Binge Eating Disorder

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Eating disorders can be defined as serious mental health conditions that can affect your overall health and well-being in various ways. People living with eating disorders might have an unhealthy relationship with food and eating or an unrealistic and damaging view of themselves. Many who find themselves surviving an eating disorder—such as binge eating disorder—might benefit from treatments such as online therapy, or other supportive strategies as they work to begin their healing journey. 

Read on to learn more about binge eating disorders and the most common binge eating disorder treatment options that many benefit from.

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Eating disorders should not be taken lightly

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders can be defined by many as an irregular pattern of dietary or eating habits (such as a routine binge pattern or regular underconsumption) that may or may not be influenced by one’s mental state. While eating disorders (ED’s) can be fueled by negative body image or self-perception, the thoughts do not have to be present for someone’s experience to be designated a “true” eating disorder. The eating patterns do not have to match the media standard of eating behavior that is commonly associated with eating disorders, such as binging/purging (usually associated with bulimia nervosa) or complete starvation (often associated with anorexia nervosa). Eating disorder symptoms are not limited to starving oneself, and can also include exercising excessively and binge eating behavior. Even someone who is at a “normal” weight or overweight may have a binge eating disorder. Someone who isn’t hungry and eating in excess could gain weight and create a cycle of eating too much, leading to self-esteem issues, which then cause them to stop eating.

Additionally, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health have clarified that there’s a common misconception that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. In reality, eating disorders can be serious illnesses that can cause or worsen many medical problems—and eating disorders might be fatal if left unaddressed.

Understanding the types of eating disorders can be a helpful first step for many in seeking treatment. 

There are many different types of eating disorders. Below, we’ve summarized the most common eating disorders: 

If you are experiencing an eating disorder that doesn’t match the descriptions above, your experience is valid. Seeking therapy and other supportive strategies may help you to understand your eating disorder symptoms and experience a higher quality of life. 

What is binge eating disorder (BED)?

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, binge eating disorder (BED) is an illness involving the intake of a lot of food in a short time. A person living with binge eating disorder may feel out of control about how much food they consume on a day-to-day basis, or in specific situations such as at a buffet or party. This can affect their health, as binge eating disorder begins to take both a physical and emotional toll. People of any age or gender can develop binge eating disorder. However, some people, such as those in certain racial or ethnic groups, age ranges, or genders, may be more at risk of developing binge eating or another type of eating disorder.

“Binge eating disorder is a condition where people lose control over their eating and have reoccurring episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food. Binge-eating disorder is quantitatively considered to be the most common eating disorder in the U.S”. — National Institute of Mental Health

Binge eating disorder signs and symptoms

Anyone, regardless of age, sex, race, gender or sexual orientation, can experience binge eating disorder (or eating disorders overall). While many people with binge eating disorder might believe that they are overweight or obese, some may not be. Weight gain and an unhealthy body weight can be associated with binge eating disorder in some cases.

Common symptoms of binge eating disorder for many can include: 

  • Binge eating a considerable amount of food in a set time period—such as one or two hours 
  • Hiding your food intake or eating in secret to avoid embarrassment
  • Continuing to eat, even when you’re not hungry or already full
  • Frequently trying new diets, even without experiencing weight loss
  • Eating until your stomach is uncomfortably full
  • Feeling ashamed, guilty, or distressed about your eating habits

In general, those with binge eating disorder binge eat food in a way that seems out of control. Sometimes, the eating habits that accompany binge eating disorder may contribute to concerns like excess weight, low self-esteem, and high blood pressure as well. It can be important to address both mental and physical health concerns, as binge eating disorder can lead to heart disease and additional health problems.

Only a licensed mental health professional can diagnose binge eating disorder or other eating disorders. If you believe you may be living with binge eating disorder, consider scheduling an appointment with a professional to have binge eating disorder diagnosed and treated. In some cases, you may be living with co-occurring mental health disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or substance use disorder, along with binge eating or another eating disorder. Working with a professional can empower you to get the binge eating disorder treatment you deserve for any challenges you may be facing.

What causes binge eating disorder?

While there isn’t generally a singular reason that’s attributed to the cause of binge eating disorder, medical and mental health experts have assembled a list of potential causes that may trigger binge eating. According to biological psychiatry, mental health conditions such as eating disorders may have a biological basis. Biological factors, such as physical differences in your brain, gender, genetics and body type or shape; environmental factors like personal experiences, learned eating habits or emotional trauma, and mental factors like body image or a desire for weight loss could all influence whether a person develops binge eating disorder or other eating disorders. 

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Binge eating behaviors may often take place in response to emotional stress, chronic pain, and symptoms of mental health problems or disorders. Episodes of binge eating may occur after specific events, or these binge eating episodes may be more consistent or random.

Possible severe binge eating disorder risk factors that have been identified by Cleveland Clinic can include:

  • Childhood obesity
  • Family history of eating disorders 
  • Irregular eating habits 
  • Loss of control while eating during childhood
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Parental psychopathology
  • Mu-opioid and dopamine receptor gene involvement
  • Changes to intestinal microbiology
  • Problems with conduct
  • Alcohol or substance use
  • Family concerns about weight and eating habits
  • Conflicts with family or issues with parenting
  • Distorted body image
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Exploring binge eating disorder treatments

As with many mental health conditions, some of the most effective treatments for treating binge eating disorder often involve psychotherapy, also called talk therapy. We’ve summarized other supportive strategies for binge eating disorder below: 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

One potential binge eating disorder treatment may be CBT. Generally, cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) might focus on the connection between how you think and the way you feel—possibly forming connections by examining past experiences and their effects on your thoughts or behaviors. Many patients receiving cognitive behavioral therapy can work with their therapists to identify and replace harmful thinking and actions with healthier habits, especially during binge eating episodes.

Popular binge eating disorder treatment topics that may be involved with CBT treatment can include:

  • The process of adopting regular eating habits by planning meals and snacks ahead of time
  • Identifying binge eating triggers
  • Reshaping negative feelings about your body 
  • Maintaining new eating habits to avoid relapsing into binge eating

Interpersonal psychotherapy

Another way to treat binge eating disorder may be through interpersonal therapy. Patients receiving interpersonal psychotherapy might choose to focus on their relationships with other people with the goal of improving the interpersonal skills they use to relate to friends, family and coworkers. If you find that your binge eating disorder is triggered by problematic social connections or unhealthy communication, this type of therapy may help you to manage your binge eating disorder symptoms and reduce binge eating to gain control over your eating by addressing possible underlying issues.

Dialectical behavior therapy

DBT can also treat binge eating disorder in some cases. Some people with binge eating disorders, or other eating disorders, might benefit from dialectical behavior therapy, which can teach behavioral skills that can help you control your emotions effectively, improve your ability to form and maintain healthy relationships and increase your stress tolerance—all of which can help you to reduce the desire to binge eat.  

Behavioral weight loss therapy

While dieting and weight loss programs might not be recommended for patients with a binge eating disorder, behavioral weight loss therapy can offer professional support and guidance as you work to overcome your binge eating disorder. Many studies have shown that a combination of CBT and behavioral weight loss therapy can effectively help overcome binge eating disorder symptoms and develop healthy eating and exercise habits. 

Medications for eating disorders

Some people may benefit from eating disorder medication in addition to other forms of eating disorder treatment. You can talk to your doctor or mental healthcare provider if you think medication may be a helpful addition to your binge eating disorder treatment plan, and they may prescribe FDA-approved medication that may help with stopping binge eating symptoms.

Guided self-help as treatment

Therapists are generally regarded as specialists who can talk to you about your relationship with food and may help to diagnose a binge eating disorder while providing supportive treatment for eating disorders. While working with a licensed therapist can deliver more significant results, you may find success by using a self-help program or guided self-help strategies to get control of your eating habits and reduce the urge to binge eat. We’ve summarized a few binge eating treatment options for you to check out below.

  • Health At Every Size (HAES) is a movement that generally focuses on working toward healthy habits for your body—regardless of size—with an emphasis on movement, awareness of your food intake and flexible eating habits. This may help you shift from disordered eating habits to normal eating habits.
  • Binge eating disorder support groups can offer the support of mental health professionals and other people going through similar experiences. It can also be helpful to know that you're not alone and that others understand what you're going through without an explanation. Hearing about others’ binge eating behaviors can help you feel less alone.
  • Intuitive eating can be a helpful part of your comprehensive self-care plan, and it can help you make peace with food and develop a healthier relationship with what you eat. Using self-care to frame the shift in your eating habits can make reinforcing that the changes are for your health easier. 
Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Eating disorders should not be taken lightly

Nutrition counseling

Working with a licensed dietician can help you reshape how you look at food and can guide you toward developing a healthy relationship with what you eat and help you overcome a binge eating disorder. A registered dietician or nutritionist can help you learn how to eat healthily for your current weight management goals as well. It can serve as a form of weight loss treatment if you’re interested in losing weight, or as a way to develop overall healthier eating habits. Working with this type of professional may reduce binge eating episodes and help you incorporate certain foods that are more nutritious into your diet.

Supportive strategies: Additional ways to recover

  • Keep a journal to track your food-related moods so you can identify binge eating triggers
  • Practice active thought redirection to help to reshape your thought patterns around eating and food 
  • Avoid unsupervised and unsupported dieting
  • Follow your binge eating disorder treatment plan
  • Eat breakfast to help avoid binging later in the day, which can possibly be triggered by hunger 
  • Stay connected with your social network to avoid isolation
  • Find ways to make being active fun

How therapy can help manage symptoms

Organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association and the International Journal of Eating Disorders can provide more in-depth information on eating disorders, their causes, symptoms, and treatment options.
Ifyou are having trouble controlling your binge eating urges, you might consider working with a licensed therapist through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Parents or guardians can contact TeenCounseling for virtual counseling for kids from 13 to 19.
A qualified online therapist or counseling service can help you learn practical coping skills to manage your stress and control binge eating disorder symptoms, communication skills to express your feelings and needs to others and identify unhealthy thoughts and behaviors so you can work to change them. They can do this in a more convenient way for individuals than traditional in-person methods may allow for, which can positively impact treatment outcomes in some. It can be easier to virtually connect and establish a vulnerable patient-therapist relationship without the stress and unfamiliarity of a new location.

Recent studies show that online CBT can a viable treatment option for eating disorders and binge eating episodes, generally offering similar results to treatment in the traditional face-to-face setting. 

The linked study published in Eating and Weight Disorders—Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity found that positive treatment outcomes associated with online therapy were sustained in a long-term context, further suggesting that online therapy is a comparable method for treating binge eating disorders to traditional in-person treatment options. 

Takeaway

Binge eating disorder can lead you to consume unusually large amounts of food in a short time, often alongside a feeling of control loss.  The information provided in this article may offer insight into binge eating disorder and the various treatment options available to help minimize symptoms' effect on your life. Online therapy and other supportive strategies can help you to attain a higher overall quality of life. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

Healing from eating disorders is possible
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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