What is Binge Eating?

Binge eating disorder (BED) describes a pattern of disordered eating that revolves around episodes of rapid and uncontrollable food consumption, similar to a “binging” episode of bulimia nervosa, but without any reciprocal purging or compensating behavior.

Thankfully, research on the BED far predates its official recognition, revealing several treatment options that help people struggling with binge eating disorder to make a full recovery.

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder was first entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association’s publication used as a diagnostic tool for mental disorders, in 2013. But doctors and scientists have long noticed the distinctive pattern of disordered eating caused by the condition.

According to the DSM5, the latest edition of the manual, the key behaviors of BED include: (2)

1: Regular binge-eating episodes, are characterized by:

  • Eating more rapidly than normal.
  • Eating until uncomfortably full.
  • Eating large amounts of food when not physically feeling hungry.
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment over how much one is eating.
  • Feelings of disgust, depression, or guilt over how much food is consumed.

2: A general feeling of distress over binging behaviors.

3: The absence of any compensatory purging behaviors.

Certain measurements are also used to determine what constitutes a binging episode, including:

  • Eating, within a 2-hour period, an amount of food definitively larger than most people would eat in a similar time period.
  • The sense of a loss of control over how much food is eaten.

According to the DSM-V, a person must experience binging episodes, marked by at least 3 of the above characteristics, at least once a week over a period of three months. (2)

Who Is At Risk of Developing Binge Eating Disorder?

Since its recognition, binge eating disorder has quickly become one of the most-diagnosed eating disorders in the United States, by some measures impacting more than three times the number of people diagnosed with bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa combined. (1) This may be because unlike anorexia nervosa, atypical anorexia nervosa, or people with bulimia may be more likely to feel shame about their behavior and so are more likely to seek treatment.

Living with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes has been recognized as a risk factor for developing BED. (4) And while binge eating disorder can impact people of all body types, it’s more common among people with larger bodies. (3)

BED also shares a number of common biological, psychological, and social risk factors with a number of other eating disorders, including: (5)

  • Having a biological relative with an eating disorder.
  • Having a biological relative with a mental health condition.
  • Struggling with perfectionism.
  • A personal history of an anxiety disorder.
  • Experiencing trauma, bullying, or teasing.
  • Having poor body image or self-esteem.

Research into the disorder is ongoing, with the hope of identifying more risk factors and developing better methods to address them sooner before they lead to these disordered eating patterns.

Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

It’s usually difficult to determine whether someone has a binge eating disorder, even for a close friend or relative. That’s because many people who struggle with BED try to hide their binging behaviors due to causing the distress or embarrassment often tied to the episodes.

Still, there are a few signs and symptoms someone with BED may display, including: (6)

  • Eating in secret, which might look like:
  • Discarded food wrappers.
  • Hidden stashes of food.
  • Avoiding meals with others or situations that involve food.
  • Weight fluctuations Low self-esteem.
  • A preoccupation with food or dieting.

Someone struggling with BED will also likely exhibit all the signs connected to binge eating episodes, including eating when not hungry, eating until uncomfortably full, or feeling a loss of control while eating. These behaviors may be done in secret so friends or relatives may not be aware of them. 

And many people affected by the disorder also struggle with simultaneous—or, comorbid—mental health disorders. Depression and anxiety are commonly linked to binge eating disorder, and the condition has also been found to frequently overlap with substance use disorder. (6)(7)

group of women

Underlying Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

While scientists understand how binge eating disorder is experienced in the body, many are still unsure what causes the disorder, though a number of theories have been developed. 

Part of the reason people frequently turn to food for comfort is the chemical reaction it causes in the brain and body. Food can activate the brain’s reward center, causing a cascade of “feel good” hormones like serotonin to flood the body and brain. And, after repeated binging behavior, it’s possible for this behavior to become an unconscious habit, causing more frequent and intense cravings and possibly leading to the loss of control feeling that accompanies binge-eating episodes. (10)

Low self-esteem—possibly triggered by experiences of trauma, teasing, or bullying—can also play a role in the development of BED.

Poor body image and low self-esteem may lead to chronic yo-yo dieting, and this has also been connected to binge eating disorder, with women and girls who diet often found to be 12 times more likely to binge eat. (11) Physical and mental restriction of all food or specific types of food can also lead to binge eating behaviors through the restrict-binge cycle. (15)

Like many eating disorders, however, it’s likely that a number of causes are behind the manifestation of binge eating disorder, with people frequently experiencing overlapping conditions or experiences that lead to the development of these disordered eating behaviors.

Health Complications Caused by Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder has also been tied to a number of potential health complications.

The condition has a strong link to diabetes, with some studies suggesting that BED can lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic abnormalities. (4)

ED can also lead to a number of other concerns, including: (12)

  • Fertility problems
  • Sleep problems.
  • Chronic pain conditions.
  • Asthma.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Acid Reflux.
  • Other GI issues.

These potential complications are just some of the reasons why it’s so important for someone struggling with binge eating disorder to seek treatment, especially since a number of therapies have been found to help people with the disorder make a full recovery. 

Patient speaking with a doctor

Best Binge Eating Disorder Treatment Options

While the exact form and length of therapy recommended for someone with binge eating disorder depends on the specifics of that person’s case, a number of treatments have been found to generally help with the condition. Many people with BED engage in restrictive behaviors as well as binging episodes, and receiving support to develop consistent and adequate eating patterns, as well as assessing and treating any nutritional deficiencies, are also important parts of treatment. (16)

Ideas like mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness, which teaches healthy assertiveness, are at the core of DBT. And, when combined, the strategies have also shown to be largely effective, with one study finding 89% of participants stopped binging behaviors by the end of their sessions—though that number dropped to 56% at the time of a 6-month follow-up. (14)

When to Seek Help for Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder can be a highly disruptive aspect of someone’s life. But it’s never too late to look for help.

If you are struggling with binge eating disorder, you should seek support through mental health, and medical care as soon as you can. The feelings and actions related to this disorder may be unpleasant, but they don’t have to be forever. Recovery is always possible.

Last Update | 05 - 20 - 2022

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