Binge eating disorder in primary care: Why should I screen my patients?
Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder, with an estimated prevalence of 3% in the US population. It is also the most common eating disorder among men. BED is characterized by regularly recurrent episodes of eating unusual amounts of food within a discrete time frame (usually <2hrs), which are associated with loss of control and significant psychological distress. Unlike people with Bulimia nervosa, those with BED do not engage in purging behaviors (such as fasting, driven exercise or self-induced vomiting). Untreated BED is a risk factor for obesity, metabolic disorders, mental health problems and poor quality of life. Although psychotherapy and medications have demonstrated effectiveness in treating BED symptoms, the vast majority of patients with BED remain undiagnosed and untreated.
Patients with BED face significant barriers to evaluation and treatment. First, there are patient-related barriers such as lack of awareness of BED as a medical condition, where the patient may attribute their loss of control to having no willpower. Moreover, patients may be reluctant to discuss their eating behavior and weight out of shame or fear of being judged. Finally, past experience may lead patients to assume that their primary care provider is unwilling or unable to address their disordered eating. Providers also face challenges in identifying BED in the primary care setting: Some patients with BED may have a normal BMI, which makes providers assume that they do not have an eating disorder. In addition, BED often co-occurs with psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety, which can lead to attributing the BED symptoms to the patient’s mental health diagnosis or the effects of psychotropic medications. Finally, lack of knowledge about treatment options and underestimation of the impact of BED on medical conditions, leads many primary care providers to overlook BED as a target for evaluation and treatment.
The reality is that primary care providers have much to offer patients with BED. Screening, education, self-management tools and in some cases, referrals to specialty care or medication. Screening for and treating BED can be advantageous when managing patients with diabetes, where decreasing the frequency of binges can lead to significant improvement in metabolic parameters. A BED diagnosis is useful when selecting psychotropic medications with lesser potential to aggravate binge eating. Finally, diagnosing a patient with BED can alleviate the patient’s distress and stigma. Patients who struggle with BED are often relieved and thankful that they have a treatable medical condition rather than attributing their bingeing to a character flaw and feel empowered and thankful for any help in managing their disorder. Since untreated BED poses a challenge in treating conditions such as diabetes and dyslipidemia, diagnosing and managing BED can benefit all areas of patient health.
Although there are still significant barriers to screening, diagnosis and treatment, primary care providers have the means to improve health outcomes among their patients with binge eating. Primary care is the ideal setting for raising awareness of the problem of binge eating among the general population, to address patient’s disorder eating concerns and start patients on their journey to recovery. First of all, routine procedures such as weighing patients, offer opportunities to ask patients whether they have any concerns about their weight or eating patterns. These questions can also be added to the medical history updates hat patients complete prior to office visits. Routine screening of special populations such as patients with diabetes, those attempting weight loss or receiving psychotropic medication is of great help in managing those comorbidities. The SCOFF questionnaire is a brief screen for eating disorders suitable for primary care*. Providers interested in providing medication management for BED should also screen for psychiatric comorbidities and substance use disorders to guide their medication choices.
In summary, patients with BED are largely undiagnosed and untreated, which complicates the management of their medical and mental health issues. Although access to specialty continues to be a challenge, primary care providers have the means to start patients on their road to recovery and improve overall health outcomes and quality of life.
The Research Institute at the Lindner Center of HOPE is a world leader in Binge eating disorder research. For more information about our current studies, call 513-536-0710.
*The SCOFF questionnaire is available at:
Chao AM, Rajagopalan AV, Tronieri JS, Walsh O, Wadden TA.
Nurs Scholarsh. 2019 Jul;51(4):399-407. doi: 10.1111/jnu.12468. Epub 2019 Mar 1.
Javaras KN, Pope HG, Lalonde JK, et al. Co-occurrence of binge eating disorder with psychiatric and medical disorders. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008;69(2):266-273. doi:10.4088/jcp.v69n021
Nicole Mori RN, MSN, APRN-BC
Nurse Practitioner, Lindner Center of HOPE Disorder Services