Binge Eating Disorder: Concerning Symptoms And Characteristics

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to research, over 28.8 million Americans may experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. One eating disorder out of many is binge eating disorder, a psychological diagnosis similar to bulimia. Binge eating disorder affects people of all genders and backgrounds and involves specific binge eating disorder symptoms, characteristics, and associated risk factors that can signal the need for professional support. Understanding this condition can help you understand whether it is occurring for you or someone you love.

This article explores binge eating disorder, binge eating symptoms, and eating disorders that binge eating may occur alongside (e.g., bulimia nervosa). We’ve also highlighted information that may help individuals find the support they need if they are experiencing symptoms of binge eating and other eating disorders. 

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Overcoming disordered eating can be challenging

About binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder, one of the most common eating disorders, is characterized by consuming a large amount of food in a short period. This may or may not occur alongside the purging behaviors seen in bulimia nervosa.

What are the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is a mental health condition that was officialized in May of 2013 with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). In the DSM-5, the criteria for binge eating disorder include the following: 

  • Recurrent and persistent episodes of binge eating, or binge episodes, involving three or more of the following behaviors:

    • Eating much more rapidly than normal

    • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full

    • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry

    • Eating alone due to embarrassment about the quantity of food eaten 

    • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or guilty after eating

  • Marked distress regarding binge eating

  • Absence of frequent compensatory behaviors

Before 2013, individuals with these symptoms may have received a diagnosis of an eating disorder not otherwise specified (ED-NOS). However, research showed that binge eating disorder was a significant condition and eating behavior that warranted its specific diagnostic label. With the introduction of the diagnostic label, more individuals could receive therapy and treatment options for their condition. 

Although psychologists and doctors assign the official diagnosis of binge eating disorder based on its specific criteria, having one of these symptoms can still be concerning. Many people experience some symptoms of binge eating disorder without meeting the full criteria for the diagnosis. If you read through this list and some symptoms match you or a loved one, consider seeking support. You do not have to have a diagnosis to reach out to a therapist, and over 41.7 million US adults currently see a professional for various concerns. 

What are the typical signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder?

The primary feature of binge eating disorder is eating large amounts of food in a short period, even when not feeling hungry. Unlike other eating disorders, binge eating disorder includes symptoms such as recurrent episodes of eating a large amount of food without purging behaviors. Like other eating disorders, these symptoms can lead to significant physical and emotional distress.

Those experiencing symptoms of this condition may feel out of control of their behavior or use binge eating as a coping mechanism to cope with painful emotions. They may feel compelled to eat while full, order meals to satisfy a craving or spend significant amounts of money on food. 

Binge eating disorder is broadly classified as an eating disorder, alongside anorexia and bulimia. All three include disordered eating behaviors, and they may include body image issues and body dysmorphia, a sense of hatred or discomfort toward one’s body. However, each eating disorder has different criteria. For example, anorexia involves restriction to eating and sometimes exercising excessively, whereas binge eating disorder involves eating past one’s limit. Although bulimia can also involve binging behaviors, it is classified by purging behaviors, involving the self-induction of vomiting or bowel movements to quickly rid the body of food. 

If you are unsure whether you are experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) offers a quick eating disorder screening tool. However, note that online screening quizzes are meant for educational purposes and are not a replacement for a diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional or doctor. 

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What causes Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder can manifest via a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Studies have found that there may be genes associated with binge eating patterns. Often, however, eating disorders occur due to environmental factors, such as traumatic events, family history, societal pressure, and other concerns. One study found that social media use is often associated with eating disorder onset.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

With binge eating disorder, the desire to binge eat may come from a desire to cope with stressful emotions. While eating, an individual may feel a sense of calm, happiness, or peace, making it difficult to control eating. They might order food online to reduce stress or eat when they watch a TV show or movie. People might also plan for a binge. However, the positive effects of eating may only be felt in the moment, and long-term shame, guilt, or fear may occur after they stop eating. For some, binge eating disorder causes financial strain. 

What characteristics are associated with Binge Eating Disorder?

Studies have found that binge eating disorder is most common in late teens or early adulthood. It has been reported in younger children and older adults, but less frequently. Although eating disorders are often associated with women, men can struggle with these symptoms as well. 

Anyone of any gender identity, age, body shape, or background can be affected by binge eating disorder. Approximately 3.5% of women in the US have this disorder, compared to 2% of men. During adolescence, binge eating disorder tends to affect more women than men. More men struggle with these behaviors starting in midlife. No matter what age you are when these symptoms start, seeking support can be essential. 

Studies have found that 50% to 75% of those experiencing eating disorders also experience depression. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can be significantly connected to developing and continuing an eating disorder. For example, someone experiencing depression may binge eat to cope with the symptoms. Their symptoms may worsen as a result, as they might experience shame or the physical impact of eating more than the body can handle. 

What are the risks of binge eating disorder?

Binge eating is not necessarily physically dangerous in every case. However, it can have mental health consequences and is often considered risky. Note that anyone of any weight, even those at a normal weight, can live with this condition, and weight is not a deciding factor in the diagnostic criteria of any eating disorder. 

To reduce stigmas about weight, eating, and health, it can be essential to challenge the myths that a higher weight is necessary for a binge eating diagnosis and that a lower rate is necessary for an anorexia diagnosis. These myths are untrue; individuals with higher weights can have anorexia, whereas those struggling with weight gain may live with binge eating disorder.

There are a few risks associated with binge eating, including the following: 

  • Heart disease caused by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high triglyceride levels 

  • Type two diabetes, which can occur at any weight 

  • Depression or anxiety 

  • Shame or guilt 

  • Difficulty breathing 

  • Gastrointestinal challenges 

What are the warning signs of binge eating disorder?

If you are concerned that you or someone you love is experiencing binge eating disorder, there are a few warning signs to consider. Those living with binge eating disorder may try to hide their behaviors. Hiding eating, eating alone, or ordering significant amounts of food online can be warning signs and a usual occurrence for those living with a binge eating disorder. Evidence someone is hiding their eating may occur in the form of empty food containers and trash. In addition, someone hiding their habits may act defensively when asked about them. 

If someone engages in unusual eating behaviors, it does not necessarily mean they have binge eating disorder. But when eating beyond your limit becomes a usual occurrence it crosses into binge eating disorder territory. If you are concerned about someone in your life, try to talk to them and discuss the behaviors you have noticed. Approaching the person at a time when the two of you can have a calm, quiet, and non-judgmental conversation away from other people may create a safe space for them to talk to you. 

If you believe you are experiencing binge eating disorder, reaching out for support can be brave. Tell someone you trust, call or text the eating disorder hotline at the beginning of this article, or reach out to a licensed therapist for guidance. 

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Overcoming disordered eating can be challenging

Counseling options 

If you feel you are struggling with binge eating, feel shame for your eating habits, or eat to soothe your emotions, you may be experiencing signs of an eating disorder. In these cases, asking for support from a licensed therapist can be beneficial for successful treatment. A therapist can aid in more than eating disorders. They can also target the causes of your eating habits, beliefs, or emotions and support you with other mental health challenges like anxiety or depression. 

A therapist can help you learn new ways to cope with these challenges, interact with food, and ensure your mental health. People with binge eating disorder may also benefit from working with a dietician or nutritionist to develop healthier eating patterns or develop a weight loss plan. Ask your therapist if they think a nutritionist would positively influence you. 

You can also consider online therapy if you struggle to find a therapist due to barriers like shame, guilt, cost, or lack of providers in your area. People with binge eating disorder may find online therapy more comfortable than in-person settings. Often, the stigma of engaging in disordered eating behaviors may discourage people from seeking support. Through an online platform like BetterHelp, clients can receive discreet support under a nickname and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with a licensed eating disorder therapist. 

In addition, online therapeutic interventions have shown efficacy in treating binge eating disorders. In one study, a brief internet-based program was accepted and highly appraised by participants experiencing primary symptoms of binge eating disorder. Therapists used cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to work with participants, who showed significant decreases in weekly binge-eating episodes, symptoms of depression, and other psychosocial impairments after the study. 

Takeaway

Living with binge eating disorder can feel like one has little to no control over their decisions. However, binge eating disorder is a treatable condition, and qualified therapists are often trained to help their clients recognize their agency, form healthy coping mechanisms, and make intentional choices regarding eating. Contact a therapist for further guidance if you want to receive support or learn more about this mental health condition and other eating disorders.
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