When Is Binge Eating a Disorder?

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

A woman taking a bite of dessert.

Binge eating disorder isn't the same as occasional overeating. Plenty of people eat too much once in a while. Who hasn't had a stomachache after a huge Thanksgiving dinner? People with this eating disorder, though, feel compelled to do so on a regular basis -- at least once a week over a period of 3 months or longer.

Feeling Distressed

The remains of a half-eaten cherry pie.

People who have binge eating disorder feel they can't control how much or even what they're eating. They often eat alone, until they feel sick, or when they're not hungry. Guilt, shame, disgust, or sadness come after the binge. People may feel so embarrassed about their behavior that they go out of their way to hide it from friends and family.

It's Different From Bulimia

An woman binge eating a bowl of nacho cheese corn chips.

Bulimia and binge eating disorder aren't the same, although they share some symptoms. People with bulimia also regularly overeat, and they may feel the same negative emotions, such as a loss of control, shame, or guilt. The key difference is that people with bulimia "purge" afterward. They might make themselves vomit, use laxatives or diuretics, or exercise too much. Purging is not part of binge eating disorder.

Who Is at Risk?

An infographic of binge eating disorder risk.

Anyone can develop binge eating disorder, regardless of race, sex, age, or weight. It's believed to be the most common eating disorder in the U.S. Although women are slightly more likely to have it, men can also get it. More than 6 million Americans -- 2% of men and 3.5% of women -- will have this condition at some point in their lives. Men are more likely to have it in middle age. Among teens, 1.6% have binge eating disorder.

How It Affects Weight

A man measuring his waist.

Many people who develop binge eating disorder also struggle with their weight. Among people with the disorder, about two-thirds are obese, and one study found that as many as 30% of people who seek weight-loss treatment may also have it. People who are overweight or obese are also at risk for related health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

It's About Mental Health

A woman hiding her face with her sweater.

Many people with binge eating disorder also have other emotional or mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse. They may also feel stressed, have trouble sleeping, and struggle with low self-esteem or body image shame.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

A neon

Experts aren't sure exactly what causes eating disorders. A mix of factors, including a person's genes, psychology, and background, may be involved. Dieting can lead to binge eating disorder, but we don't know whether that alone can trigger it. Some people may be extra sensitive to food cues, such as smells or images of food. The disorder can also result from stressful or traumatic life events, such as the death of a loved one or being teased about weight.

Recovery Is Possible

A patient at a counseling session.

If you think you might have binge eating disorder, know that it can be successfully treated. The first step is getting a diagnosis. To do that, a doctor or other health professional will give you a physical exam and ask questions about your eating habits, emotional health, body image, and feelings toward food.

Treatment: Help With Thoughts, Feelings, and Food

A food diary with a nectarine, orange, and spinach.

Talking with a psychiatrist or other counselor is key in working on emotional issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to change the negative thought patterns that can spark binge eating. Interpersonal therapy (IPT) addresses relationship problems that may be involved. It also helps to work with a nutritionist to learn healthy eating habits and keep a food diary as you're recovering.

What About Medication?

A person with pills in their hand.

Certain medications, such as antidepressants and specific anti-seizure drugs that can help control food cravings and urges to binge, may be useful for people with binge eating disorder -- particularly when they also work with a counselor. No medications are approved to treat the condition, but some doctors prescribe these drugs “off label,” meaning for a purpose other than that for which the FDA approved them.

Losing Weight With Binge Eating Disorder

Photo of a medical scale.

Binge eating can lead to weight gain and make it tough to shed extra pounds and keep them off for good. As part of their treatment, people with binge eating disorder may need help with that. Traditional weight loss programs may help, but some people struggle with strict diets. Ask your doctor whether you could benefit from a specialized weight-loss program for people with eating disorders.

Prevention

A woman eating a bowl of ice cream.

If you're at risk for binge eating disorder, you can take action to avoid getting it. Watch for feelings such as, guilt, shame, or being impulsive around food, or having low self-esteem. If you have these kinds of issues, or if eating disorders run in your family, talk to a doctor or a therapist.

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REFERENCES:

  • American Psychiatric Asssociation: "DSM-5."
  • Weight-Control Information Network: "Binge Eating Disorder."
  • Russell Marx, MD, chief science officer, National Eating Disorders Association; associate medical director, Eating Recovery Center, Denver.
  • National Institute of Mental Health: "Eating Disorders Among Adults - Binge Eating Disorder."
  • de Zwaan, M., International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, May 2001.
  • Office of Women's Health: "Binge Eating Disorder Fact Sheet."
  • Duarte, C., Eating Behaviors, September 16 2014.
  • Schag, K., PLOSOne, Oct. 16 2013.
  • American Psychological Association: "Eating Disorders."
  • University of Michigan Health System: "Binge Eating Disorder."
  • American Psychological Association: "Binge-eating disorder: What's the best treatment?" and "What are the major kinds of eating disorders?"
  • Rebecca Berman LCSW-C, clinical supervisor, Renfrew Center of Maryland.
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