What Is Binge Eating?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated June 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Some eating patterns can be unhealthy due to the mental health challenges behind them. Binge eating can have compulsive roots, meaning it may be difficult for those who eat in binges to feel in control of their behavior. Understanding this pattern and whether it indicates binge eating disorder can be beneficial if you believe you or someone you love might be living with an eating disorder.

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What is binge eating? 

Binge eating is a behavioral pattern of eating large quantities of food past the point that you are full. It can mean eating many snacks when stressed or eating several extensive meals daily. It does not mean failing at a diet or giving in to cravings for sweets or salty snacks. 

Often, binge eating is prompted by an emotional challenge like stress or sadness. However, people can binge eat for any reason, and some people may binge eat on the holidays to try as many delicious foods as possible. When temporarily or occasionally, binge eating may not indicate an unhealthy pattern. 

What’s the difference between binge eating disorder and binge eating in general? 

Some people might binge eat or overeat periodically at a special event or a holiday like Thanksgiving, but binge eating disorder is different. If you binge at least once a week for three months, you might have binge eating disorder. This condition is a serious mental health condition that can cause emotional and physical distress.

Binge eating disorder is characterized by regular episodes of excessive eating in short periods, a loss of self-control, and feelings of guilt and shame. Compared to other eating disorders, binge eating disorder is relatively newly recognized, having been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5 in 2013. Binge eating disorder differs from bulimia as it does not involve the element of purging food by vomiting or taking laxatives.

Possible causes of binge eating disorder

Various factors and events can cause binge eating disorder. However, genetics, low self-esteem, and a history of dieting are thought to be the most common.

Genetics and family history

Binge eating disorder may occur due to inheriting specific genes that make you more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. However, the genetics behind eating disorders are still being studied. 

Low self-esteem and unrealistic body standards

Binge eating disorder can also result from efforts to reduce societal pressures. In the past, the fashion and entertainment industries played a significant part in setting unrealistic body standards. They still play a significant role, but social media significantly exacerbates this problem. Traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse, can also cause an eating disorder to develop. 

Past attempts to diet

Past attempts to diet or restrict food may cause some people to develop binge eating habits out of wanting to eat as much as possible to avoid going hungry. People may feel they have lost control over their behaviors but don’t know how to stop. 

Common symptoms of binge eating disorder

To be officially diagnosed with binge eating disorder, a person must show at least three of the following symptoms:

  • Eating more rapidly than normal
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment about how much one is eating
  • Thoughts of disgust toward oneself
  • Depression or guilt after eating 
  • Experiencing at least one binging episode a week for three months

People who overeat for special occasions like birthdays or Thanksgiving may experience these symptoms temporarily. However, this factor doesn’t mean they’re living with an eating disorder. For this reason, going through at least one binging episode a week over a prolonged period plays a crucial role in the diagnosis.

Mental health disorders that can accompany binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder can accompany other mental health conditions. Statistics show that 55% to 65% of people with binge eating disorder are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and about 33% with major depressive disorder. Some individuals with eating disorders also struggle with self-harm and substance use.

Other health concerns

Binge eating disorder can lead to other health problems like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.  They may also experience digestive issues, joint and muscle pain, and headaches. 

Treatments for binge eating disorder

If you or a loved one is struggling with a binge eating disorder, several treatment options are available. You can find a specialist through an online directory offered by the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) or by receiving a referral from your primary care physician.

Treatment may include psychotherapy to help you cope with the thoughts and feelings contributing to the disorder and any underlying mental health challenges. Common types of therapy used to treat binge eating disorders include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). Your doctor may also refer you to a nutritionist or prescribe medication to help with binge eating or treat other contributing factors.

How to ask for support 

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing the symptoms of a binge eating disorder. They may recommend therapy as part of your treatment plan. If you struggle to connect with an in-person therapist due to cost or other factors, you can also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp.  

Online therapy can have several benefits. If anxiety and depression contribute to your symptoms, you may not feel comfortable meeting with a therapist face-to-face. It can be challenging to motivate yourself when you are experiencing depression or anxiety, but being able to talk to someone from the comfort of your own home may remove some of the roadblocks and make it easier to begin treatment.

Research shows that online therapy effectively treats anxiety and depression, two conditions statistically likely to appear alongside binge eating disorder. Studies found “significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores” at 12 weeks post-treatment that were sustained for six months. 

Takeaway

Binge eating on its own may not be unhealthy, but repeated binge eating can indicate binge eating disorder, a serious eating disorder that can have significant consequences on mental and physical health. If you believe you might be living with this condition, consider contacting a licensed therapist for support. You’re not alone, and many support options are available.
Healing from eating disorders is possible
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