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Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder (BED) is characterized by traumatic episodes of overeating followed by grief and regret. The impact on your health is catastrophic.

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Episodes of extreme eating characterize a binge eating disorder. Feelings of disgust and guilt follow those eating binges. 

We’ve all pushed away from the Thanksgiving table, wishing we’d left that last bite of pie or bit of mashed potatoes on our plate. At parties or holiday dinners, it’s common to eat more than we should. 

Binge eating disorders are different. People who binge often do so in private, and they may not even notice or feel how much they are eating. This isn’t a social or pleasurable activity. Most people with binging disorders hate how the episodes make them feel. 

Among American adults, 1.25 percent of women and 0.42 percent of men have binge eating disorders. The more you know about this common and dangerous eating disorder, the better you can help the people you love. 

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

People with binge eating disorder (BED) cycle through binges and diets. One day, they eat far too much in one sitting. The next day, they promise to “be good” and go on a restrictive diet to lose weight. Soon, they start the process again. 

A binge is more than a minor indiscretion. People who binge engage in specific behaviors like these:

  • They eat extremely quickly, sometimes without chewing.
  • They begin eating when they are full. 
  • They eat so much that it causes physical discomfort.
  • They describe “trance-like” states during which they don’t remember eating.

Most of these episodes happen when the person is alone. Purging, fasting, or excessive exercise don’t follow binging episodes, even though the person may feel intense shame and regret about eating so much. 

How Is Binge Eating Disorder Diagnosed?

It’s not easy for doctors to spot binge eating disorder. Many people with this eating disorder feel ashamed or guilty, and they work hard to hide their symptoms. 

To diagnose BED, doctors look for the following:

  • Binges: Does the person have episodes of eating quickly, eating until uncomfortable, and eating while not hungry?
  • Mental health: Does the person feel embarrassed, angry, disgusted, or depressed about these episodes? 
  • Frequency: Does the person binge at least once a week? Has the problem been in place for at least three months?

People with binge eating disorder are often overweight. A trip to the doctor to discuss weight-loss plans could encourage doctors to look for signs of an eating disorder. 

Some families spot signs of BED that encourage people to visit their doctors. Those signs could include the following:

  • Unwillingness to eat around others 
  • Announcing new eating plans or dabbling with fad diets 
  • Noticeable weight fluctuations 
  • Withdrawing from friends and family 
  • Stealing or hoarding food that you might find in unusual places 
  • Expressing an abnormal amount of concern with weight or body shape 

Some families find evidence of binges. Dirty plates, empty wrappers, or fast-food wrappers could show them that the person has been eating large amounts secretively.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorders?

Experts don’t know why some people get binge eating disorder and others don’t. A combination of genetics, family habits, and eating patterns could result in an eating disorder. 

BED often coexists with other mental health issues, including these:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Some people develop BED as they use food to cope with negative emotions or symptoms of a mental health issue. In time, their relationship with food spins out of control. 

How Can BED Harm You?

We all need food to stay healthy. But an ongoing binge eating disorder can change your entire relationship with food. 

In time, people with BED feel taunted by food. They know they should eat, but they also often feel disgusted by how they sometimes consume food.

A cycle of strict dieting followed by out-of-control binging takes hold. And throughout, the person doesn’t feel in control of weight, health, and food. 

Since binge eating episodes aren’t followed by purges or exercise, weight gain is common. In fact, people with BED are often significantly overweight, and they can develop health problems like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and more. 

How Does Treatment Help?

People with binge eating disorder can struggle in silence for years. They may try to stop dieting or binging, but they may feel unable to do so. 

In treatment programs, professionals work to help people understand why they’re binging. And they can help people feel better about themselves and their self-image.

Some forms of therapy also help people repair their relationships with others so they have a strong support system they can turn to when they are tempted to binge again. 

An eating disorder program may also help people learn to follow a healthy diet. Restricting food leads to binging, which leads to restricting even more. Therapy helps to break that cycle so people can learn to enjoy food once again.

Oftentimes, nutritionists are part of a comprehensive binge eating disorder program, helping clients learn how to structure their food intake in a way that supports their overall health. In conjunction with therapy, this work can be vital to building a balanced relationship with food.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated March 7, 2024
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