If you struggle with occasional binge eating episodes, there may be some tips and treatments to help you curb the behavior before it develops into something more serious.
What is Binge Eating?
Binge eating actually has a relatively loose medical definition, involving an amount of food “definitely larger” than others would eat when consumed over a “discrete period of time.”1
Generally, healthcare professionals consider how much someone eats during a given two-hour window and compare that to what would otherwise be considered a “normal” amount of food to eat in that time.
Regardless, the episodes are distinctly characterized by additional traits, including:1
- The lack of a sense of control over how much or what is being consumed
- Eating more rapidly than normal
- Eating past the point of feeling full
- Eating when not feeling hungry
Binge eating is often involved in bulimia nervosa (BN), a dangerous and potentially deadly eating disorder. And if you experience binging episodes at least once a week over at least three months, you may have binge eating disorder (BED), which can bring about its own health concerns.
Binge Eating vs. Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating is a concerning form of disordered eating, but on its own, it doesn’t necessarily point to binge eating disorder.
Like all eating disorders, BED is a mental health condition. The disordered eating behavior involved is a physical manifestation of the mental troubles someone is experiencing.
Aside from the specified frequency of binge eating episodes, binge eating disorder is marked by a number of psychological symptoms, including:
- Feelings of guilt, shame and/or disgust following a binge eating episode
- Feelings of embarrassment, which may lead to self-isolation
- Poor body image
- Generally low self-esteem.
If you struggle with binge eating disorder, as opposed to occasional binge eating episodes, it’s important to seek out treatment that addresses both the mental and physical aspects of your condition.
What Causes Binge Eating?
There are a number of factors that have been found to trigger binge eating.
One of the most common traits shared by people who struggle with binge eating is a tendency to diet. In fact, several studies have concluded that frequent dieting can lead to the development of binge eating behaviors and binge eating disorder.2
People regularly attempting to limit their food intake may pick up a number of unhealthy eating habits, like skipping meals or cutting out certain foods or entire food groups to prevent weight gain. This can bring on intense hunger or food cravings, which can lead to binging behaviors.
Emotional eating is another common catalyst for binge eating. This describes when someone uses food and eating to help them deal with stress or other unpleasant emotions.
And the power of suggestion can also bring about compulsive eating, with everything from advertisements for certain foods to the smell of certain foods cooking to even a conversation about certain foods potentially bringing on a binge eating cycle.
Finding Help for Binge Eating
Binge eating occurs on a spectrum. Some people may occasionally feel uncontrollable food cravings, while others may experience binge eating as a regular eating pattern.
In more mild cases, it may be possible to overcome binge eating without seeking outside help.
Distracting yourself with other activities when you feel a binge coming on could be effective, as well as building more self-awareness through mindfulness, meditation, or breathing exercises.
Instituting some healthier eating habits, such as eating three meals a day, or eating regularly, can also help prevent binge eating by helping you stay satiated and keeping your blood sugar in check.
Many people also find it helpful to keep a food diary. This can help them not only get a better idea of their overall eating patterns, which can then be adjusted to incorporate healthier behaviors but help them identify potential triggers that lead to binging.
Finding Help for Binge Eating Disorder
For those whose binge eating episodes are more frequent or severe, there are other treatment options that could more effectively eliminate not just the disordered behaviors behind binge eating but the disordered thoughts that drive them.
Binge eating disorder is widely considered the most common eating disorder in the United States. Thankfully, it’s also one of the most treatable, with a number of different therapies showing the potential to help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is perhaps the most effective therapeutic method for managing binge eating and potential triggers.3
The concept operates on the idea that unhelpful behaviors are caused by unhelpful thoughts. Through a structured and guided course of CBT sessions, a patient will learn to recognize these unhelpful thoughts, redirect them, and, eventually, eliminate them altogether.
CBT also teaches patients strategies for recognizing and avoiding triggers and for getting back on track should a setback occur.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) emphasizes cognitive skills that help patients manage stress, regulate emotions, improve social relationships, and reduce the desire to engage in binge eating behavior.
The central teaching behind DBT is that two things can be true at once. In the case of people with BED, this includes that they should both seek out self-acceptance and proactively change some of their behaviors.
Operating with this mindset, patients are then taught different strategies to help them realize both of these truths.
Interpersonal psychotherapy is an approach that focuses primarily on a person’s current relationship dynamics and how they may be contributing to mental health difficulties or disordered behaviors.
If someone is finding themselves triggered by difficult social or familial relationships; a big change in their life, such as marriage, divorce, or the death of a loved one; or stress related to socializing with certain people or socializing in general, this type of therapy could offer useful insights and coping mechanisms.
Group therapy may be a good primary option for someone who occasionally binge eats, or a good supplementary treatment for those with more severe BED symptoms.
The format allows people struggling with the same types of issues to offer each other support and advice, and to generally form a sense of community.
Some therapy groups are also tailored for people in specific populations, including teenagers or members of the LGBTQIA+ community, which may help to further strengthen bonds and build out support networks.
Family therapy is generally recommended when the person dealing with the eating disorder is a child, teenager, or otherwise still dependent on their close family members.
This form of therapy brings multiple members of a household together to talk about shared issues and concerns. Family therapy also often focuses on family dynamics, and the role these relationships may play in the maintenance of an eating disorder.
Ultimately, family therapy strives to help family members learn how to best support their loved one.
Some medications have been shown to help people control their binge eating behaviors or improve other conditions that may work to maintain the disorder, such as depression or anxiety.
Some medications commonly prescribed to help with binge eating disorder, include:
- Antidepressants: Because binge eating is often related to stress and emotional responses to triggers, antidepressants can help alleviate the symptoms of this disorder by helping to regulate mood, reducing the desire to binge as a coping mechanism.4
- Lisdexamfetamine: First developed to help people with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), this drug has since been found to effectively curb binge eating episodes, including in severe cases. Lisdexamfetamine is currently the only drug approved in the United States for the treatment of moderate to severe BED.5
Still, medication is generally seen as a secondary treatment for eating disorders, with many medical professionals preferring to pair its use with therapy sessions or other types of treatment.
Maintaining Binge Eating Recovery
One of the main aims of BED treatment is to foster a sense of empowerment and to help someone regain control of their health—and their life.
Still, it’s important to remember that long-term recovery doesn’t necessarily mean never binging again. Relapses are common for many people working to overcome binge eating disorder or other disordered eating behaviors.
That’s why maintaining a positive attitude is perhaps the most helpful—and most difficult—aspect of binge eating disorder recovery.
If you slip up, try to remember that it’s not the end of the world. Take a moment, breathe, and rededicate yourself to the recovery journey.
Remember how far you’ve come and how much work you’ve put in. Don’t let one bad day undo all that. Just try your best to keep trying your best.
- Berkman ND, Brownley KA, Peat CM, et al. (2015). Management and Outcomes of Binge-Eating Disorder. Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, 160.
- Howard CE, & Porzelius LK. (1999). The role of dieting in binge eating disorder: etiology and treatment implications. Clinical psychology review; 19(1):25–44.
- Mulkens S, Waller G. (2021). New developments in cognitive-behavioural therapy for eating disorders (CBT-ED). Current Opinions in Psychiatry; 34(6):576-583.
- Appolinario JC, & McElroy SL. (2004). Pharmacological approaches in the treatment of binge eating disorder. Current drug targets; 5(3):301–307.
- Heo YA, & Duggan ST. (2017). Lisdexamfetamine: A Review in Binge Eating Disorder. CNS drugs; 31(11):1015–1022.