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Sumati Gupta, PhD

Dr. Gupta is a licensed psychologist and professor at Barnard College, Columbia University. She specializes in the treatment of anxiety and eating/weight issues at Tribeca Psychology in NYC

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How are people suffering from binge eating and bulimia perceived by the public?

With growing efforts to increase awareness of mental health issues, we hope that people have a more accurate understanding of eating and weight issues. What factors causes bulimia? To what degree are people with binge eating suffering from a mental illness? A new study asked adults how they perceived someone suffering from binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, obesity, or depression and compared their responses.

The study, published this month in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, was conducted at the University of Hawaii. Researchers asked undergraduate students to read a short description of a 19-year-old woman suffering from an eating disorder or major depressive disorder or obesity. Then the undergraduates were asked to rate their perceptions of her in a short survey. 

The survey included statements aimed at assessing how much they blamed the 19-year-old and how much they would trust her or find her competent. Examples included:

            “People with a problem like hers could snap out of it if they wanted”

            “A problem like hers is a sign of personal weakness”

            “People with a problem like hers are unpredictable”

When comparing undergraduate perceptions, researchers found that the person suffering from obesity was blamed the most for her condition compared to the other mental health disorders. This is, unfortunately, in line with much of the popular discussion regarding perceptions of obese adults.

When vignettes described a woman suffering from depression, she was perceived as the least personally responsible for her condition compared to eating disorders or obesity. Why would undergraduates see someone with an eating disorder as more personally responsible for suffering from the disorder than depression? It’s not clear from the study, but perhaps depression is viewed as more biologically based (e.g. genetics, brain abnormalities) compared to eating disorders.  While researchers and eating disorder organizations have tried to better educate the public on biological contributions in the development of eating disorders, clearly there is more work to be done.

When comparing the three eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating), researchers found that the person suffering from binge eating disorder was blamed the most for her condition and seen as the least impaired. This is troubling given what we know about the seriousness of binge eating disorder, and groups like BEDA have worked to combat that perception. With the addition of this disorder in the DSM-5, hopefully public perceptions will change.

Given that the study only asked undergraduates in Hawaii about their perception, it raises the question of how others (e.g older adults, people in different U.S. regions, etc) might perceive eating disorders, especially binge eating disorder, differently. 


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Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology

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You may also be interested in reading:

Comparing treatments for binge eating

Is bulimia like a drug addiction?

How binge eating affects your marriage/relationship


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