapy. There also have been studies showing that certain psychotropic medications can be helpful in ameliorating symptoms. Nevertheless, there is the need for further research and the new DSM-5 should provide an impetus for improved understanding of BED, better access to treatments and advancements in the quality of treatment available.

Recommended Readings:

Hilbert, A. Bishop ME, Stein, RI, Tanofsky-Kraff, M, Swenson, AK, Welch, RR, et al. (2012). “Long-term efficacy of psychological treatments for binge eating disorder.” British Journal of Psychiatry 200(3): 232-237.

Keel PK, Mayer SA, Harnden-Fischer JH (2001). Importance of size in defining binge eating episodes in bulimia nervosa. International Journal of Eating Disorders2001, 29:294–301.

Mond JM, Hay PJ, Rodgers B, Owen C: Comparing the health burden of overweight and eating-disordered behavior in young adult women. J Women’s Health 2009, 18:1081–1089.

Mond JM, Hay PJ, Rodgers B, Owen C, Crosby R, Mitchell JE: Use of extreme weight control behaviors with and without binge eating in a community sample of women: Implications for the classification of bulimic-type eating disorders. Int J Eat Disord 2006, 39:294–302.

Swanson SA, Crow SJ, Le Grange D, Swendsen J, Merikangas KR. Prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in adolescents. Results from the national comorbidity survey replication adolescent supplement. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2011;68(7):714–723.

Written by:

David M. Garner, Ph.D., Founder of River Centre Clinic
Julie Desai, M.A.
Meggan Desmond, LISW

Published September 10, 2014, on
Reviewed & Approved on September 10, 2014, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

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