The term binging is commonly used today to describe just about any activity that a person might do a lot of or for a long period of time. For example, binge-watching an entire show in one day. Although the term tends to be harmlessly thrown around in numerous contexts, when it comes to food, binging is a very serious subject.
Binge eating disorder is a type of eating disorder classified as consuming abnormally large amounts of food in a short space of time. We’re not talking about eating seconds or thirds during the holidays, or an extra slice of cake on your birthday. Binge eating is a type of feeding that occurs at least once per week over a sustained period of at least three months, if not longer.
Binge eating disorder can vary in both severity and length. For example, some binge eaters report having mild binge eating disorder, characterized by one to three binging episodes a week, while more severe cases may involve binging two or more times a day.
The difference between binge eating disorders and other types of eating disorders is that there is no forced purging after eating. This means that, unlike bulimia and anorexia, a binge eater typically does not vomit, use laxatives, or engage in excessive exercise following each meal as a way to burn off the food they have consumed.
A person with a binge eating disorder will take in very high amounts of excess calories during each binging episode. Since the body cannot use all the extra energy, it is forced to store it as fat, resulting in increased body weight. This can lead to serious health complications and become dangerous if unmanaged. We will look at how binge eating disorders can affect your health later in this article.
People with binge eating disorder report feeling like they have no control while they are binging. Binging episodes are often then followed by feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt. This can cause them to hide their eating from friends and family.
It is important to note that while overeating and weight problems are health concerns, they are not the same as binge eating disorder, which can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Typically, binge eating disorder and other types of eating disorders are classified as mental health issues. In one study, seven out of ten girls and women with an eating disorder reported experiencing anxiety about their appearance due to unrealistic beauty standards in the media. The psychological component of an eating disorder is important because three out of ten people trying to lose weight tend to show some signs of binge eating disorder.
Unlike other eating disorders, which have clear signs and symptoms, binge eating disorder is harder to identify, especially in its earlier stages. This is because many symptoms, like weight fluctuations, only become more noticeable over time.
Physical symptoms of binge eating disorder include:
Weight changes – This can be easy to miss in the beginning as weight fluctuations tend to become more noticeable over a prolonged period of time¹.
Mental changes – In some cases, binging can alter mood and cause brain fog, as it may be difficult to concentrate with too much glucose and energy in the blood.
Digestion changes – Consuming excessive calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein can cause diarrhea, heartburn, constipation, gas, and bloating.
Behavioral symptoms of binge eating disorder:
Hiding food – Many people with binge eating disorder hide food. This is especially true for younger people who may not be able to buy food whenever they want.
Eating Habits – Another common sign is changes in eating habits, such as not wanting to eat with others, eating too fast, trying numerous diets, or cutting out entire food groups¹.
Body image – Looking in the mirror and feeling disgust or guilt is a sign of low self-esteem and body image problems. It is also a precursor to eating disorders.
Emotional symptoms of binge eating disorder include:
Depression – People with binge eating disorder often report feeling depressed, experiencing a loss of control over their body, and a sense of hopelessness that things can get better.
Anxiety – Feeling anxious around food or other people, which can be hidden depending on how well a person with binge eating disorder is able to manage their anxiety².
Fear – As binge eaters hide their eating habits from loved ones, they can experience fear that they will be caught. This could lead to social isolation.
Unfortunately, these symptoms can often be missed or brushed off as being a normal part of life. This is especially true for teenagers experiencing hormonal fluctuations which have physical and psychological effects.
Even if you only see some of the signs and symptoms, it is important to seek medical advice for binge eating disorders as soon as you can. Waiting it out is more likely to result in the problem becoming worse rather than better, which could cause lasting health problems, including:
Type 2 diabetes
There is currently no one-size-fits-all reason why people develop binge eating disorder because it can have many different triggers. There is some evidence that people with binge eating disorder may have a genetic component that increases their risk¹.
Causes of binge eating disorder include:
Genetics – Some people are prewired to have more addictive traits. This has to do with the amount of dopamine (the feel-good chemical) released by the brain.
Gender – Although 40% of people with binge eating disorder are men, women are still more likely to develop it².
Weight – People who are overweight or obese are at higher risk of developing binge eating disorder than people at a healthy weight.
Mental health – Most people with disordered eating have underlying mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, substance abuse, or bipolar disorder.
Just as there are many possible causes, there is also a range of risk factors that can increase a person's chances of developing binge eating disorder.
History of weight problems and dieting
A person who has a history of weight problems and dieting is at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. This is due, in part, to biology, as your body has a set weight that requires a set number of calories to maintain it.
When someone becomes overweight, they may try to correct the problem by eating less. However, this can cause the brain to release chemicals that instead increase hunger. This can become difficult to control, causing a person to cycle through not eating enough and overeating. Over time, this can trigger regular binge eating.
Trauma, abuse, or PTSD
People who have been through a life-changing experience, like war, rape or sexual abuse, or the death of a loved one, are at higher risk of misusing substances, whether drugs, alcohol, food, or other substances.
Food happens to be one of the most abused "drugs," and in many cases can become addictive. Someone living with untreated trauma is more likely to try and fix how they are feeling in other ways. Food can fill an emotional void and make people feel better in the moment, which can make them eat more and more to block out their pain. If this is followed by guilt or sadness, it can turn into a harmful cycle.
Big life changes
Another risk factor that often goes unnoticed is major life changes. This could be going off to college or moving to a new city. It is especially true in situations where the person has always had someone prepare their food or make choices for them, such as living with family.
If you move into a college dorm, living on a student budget, you may more regularly buy cheaper convenience foods that have a high amount of calories but are low in nutrients. This can trigger your brain to think it is hungry when it is not, causing you to eat even more.
On the other hand, if you are suddenly living alone but you're used to cooking for a full house, you might find yourself eating more due to loneliness or not wanting to waste the family-sized meals you have cooked out of habit. Either way, this can also trigger a domino effect leading to binge eating disorder.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be showing some of the signs or symptoms of binge eating disorder, the first step in getting a diagnosis is to talk with a doctor. Even if your doctor is not a specialist in disordered eating, they will be able to refer you to someone who is. This is especially important if your health insurance company only uses certain providers.
The next step is to have an honest conversation with the medical professional about your eating patterns. You won’t be able to get help if you are not willing to speak about it. If a patient is a minor, parents can ask their pediatrician for help.
There are three main criteria for a diagnosis of binge eating disorder set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):
One or more incidents a week of binge eating for at least three continuous months.
The patient is not trying to force the food out, also called purging. This would indicate a different type of eating disorder.
There are no hormonal imbalances or underlying conditions that could cause binging.
Your doctor will usually do a physical exam and take blood tests to ensure there are no other hormonal, metabolic, or nutritional causes when an eating disorder is suspected. This also enables your doctor to check for diabetes and assess your cardiovascular health.
There are several different treatment options available to help with binge eating disorder. In many cases, therapy can be tailored to the individual patient's needs.
Since no two people are alike, the healthcare team will need to figure out what has caused binge eating in the patient and how best to support their recovery before creating a treatment plan. For example, if the binge eating started after a trauma or due to a mental health condition, treatment will involve psychological support.
Mental health treatments for binge eating disorder include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – This is a widely used therapy to help identify negative feelings and behaviors, set goals, and improve wellbeing.
Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) – When the cause is related to grief, relationship conflicts, or major life changes, IPT can help you acknowledge and address the specific problem.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – If binge eating is being used to cope with a negative experience or trigger, DBT will assist in developing healthier coping mechanisms.
Hospitalization – In severe mental health cases, the patient may need to be admitted to hospital and monitored to figure out what steps to take.
Physical treatments for binge eating disorder include:
Hospitalization – Depending on the severity of the patient's health, hospitalization may be necessary. This could be the case if a patient presents with an electrolyte imbalance or with very high blood sugar.
Medication – If the cause is due to hormonal imbalances, depression, or a physical issue, medication may address the problem and help to relieve symptoms.
Lifestyle changes – Stress, excess weight, poor nutrition habits, and other lifestyle choices could be contributing to binge eating. Addressing these can aid in treatment.
If you are looking for guidance on how to support a loved one with binge eating disorder, in addition to ensuring they are receiving the right treatment, there are some other steps you can take.
You must be patient with the process. Making big changes towards better health can take a long time – even a lifetime – and progress is not linear. Make sure you celebrate all of their small wins and be there for them when they stumble.
While they are going through something difficult, help them to feel less alone. If they are isolating themselves, try to find ways to include them in social activities.
Be open and honest, but non-judgemental, with them at all times – tell them when you are proud of them, if you catch them in a lie, or if you find hidden food. Be sure to provide a safe space for them to feel comfortable enough, to be honest too.
Don't body shame or blame the food. Instead, find the positive side and talk about that. Even if your loved one wants to complain about their body, clothes, food, or something else, remind them that food can also be medicine. Remind them about how far they have come and encourage them to set goals for the future.
Be a good listener
When we are going through a tough time, we often need someone there to listen. You can be that person – you don't need to give advice or opinions, just listen.
Recovering from binge eating disorder is recovering from an addiction. The recovery process can take a long time – even a lifetime. So, what can you do to prevent binge eating? Here are some helpful tips that can help you to stop a binge:
Exercise – It doesn’t have to be high intensity, as just a walk can help. Not only can this be a healthy distraction, but it can help lower stress and get you back in the right mindset.
Write – Keep a journal where you can write down your thoughts. Try to figure out what is triggering you at that moment and observe how you feel.
Avoid – If driving by a specific restaurant is a problem, take a different route. If it's the grocery store, have your groceries delivered or have a friend shop for you.
Eat regularly – Skipping meals can cause you to overeat later in the day. Make sure to plan your meals so that you never get too hungry.
Talk – If you are in a bad place, and you can't distract yourself, call someone. A friend or family member can help by listening.
If you do end up binge eating, don't think that you have failed and give up. Progress is not always linear, so acknowledge the setback, accept it, and move on. Don't try to hide it or beat yourself up. We all trip and falls, and we can get back up again.
Binge eating disorder has only recently been officially classified as an eating disorder. While there is less research on it compared to other types of eating disorders, this is slowly changing as more clinical trials are looking at causes, treatments, and new medications.
Binge eating disorder may be more much common than you think. In one study¹, 9,282 Americans were questioned about eating disorders. It found that 3.5% of women and 2.0% of men had experienced a binge eating disorder at some point during their life. The study found that binge eating disorder is three times more prevalent than both anorexia and bulimia nervosa combined.
The same study found that, of all the eating disorders, binge eating is the most common type experienced by men, as about 40% of those with binge eating disorder are male. However, females are still disproportionately more affected compared to men.
There is a range of available treatments for binge eating disorder. The most well-researched is cognitive-behavioral therapy².
Another treatment that is becoming increasingly recommended is mindfulness. In a randomized clinical trial, 95% of participants receiving the Mindfulness Eating Awareness Training no longer met the criteria for binge eating disorder after four months³.
Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders | National Eating Disorders Association
Evolution of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy for Eating Disorders | Science Direct