With the recent recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in May 2013, of Binge Eating Disorder as a diagnosis in its own right, new attention is being paid to binge eating and how it’s distinguished from other eating disorders and obesity. While the formal diagnosis may be new, binge eating is by no means a new phenomenon.
Out-of-control eating has only recently been called a “binge.” The Talmud, in 400-500 A.D. used the term “boolmot” to describe ravenous hunger that could be cured by eating sweet foods. From ancient Rome to the Middle Ages, gorging oneself with a feast and vomiting part way through to make room in the stomach were practices signifying wealth. The term “binge” wasn’t used until the 1820’s—1850’s in regions of Western England. At the time it was a colloquial term meaning “to soak.” “Put the tubs to binge, ready for the wash” referred to soaking wooden vessels to prevent leaks, as wood loses moisture as it dries out and can crack. It was also used, though less commonly, to describe excessive drinking. By the 1930’s, the term was used to describe any sort of spree, whether it be eating, shopping, or drinking.
In 1959, psychiatrist and researcher Albert Stunkard wrote about binge eating in his paper titled “Eating Patterns and Obesity.” As he was formulating criteria for Night Eating Syndrome in 1955, he wondered if there were other distinct overeating patterns. His research led him to three main observations: Night eating, eating without satiation, and compulsive overeating, or binge eating. As research on binge eating increased, so did potential names to describe the phenomenon. Psychiatrists suggested terms like, “Stuffing Syndrome,” “Thin/Fat Syndrome,” “Hyperorexia,” and “Dietary Chaos Syndrome.”
For better or worse, perhaps better, “binge eating” caught on in the medical establishment, and was first noted in the DSM-III (1980) as a feature of bulimia. In the DSM-IV (1994), individuals with disordered eating that did not meet criteria for anorexia or bulimia would receive a default diagnosis of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Studies revealed, however, that a significant number of individuals diagnosed with EDNOS actually met criteria for binge eating disorder.
In the DSM-V (2013), binge eating disorder was finally approved for inclusion as a diagnosis in its own right. A primary goal of this inclusion is to minimize the use of catch-all diagnoses like EDNOS and instead promote more accurate diagnosing, as more accurate diagnosing results in more accurate treatment. This change is also intended to increase awareness of the differences between binge eating and the familiar experience of overeating (APA, 2013).