Size really doesn't matter

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  • European Eating Disorders ReviewEur. Eat. Disorders Rev. 11, 397404 (2003)Published online 25 May 2003 in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/erv.498


    Size Really Doesnt Matter

    Bethan Lawrence1,2, Mari Campbell1, Marc Neiderman1 andLucy Serpell*1,21Eating Disorders Service, Huntercombe Manor Hospital, HuntercombeLane South, Taplow, Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6 0PQ, UK2Department of Psychiatry, St Georges Hospital Medical School,University of London, Cranmer Terrace, London SW17 0RE, UK

    Objective: The judgement of what constitutes a large amount of food is onepart of determining a binge and is therefore crucial for the diagnosis of BN. Thisstudy aimed to determine whether eating disorder professionals agree on whatconstitutes a large amount of food and the criterion they use to make the decision.Method: 147 eating disorder professionals completed a short questionnaire,that involved rating five food vignettes according to whether they believed themto consist of a large amount of food.Results: There was general consensus among eating disorder professionals asto what constituted a large amount of food. The results also suggested that manyparticipants based their judgement on how dissimilar the vignette was to anormal meal.Discussion: The finding that the judgement of whether an amount of food islarge can be made with high reliability but low validity should be the subject offurther research due to its importance in the diagnosis of bulimia nervosa.Copyright# 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association.

    Keywords: binge; bulimia nervosa; diagnosis; DSM; ICD


    The presence of binge eating is an essential criterion for diagnosingbulimia nervosa (BN) in the DSM-IV (American Psychological Associa-tion; APA, 1994). However, little research has been conducted into the

    European Eating Disorders ReviewCopyright# 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association. 11(5), 397404 (2003)

    *Correspondence to: Lucy Serpell, Early Onset Eating Disorders Team, Department of Psychiatry,St. Georges Hospital Medical School, Cranmer Terrace, London SW17 0RE, UK.E-mail:

  • way in which the judgement of a binge is made. Beglin and Fairburn(1992) found that, when deciding whether an episode is a binge, youngwomen without eating disorders placed a greater emphasis on the lossof control than on the quantity eaten. Johnson and colleagues (2000)found that loss of control, but also quantity of food and time taken to eatit influenced whether an episode was rated as a binge by womenwithout eating disorders.

    According to the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994),two criteria are needed to diagnose a the presence of binge: (1) eating ina discrete period of time an amount of food that is definitely larger thanmost individuals would eat under similar circumstances, and (2) asense of lack of control over eating during the episode. However, thereis considerable debate about whether these criteria are the mostappropriate ones and over how they should be applied. The ICD-10Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders: Clinical Descriptions andDiagnostic Guidelines (ICD-10; World Health Organization, 1992) doesnot use the term binge in its diagnosis. However, for a diagnosis ofbulimia, the patient must experience periods of overeating in whichlarge amounts of food are consumed in short periods of time.

    Assessment tools such as the Eating Disorders Examination (EDE;Cooper & Fairburn, 1987), used to aid DSM-IV diagnosis, requireclinicians to judge whether or not the patient is engaging in binge eating.Definitions have been given to make this task easier. For example, adiscrete period of time has been defined as being within any 2-hperiod. However, no criteria are given for the judgement of a largeamount of food.

    Clinicians describe a great deal of variability in the amount patientsconsume during a binge (Crowther & Sherwood, 1997). Researchsuggests that although the term binge suggests a large amount of food,in terms of calorific value, the actual eating episodes may or may notinvolve the ingestion of a large amount of food (Rosen, Leitenberg, Fisher,& Khazam, 1986; Rossiter & Agras, 1990). Studies investigating calorificintake during a binge episode vary considerably from less than 600calories up to 5000 calories (Kissileff, Walsh, Kral, & Cassidy, 1986; Rosenet al., 1986; Rossiter & Agras, 1990; Woell, Fichter, Pirke, & Wolfram,1989). Hence some authors have suggested a distinction betweensubjective bulimic episodes (where loss of control is experienced butthe amount of food is not objectively large) and objective bulimicepisodes (where loss of control is experienced and the amount of food isobjectively large). Such authors suggest that only objective bulimicepisodes should be relevant for the diagnosis of bulimia nervosa.

    Little research has been conducted looking at whether a binge is likelyto follow the form and content of a normal meal, i.e. how meal-like it is.

    B. Lawrence et al. Eur. Eat. Disorders Rev. 11, 397404 (2003)

    Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association. 398

  • However, it has been suggested that binges tend to consist of snackfoods and desserts (Rosen et al., 1986; Woell et al., 1989), hence a bingemay not be meal-like.

    The aims of this study were to investigate whether eating disorderprofessionals agree on what constitutes a large amount of food and whatcriteria they use to judge whether an amount of food is large or not andhence whether it might be classified as a binge.



    One hundred and forty-seven eating disorders professionals attendingthe Eating Disorders 2001 conference in London completed the bingesurvey. The respondents consisted of psychiatrists, psychologists,nurses and other professionals, many of whom are likely to be involvedin the assessment and treatment of individuals with eating disorders.


    Binge survey (see Appendix 1)

    A survey was developed by the authors describing five food vignettes.The vignettes were chosen to illustrate a range of possible foods whichmight be consumed during a meal or binge. Written instructions weregiven asking participants to rate whether they considered each of thefood vignettes to be a large amount of food. Possible responses wereyes, no and unsure.


    The Survey was distributed to 500 delegates attending the conference.Responses were anonymous and respondents returned the survey to abox in the registration hall.


    Calorific value and weight was calculated for each vignette from foodpackages and the internet ( (N.B. This informationwas not made available to respondents). For the judgement of meal-likeness, 10 eating disorder professionals were asked to rate, on a scale

    Eur. Eat. Disorders Rev. 11, 397404 (2003) Size Really Doesnt Matter

    Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association. 399

  • of 1 to 5, each vignette according to how similar to a meal they con-sidered it to be. A mean score was then calculated for each (see Table 1).

    Table 1 shows the percentage of respondents who judged eachvignette as a large amount of food, not a large amount of food and thosewho were unsure. The percentage of respondents who judged eachvignette to consist of a large amount of food ranged from 8.2 to 98.6 percent. However, agreement (on whether or not a vignette was large) wasgenerally high, in that most participants responded in the samedirection, agreeing that a particular vignette either was, or was not alarge amount of food.

    The vignettes were ranked according to the percentage of respon-dents who judged each to be a large amount of food, with 1 being thevignette for which the fewest participants considered it a large amountof food (vignette 3) and 5 that which the most participants consideredlarge (vignette 2). Next, the vignettes were ranked according to possiblecriteria participants might use to judge whether the amount of food waslarge or not, such as calorific value, weight and meal-likeness. Thevignettes were ranked according to the application of each criterion,then the ordering of the vignettes was examined to determine whetherthe application of the criterion led to a similar ranking to that thedetermined by participants responses. The criterion that resulted in themost similar ranking of the food vignettes to the consensus amongparticipants was assumed to be the factor most likely to be used todetermine a large amount of food.

    Table 1 shows that using either calorific value or weight as thedetermining factor did not accurately rank the food vignettes, andtherefore it is unlikely that either of these factors were used by mostparticipants when completing the survey.

    In fact, using meal-likeness as the determining factor led to the mostsimilar ranking of vignettes to the consensus of the participants. Thissuggests that in this instance, meal-likeness may have been the factormost commonly used to rank whether a food vignette was a largeamount of food or not.


    Overall, this study shows that there is high consensus among eatingdisorder professionals on what constitutes a large amount of food. Thissuggests that the judgement of large-ness, which is required for thediagnosis of BN, can be made with high inter-rater reliability. However,the results suggest that the criterion used by eating disordersprofessionals to quantify a large amount of food was not size in terms

    B. Lawrence et al. Eur. Eat. Disorders Rev. 11, 397404 (2003)

    Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association. 400

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