Ken Stewart works out almost every day, takes regular dance classes and watches what he eats. But the 52-year-old has a secret: he’s a binge eater.
"It's nothing to literally go eat a whole cake and a pint of ice cream in about 20 minutes,” Stewart told FoxNews.com. “And then [to] want more and usually go and get it."
Stewart is not alone in his struggle – binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Despite its prevalence, BED was only added to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Associations’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in May 2013 – a move that has now prompted both researchers and physicians to pay more attention to the illness.
“This is a serious psychiatric disorder,” Dr. Russell Marx, the former chief science officer at NEDA told FoxNews.com. “There was not a lot of dissent in the work group establishing this as a new diagnosis; all were in agreement pretty much this should be added.”
Defined as eating a larger-than-normal quantity of food within a two-hour time frame, three or more times per week, binge eating is also the most common eating disorder among men. Marjorie Cohn, a registered dietician, said some binge eaters can consume as many as 20,000 calories in one sitting.
"When you look at the typical binge foods, which are concentrated sources of calories, sugar and fats, such as ice cream, cookies, cakes, it adds up very quickly,” Cohn, co-author of “Overcoming Binge Eating for Dummies,” told FoxNews.com.
‘Food becomes your drug’
Marx, now the director of the adolescent program at the University of California San Diego’s Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research, noted that many people with binge-eating disorder also have coexisting conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and sometimes substance abuse.
“BED is in a sense like using a drug to cope with stress or depression. Food becomes your drug,” Marx said. “When you think of a drug addict, they don’t want to smoke crack, but they can’t stop. Lack of control, compulsion and distress makes BED similar to substance abuse.”
Stewart has been a binge eater for about two years, and said he turned to sweets after he quit drinking. It’s not uncommon for patients to swap one vice for another, according to Jennie Kramer, a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director and founder at Metro Behavioral Health Associates Eating Disorder Centers in New York.
"You are not addicted to a food per se, but you are addicted to the activity,” Kramer, who's worked with Stewart, told FoxNews.com. “You're addicted to the habit; you're addicted to the numbing out, of all your thoughts and feelings."
Bingers are also very different compared to people who are simply overweight or obese, or those who indulge in ‘comfort food’ from time to time.
“It’s not just people are obese and depressed. It’s a very driven behavior … it’s really the sense that you can’t control when and where you’re eating that discriminates BED from overeating,” Marx said. “The lack of control is key … you’re driven to it and unhappy about it.”
Stewart said his condition has taken a serious emotional toll on him over the years.
"It's almost like I'm not myself when it's happening,” Stewart said. “And then I feel stupid afterwards and I think ‘God, that's the last thing I needed, I worked out really hard today, I ate really well today, I was just busy today, you know and then I just spoiled my day.’"
In addition to being emotionally and mentally taxing, binge eating has serious physical side effects including acid reflux, digestive issues, diarrhea, vomiting and other long-term problems.
“All the obesity-related health risks are there as far as cardiac [problems] and joint [problems],” Marx said. “You know, it’s like driving your car around with an extra thousand pounds of lead in your trunk.”
The recovery process
The good news for binge eaters is that people suffering from BED have better rates of recovery after treatment compared to people suffering from other eating disorders like anorexia, according to Marx. Treatment options for binge eaters can include cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, medical assessments and nutritional counseling.
Stewart recently started working with Cohn and Kramer to get his binge eating under control. According to Cohn, recovery is a long process and there is no quick fix.
"Relapse I'm afraid is inevitable. I think people come in thinking, ‘I'll just be cured and that will be that!’” Kramer said. “If only! You didn't get this way overnight; you’re not going to become different overnight but there are bench marks."
Cohn suggests binge eaters use grocery delivery services and opt for single-serving food items to help curb bingeing. Even normal activities like eating out with friends can be a daunting task for binge eaters.
"Making sure that a binge eater eats enough when they are out in a social setting is what is actually going to help them when they go home and they're alone to not binge,” Cohn said.
According to Marx, BED’s inclusion into the DSM-5 offers new hope to patients, as it will likely lead to a better understanding of the disease.
“One of the things hopefully this will do is allow for better research and treatment, now that it’s an official diagnosis,” Marx said.
As for Stewart, he’s slowly starting to benefit from seeking treatment and is already feeling healthier.
"I'm starting to feel normal again,” Stewart said. “I had no idea how much of an impact all that sugar had on me, none. I didn't know it was that harmful but I'm feeling better."
For more information in binge eating disorder or Metro Behavioral Health Associates Eating Disorder Centers, visit MBHANY.com.