What Is Binge Eating?

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What Is Binge Eating?

Binge eating involves consuming large quantities of food very quickly, even when not hungry, and to the point of being uncomfortable. Almost everyone overeats once in a while, but it can also become a disorder.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious but treatable condition that involves recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food. BED was formally added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. 

In addition to eating large food in excess and to the point of discomfort, the condition is also characterized by feeling out of control when eating and a sense of shame or guilt over the behavior.

Episodes of overeating that are classified as binge eating can significantly and negatively impact your health and well-being, making it especially important to identify the signs and symptoms of binge eating and get help if necessary.

Symptoms

The two main symptoms of binge eating are:

  • Eating a larger than normal amount of food over a short period of time 
  • Feeling that this eating behavior is out of control

The binge-eating episodes are also marked by three or more of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating faster than normal
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Feelings of disgust, guilt, or sadness
  • Eating alone out of embarrassment

Diagnosis

How do you know if your overeating is just an occasional overindulgence or a serious binging issue? Some health experts may consider isolated episodes of binge eating to be normal. But if a habit of binge eating starts to have a significant impact on your life, it should be cause for concern.

In order to be diagnosed with BED, people must also experience marked distress, not engage in compensatory behaviors such as purging, and experience at least one binge eating episode once a week for three months.

In order to make a diagnosis, your doctor will ask you questions about your recent and past eating behaviors. Binge eating may vary in terms of severity. Some people may experience milder symptoms and binge eat around once each week, while others may have more severe symptoms and binge 14 or more times per week.

Complications of Binge Eating

Binge eating can contribute to a number of health complications including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke

Many of these health conditions are linked to obesity. Approximately half of all people with binge eating disorder are also obese.

Causes

The exact causes of binge eating are not known. Some of the possible risk factors include:

  • Genetics: Research suggests that binge eating disorder may have a strong genetic component.
  • Family history: You may be much more likely to develop an eating disorder if someone in your immediate family also has an eating disorder.
  • Other psychological conditions: Most people with binge eating disorder also have another mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or a substance use disorder.
  • Dieting and body image issues: Research suggests that people who develop binge eating disorder tend to have a negative body image and have a history of dieting and overeating.

Types

Not all excessive eating is the same, so it is important to distinguish between overeating and binge eating.

Overeating

Overeating happens to everyone. You might indulge in too many slices of pizza, go back for seconds of a favorite meal, or even find yourself consuming too much popcorn as you watch a late-night movie.

There are no set guidelines for how much food is too much to be considered "normal" overeating. If you overeat on one or multiple occasions, you may want to ask yourself a few questions.

  • Are you eating an amount of food larger than what most people would eat under the same circumstances and in the same amount of time?
  • How do you feel after you overeat?

The feelings binge eaters experience during and after overeating range from intense pleasure to disgust.

An example of overeating would be getting up to get seconds during a holiday meal. An example of binge eating would be eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time and feeling as if you were out of control.

In general, binge eaters tend to eat more often than those who experience the occasional bout of overeating. Note that continually snacking throughout the day (grazing) is not considered binge eating.

Binge Eating

In a general sense, binge eating differs from "normal" overeating in several ways:

  • Food is consumed more rapidly
  • Control over the amount of food consumed is lost
  • Feelings of disgust, regret, or guilt are experienced after the episode
  • Eating may occur alone due to embarrassment over the amount of food consumed

Those who have a binge eating disorder may say they feel a loss of control over what and how much they eat during an episode of overeating. Some binge eaters say they feel driven to eat as if it were a compulsion that cannot be ignored.

Some binge eaters may hide food in odd places or even steal food from others. People may also eat alone due to feelings of embarrassment or shame over how much they eat.

Another key difference between overeating and binge eating: A sense of disgust does not make a binge eater stop eating. An overeater will likely listen to that voice and stop eating.

Treatment

If you feel that your eating habits are unhealthy and/or if your eating is causing marked distress, there is good news. Effective treatments are available that can help people manage their eating behaviors and overcome binge eating. These treatments may include psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both.

Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are proven to be effective treatments for binge eating disorder. CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns that contribute to unwanted behaviors.

Ask your doctor for advice or look for professional help in your community. By finding a qualified counselor, such as a licensed clinical social worker or psychologist, you will take an important step toward gaining control of binge eating.

Medications

There are some medications that may also be a valuable part of treatment. Medications that may be prescribed include antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and drugs that help control appetite and compulsions. 

Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine), a drug traditionally used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may also be prescribed to treat binge-eating disorder. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of lisdexamfetamine in the treatment of binge eating disorder in adults.

Coping

In addition to getting appropriate treatment and outside support, there are also things that you can do that will help you control or prevent episodes of binge eating.

  • Recognize when you are hungry. Sometimes people binge eat when they get over-hungry. Learn to recognize your hunger cues and focus on eating a healthy meal or snack before you reach the point of being over-hungry.
  • Eliminate binge foods from your home. If you know that there are foods that are more likely to trigger a binge-eating episode, get rid of them and avoid keeping those items in your house. 
  • Focus on your food. Don't eat when you are distracted by a TV program, movie, book, or other activity. Turn off your devices and keep mealtime a separate activity.
  • Keep a food journal. Writing down everything that you eat can help you watch for patterns. Note how you were feeling since emotions can often trigger overeating or binge eating.
  • Avoid boredom. You are much more likely to overeat when you are feeling bored, so look for ways to fill your time with activities that are productive and enjoyable.

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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