Binge Eating Disorder

Condition Basics

What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating is an eating disorder. People who have it eat large amounts of food in a short time. They binge eat regularly for several months. They may feel out of control and eat until they are painfully full.

Some people who binge have a normal weight. But over time, many gain weight and have problems from being obese. People who have binge eating disorder also often have depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems.

Most people who have binge eating disorder need treatment to get better.

Binge eating disorder isn't the same thing as bulimia. Unlike bulimia, if you have binge eating disorder, you don't vomit or try other ways to get rid of calories. But you might try to limit how much food you eat between eating binges. Binge eating disorder is sometimes called compulsive overeating.

What causes it?

Experts are not sure what causes binge eating disorder. But it seems to run in families. Cultural attitudes about body shape and weight might also play a role. Anxiety, depression, or stress can cause some people to binge eat.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of binge eating disorder include eating too much in a short period of time (less than 2 hours) on a regular basis, feeling like you can't stop eating, feeling upset after binge eating, and eating alone. Having even a few symptoms can be a sign of a problem that needs treatment.

How is it diagnosed?

A doctor can find out if you have binge eating disorder by asking about eating habits and past health. Your doctor may also ask about your mental health and how you feel about food and your body. If you're overweight, your doctor may do a physical exam to rule out problems that it can cause.

How is binge eating disorder treated?

Treatment for binge eating disorder includes counseling and medicine. You may need treatment for a long time to fully recover. You also may need treatment for other problems that often occur with binge eating disorder. These can include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, obesity, or problems with being overweight.

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Cause

Experts are not sure what causes binge eating disorder. But it seems to run in families. Cultural attitudes about body shape and weight might also play a role. Anxiety, depression, or stress can cause some people to binge eat.

What Increases Your Risk

Experts don't know for sure what causes someone to have an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. But certain things put a person at greater risk for getting an eating disorder. Some of these things include:

  • Having a family history of an eating disorder.
  • Struggling with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or obsessive behaviors.
  • Feeling a need to be perfect.
  • Feeling social or cultural pressure about thinness or weight.
  • Having a poor body image.
  • Taking part in sports or activities that encourage thinness. Modeling and dance are examples.
  • Having a history of physical or sexual abuse.

Having risk factors for it doesn't mean a person will get an eating disorder. But knowing some of the things that can add to the risk may help to see a problem early when it is easier to treat.

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Symptoms

From time to time, most of us feel like we have eaten more than we should. But eating too much every now and then doesn't mean that you have binge eating disorder. If you have binge eating disorder, you may:

  • Eat way too much in a short period of time (less than 2 hours) on a regular basis.
  • Eat when you're not hungry.
  • Feel like you can't stop eating.
  • Eat faster than normal when you binge eat.
  • Eat so much that you feel painfully full.
  • Feel unhappy, upset, guilty, or depressed after you binge eat.
  • Eat alone because you're embarrassed about how much you eat.

Even if you don't have all these symptoms, having a few can be a sign of a problem that needs treatment. It's important to get help if you or someone you know has any of these symptoms.

What Happens

When you have binge eating disorder, you eat large amounts of food in a short time. You may feel out of control and eat so much that it hurts.

Frequent binge eating can cause you to gain a large amount of weight. This can happen even if you try to restrict your food intake between binges. People with binge eating disorder may try to follow strict diets. But dieting does not stop binge eating in the long term and might actually make the problem worse.

You might feel so discouraged at times that you stop trying to control your eating disorder. One binge might merge into the next, with no period of normal eating in between.

In most cases, you will need treatment to get better. If you have binge eating disorder, treatment can prevent health problems, help you feel better about yourself, and improve the quality of your life.

Treatment Overview

Treatment for binge eating disorder includes counseling and medicine. You may need treatment for a long time to fully recover.

The goals of treatment are to help you:

  • Reduce your number of eating binges.
  • Develop healthy eating and exercise habits.
  • Deal with shame or guilt about your eating disorder.
  • Develop a healthy view of yourself and your body.

You also may need treatment for other problems that often occur with binge eating disorder. These can include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, obesity, or problems caused by being overweight.

It will take some time and patience to quit binge eating and lose excess weight. Some people find that they still have trouble losing excess weight, even after they stop binge eating. Talk to your doctor about what results are realistic to expect from treatment.

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Self-Care

Here are some things you can do to take care of yourself during recovery from an eating disorder.

Stick to your treatment plan.
Go to any counseling sessions you have. If you can't go, or don't think the sessions are helping, talk to your counselor about it. And take any medicines you've been prescribed exactly as directed.
Work on healthy eating habits.
Listen to what counselors and nutrition experts say about healthy eating. Learn about what makes a healthy and balanced diet, and then make a plan for your own healthy eating.
Learn healthy ways to deal with stress.
Managing stress is important in recovery. Find what works for you. You could try things like journaling, volunteering, reading, or meditating.
Take it easy on yourself.
Focus on your good qualities. Don't blame yourself for your disorder. And remember that recovery takes time, and that you can make progress one goal at a time.

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Giving Support

If you think your child has an eating disorder:

  • Talk to them. Tell your child why you're worried. Let them know you care.
  • Make an appointment for you and your child to meet with a doctor or a counselor.

If you're worried about someone you know:

  • Tell someone who can make a difference, like a parent, a teacher, a counselor, or a doctor. A person with an eating disorder may say that they are okay and don't need help. You can help by encouraging them to talk to someone they trust.

Supporting someone who has binge eating disorder

When someone you care about has an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating and is in treatment, it is important that you show support. Try the following ideas.

  • Show personal support.
    • Show and state how much you care.
    • Avoid the temptation to control the person.
    • Trust that they have developed their own high values, ideals, and standards.
    • Encourage self-responsibility for their actions, both successes and setbacks.
    • Offer support during times of discouragement.
  • Do not urge them to eat or not eat, unless this is part of the plan for treatment.
  • Avoid comparisons with other people.
  • Listen to feelings.
  • Do not be controlled by their behavior.
  • Remember the big picture.

    Eating disorders happen for many different reasons. Many people who have an eating disorder come from families in which other members have eating disorders or have other conditions such as depression. This doesn't mean that a family member caused the disorder. It simply means that these conditions seem more likely to happen in that family.

  • Avoid guilt and self-blame.
    • Show support. Say things such as, "I can see how hard this is for you. You're doing a good job."
    • Don't focus attention only on the person who is in treatment. Spend time with other members of your family and your friends.
    • Remind yourself that this is a long-lasting disorder. It will take time for changes to happen.
    • Do not look for the reason for the disorder. Work toward changing things for the better.

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Credits

Current as of: February 9, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
W. Stewart Agras MD, FRCPC - Psychiatry