What can cause binge eating disorder?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated January 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health condition that tends to be characterized by the recurring consumption of a large amount of food in a short period of time. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, it is often accompanied by feeling out of control during the binge eating episode and then guilty or ashamed afterward. Sometimes, people experiencing binge eating disorder use food to cope with anxiety, stress, or depression. To understand binge eating disorder, it may help to first explore what eating disorders are. Unlike bulimia nervosa, a related eating disorder, people with binge eating disorder do not typically engage in compensatory behaviors of purging of food after episodes.

What may cause a binge eating disorder is not always clear or straightforward, however, regardless of the causes of binge eating with treatment options through psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medical help, many people can successfully recover from the disorder.

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Feel out of control and guilty when you overeat?

Binge eating disorder definition

According to the American Psychiatric Association, binge eating disorder is defined by the recurrent consumption of a large amount of food in a short period of time. One of the key differences between overeating and binge eating is that binge eating is typically accompanied by being secretive or hiding binge eating episodes, feeling out of control during episodes, and feeling guilty or disgusted with oneself after emotional eating episodes. For some people, binge eating may present as frequent episodes where they feel like they cannot stop eating, although many are unsure what might cause binge eating.

Symptoms

The following are some symptoms of binge eating disorder:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a small window of time, such as over a two-hour period
  • Skipping meals between compulsive urges
  • Feeling as though your binging behavior is out of control
  • Eating when stressed or upset (even if you are full or not hungry)
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone or in secret
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty, or upset about your eating
  • Binging without an attempt to purge afterwards to lose weight (e.g., through vomiting, laxative use, or exercising excessively)
  • Weight gain and other related health issues
  • Low self-esteem or negative body image

Signs

Oftentimes, people with disordered eating habits may go out of their way to hide their binge eating behavior out of fear, guilt, or shame. If you believe that someone you care for might be experiencing binge eating disorder, you can look out for some of the following signs:

  • Large amounts of missing food
  • Empty food wrappers
  • Hoarding of food
  • Rapid weight gain or weight loss
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • A tendency to not eat much in public 
  • Fixation on food or body shape
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Common misconceptions about binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious mental illness that can be life-threatening. However, eating disorders are sometimes stigmatized. Some people may falsely assume that binge eating disorder is connected to a lack of self-control or personal weakness. The experience of stigmatization can make those diagnosed with eating disorders experience lower self-esteem and become reluctant to openly acknowledge a disorder, get a binge eating disorder diagnosed, or treat binge eating.

Below are a few more misconceptions about binge eating disorder:

  • “Binge eating disorder isn’t real”: Some people may not realize that binge eating disorder is a psychiatric disorder that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

  • “Binge eating disorder is not serious”: There are real consequences of binge eating disorder. It is often associated with difficulties in social adjustment, lower life satisfaction and quality of life, the development of other psychiatric disorders and mental health conditions (including anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use disorder), and worsening physical health (including the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and obesity).

  • “Only certain people can have this eating disorder”: Anyone of any age, race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or body size can have poor body self-image or binge eating disorder (BED). Individuals may be of low or average weight and still require support diagnosing and treating BED.

  • “People just need self-control”: Binge eating is often not just about food. It is a mental illness, and someone with the disorder often can’t simply exercise willpower over it. Oftentimes, food is used as a maladaptive coping mechanism for emotional stress, and the cycle of binging and guilt can be challenging to break without a treatment plan or therapeutic support.

  • “People can overcome binge eating disorder with a restrictive diet”: Many people struggling with this common eating disorder experience a challenging relationship with food and healthy weight. Restricting calories may deprive people of essential nutrients, making binge eating episodes more severe, and it may not address negative underlying thought patterns and behaviors around food. Instead, successful treatment may include improving their relationship with food, avoiding triggers, and restructuring harmful thought processes.

Binge eating disorder is a real and serious mental illness that is often more than just a lack of will power or self-control such as overeating at Thanksgiving. Negative thought patterns, self-blame, self-loathing, and guilt can make it difficult to reach out for help. It can be important to remind yourself that binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, and you are not alone. Reaching out to a physician or mental health professional can be the first step toward regaining a healthy relationship with yourself and food.

Potential causes of binge eating disorder

Like many mental illnesses, binge eating disorder does not necessarily have one specific cause. Risk factors may include the following:

  • Having a family history of eating disorders, depression, or substance use
  • Engaging in dieting or experiencing starvation
  • Having a history of being bullied (particularly regarding body shape or size)
  • Experiencing chronic stress
  • Having other psychiatric disorders (According to Cleveland Clinic, around half of people diagnosed with binge eating disorder also have major depressive disorder.)
  • Experiencing low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Engaging in activities or work that is focused on low bodyweight, such as modeling, ballet, or track running
  • Having a history of sexual abuse or other traumatic experiences

The cause of a binge eating disorder can be nuanced and complex, but it often develops as a coping mechanism for depression, stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, or guilt.

Recovery from eating disorders

Episodes of binge eating can reinforce the disorder, making it difficult to address without professional help. If you believe you might have an eating disorder, consider reaching out to a doctor, therapist, or a helpline.

A medical practitioner or mental health professional can evaluate you, diagnose binge eating disorder, and guide you through the next steps if you need treatment. In addition to binge eating disorder, they may discover that you have a concurrent mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, or substance use disorder. After providing a diagnosis, they will likely take the next steps to ensure you have the support you need to work toward recovery:

  • You may be provided with (or you can ask for) self-help workbooks, educational materials, local resources (including free or low-cost support groups), and internet-based resources (such as helplines, chat lines, or other remote services).

  • A psychiatrist or other medical practitioner can evaluate whether medications, such as antidepressants, may be helpful.

  • A team of professionals can be formed based on your needs and may include registered dietitians, psychotherapists, social workers, physicians, and psychiatrists to help you eat more regular meals and stop eating past feeling full.

Talk to a counselor

Therapeutic interventions have been shown to be effective at reducing symptoms of binge eating disorder and helping people work toward recovery. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for binge eating disorder often focuses on reframing maladaptive eating patterns and thoughts about eating, weight, and self-worth. According to a 2012 study, there is evidence that CBT is effective for addressing binge eating disorder. Other forms of talk therapy, including interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), have also been shown to be effective.

If you experience difficulty discussing eating disorders, you may prefer online counseling, which research has demonstrated to be as effective as in-office counseling. One comprehensive review examined the benefits of internet-based interventions for more than 600 participants with eating disorders. The researchers found thatonline interventions significantly reduced harmful behaviors

Sites like BetterHelp offer online cognitive behavioral therapy for binge eating disorder. With BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist through audio or video chat at a time that works for you. You can also contact them at any time via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may be especially helpful if you experience challenging thoughts or feelings in between sessions.

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who have experienced similar challenges.

Counselor reviews

“Dr. Baggs has helped keep me grounded and greatly assisted with my eating disorder and anxiety. She is a someone that definitely listens to what you specifically desire for help and does not force anything upon you. Great counselor.”

“I’ve gone through many counselors in my life, but none of them have been able to make a connection with me and get me on the right path. Although we are in different countries and time zones Grace always replies in a timely manner and always available for an appointment. Grace has always made me feel extremely comfortable when it comes to talking about anything, that I can be open, and has always made me feel understood. Grace has helped me overcome an eating disorder, helped me while I was in a really terrible workplace, help with having difficult conversations with people and has given me so many useful tools that help to calm my anxiety. Grace has been a huge help with my personal development and definitely since signing up to BetterHelp, I have noticed huge positive improvements in my life.”

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Feel out of control and guilty when you overeat?

Takeaway

Binge eating disorder is a common mental health condition that can cause both physical and psychological harm. Binge anticipation and the act of binging can reinforce binge eating disorder, making it challenging to recover without professional help.

If you believe that you, a friend, or a person that you are dating, might have a binge eating disorder, you don’t have to face it alone. Online cognitive behavioral therapy is shown to be an effective way of addressing eating disorders, and many people who experience binge eating can achieve recovery. Take the first step toward healing from binge eating disorder and contact BetterHelp today.

Healing from eating disorders is possible

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