Obesity an Eating Disorder?


According to statistics from the National Eating Disorder Association, 30 million American men and women will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Most Americans are familiar with the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia, but many mental health professionals are weighing in on the possibility that obesity is an eating disorder, too.

As of 2013, 41 states reported rates of at least 25 percent adult obesity. Every state has found that over 20 percent of their adult population qualifies as overweight or obese, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1980, 15 percent was the maximum rate of adult obesity in any given state. In 2023, should these trends continue, it is estimated by the Trust for America’s Health Report that the lowest obesity rates will be between 40-49 percent and that these statistics will represent only a handful of states. The remainder of the nation will have a rate of 50 percent or higher of adult obesity, based on projected trends. Obesity, in short, is an epidemic, which is being classified more and more as an eating disorder by medical professionals.

The way the medical and psychiatric community views eating disorders is evolving. Binge eating disorders (BEDs) are now counted among the debilitating forms of eating disorders that affect millions of Americans, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). One in 35 Americans are susceptible to experiencing a BED, a disorder characterized by intense and often unfounded cravings that are not in response to hunger. These cravings are often satisfied with secret episodes of binging that occur once a week or more and are attached to a deep sense of shame and guilt; feelings which have been linked to the use of food to deal with stress and feelings of dysfunction.

As with anorexia and bulimia, two eating disorders that deal with poor body image and under-eating habits, those with BED struggle against medical and psychiatric issues associated with overeating habits that hinder the quality of life. Unlike those with anorexia, those who suffer from bulimia or BED are more likely to be a normal weight or overweight. There is little research dedicated to what percentage of obese Americans are affected by BEDs, although it has been known for some time that binge eating can have a direct correlation to obesity.

Like those who suffer from anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorders, those who struggle with obesity battle with misconceptions about self-image, healthful eating habits, and a manageable strategy to balance the two. Further research will be conducted to determine the link between obesity and eating disorders as well as what effect weight loss and healthful eating campaign rhetoric has on those who suffer from eating disorders.

Food critic and author, Sheila Himmel ,wrote that much could be gained by incorporating obesity into the health concerns now classified as eating disorders. She also states that tackling the American obesity epidemic should include a focus on prevention, and insists that eating disorders can lend much to the treatment and understanding of obesity in adults and teens.

While not presently included as a disorder, obesity was considered for inclusion in the 2013 DSM. Obesity is often linked to emotional instability and addictive psychological behaviors, among other factors that experts agree are shared with those who suffer from under-eating disorders. Obesity may not be considered a disease in 2014, but the symptoms of the larger problem of overweight and obese adults contribute to diseases of the heart, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and a host of peripheral conditions that require consideration and attention.

By Mariah Beckman

Psychology Today
Think Progress
Trust for America’s Health
F as in Fat
Modern Healthcare