Binge Eating

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Binge eating is an eating disorder where a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis. Like people with bulimia, those with binge eating disorder experience frequent episodes of out-of-control eating. The difference is that binge eaters don't purge their food or exercise compulsively to rid themselves of the calories consumed. Bingeing usually takes place in private, as people with this disorder often struggle with feelings of guilt, disgust, and depression. These feelings highlight underlying psychological issues, such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. If you or someone you know is suffering from binge eating disorder, understanding more about it can help you cope.

This section contains information about what binge eating disorder is, its symptoms, and how it can be diagnosed. Because binge eating is related to self-image and is not just about food, recovery from binge eating disorder is possible only if the person suffering from it can understand the psychological issues causing their condition, and adopt healthy eating patterns. See Treatment for more information.

For those who suspect a friend or family member has binge eating disorder, it can be tough to know what to do. The Tips for Helping someone with binge eating disorder page can give you some guidance to help you support your loved one.

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Many people will occasionally overeat, and a lot of people feel they frequently eat more than they should. This does not necessarily mean that a person has binge eating disorder. However, those with binge eating disorder will likely have numerous behavioural and emotional signs and symptoms, such as:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food, even when not physically hungry
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone due to embarrassment at the quantity of food being eaten
  • Feeling that their eating behaviour is out of control
  • Feelings of disgust, depression, or guilt after overeating
  • Feeling isolated and having difficulty talking about their feelings
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss
  • Losing and gaining weight repeatedly, also called yo-yo dieting

Episodes of binge eating also occur in the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. But unlike binge eating disorder, People with bulimia regularly purge, fast, or engage in strenuous exercise after an episode of binge eating.

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Binge eating is an eating disorder where a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis. Like people with bulimia, those with binge eating disorder experience frequent episodes of out-of-control eating. The difference is that binge eaters don't purge their food or exercise compulsively to rid themselves of the calories consumed. Because of this, binge eaters are often overweight or obese.

Episodes of binge eating generally alternate with periods where the person severely cuts down on the amount of food they eat, which can make the problem worse. Binge eating usually takes place in private, as people with binge eating disorder often struggle with feelings of guilt, disgust, and depression. These feelings highlight underlying psychological issues, such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

Research has shown that people with binge eating disorder report more mental health problems, such as stress, trouble sleeping, and suicidal thoughts than people without an eating disorder.  Because those with binge eating disorder also have a greater risk of becoming overweight or obese, this raises the chance of other health complications such as type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Recovery from binge eating disorder is possible if the person suffering from it can understand the psychological issues causing their condition, adopt healthy eating patterns, and receive realistic advice about food.

What causes binge eating disorder?

The causes of binge eating disorder are not known. However family history, biological factors, long-term dieting and psychological issues increase your risk. Studies also suggest that people with binge eating disorder may have trouble handling some of their emotions. Many people who are binge eaters say that being angry, sad, bored, worried, or stressed can trigger bingeing behaviours.

Who is affected by binge eating?

Anyone can be affected by binge eating. Unlike anorexia and bulimia, which significantly affect more women than men, binge eating affects men and women almost equally. Estimates by the National Eating Disorders Association indicate that about 60% of people struggling with binge eating disorder are female, while 40% are male. The condition also tends to be more common in older adults than in young people. 

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In diagnosing binge eating disorder, your doctor will ask you about your eating habits and look for three or more of the following signs:

  • You eat much faster than normal during a binge
  • You eat until you feel uncomfortably full
  • You eat an abnormally large amount of food when you are not hungry, and feel a lack of control over eating
  • You eat alone or in secret, due to being embarrassed about the amount of food you are consuming
  • You have feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating

If you regularly eat in this way and experience distress over your binge episodes, visit your doctor. He or she will be able to diagnose the condition and refer you to a specialist, such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist. In some cases, you may also be referred to a dietitian. Binge eating disorder is a treatable condition and these professionals are qualified to help you correct any thoughts, feelings and behaviours that trigger a binge, as well as teach you healthier eating habits.

Your doctor may also want you to have tests, such as a physical exam or laboratory tests, to check for any health consequences of binge eating disorder.

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Binge eating disorder is a treatable condition. The goals for treatment are to reduce eating binges, to improve the patient’s emotional wellbeing and, when necessary, to help them to attain and maintain a healthy weight. Because binge eating is strongly linked with negative emotions such as shame, poor self-image and self-disgust, treatment will also needs to address these and other psychological issues.

The four main types of treatment for binge-eating disorder are:

  • Self-help strategies: Self-help strategies are often used as a first step towards recovery. There are many types of self-help, which can include following self-help books, videos, internet programs, or participating in support groups. If you are referred to a mental health professional for help, they might encourage you to work through a self-help book under their supervision. This is called guided self-help. However, you still may need professional treatment with psychotherapy or medications.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can help teach you how to better deal with your emotional problems and exchange unhealthy eating habits for healthy ones. Certain types of psychotherapy are commonly used to treat binge eating disorder including:
    • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT may help you cope better with issues that can trigger binge eating episodes, such as negative feelings about your body or a depressed mood. It may also give you a better sense of control over your behaviour and eating patterns.
    • Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT): Interpersonal psychotherapy focuses more on your relationships with other people more than your problems with food. You are more likely to be referred for this type of psychological treatment if you have recently lost a loved one or have experienced a big change in your life, such as moving overseas. The aim of IPT is to help you rebuild supportive relationships that can meet your emotional needs better than eating.
    • Dialectical behaviour therapy: This form of therapy is used effectively to treat mental health disorders associated with impulsiveness. It can help you learn behavioural skills to allow you to better tolerate stress, regulate your emotions and improve your relationships with others, all of which can reduce the desire to binge eat.
  • Medications: There's no medication specifically designed to treat binge-eating disorder but antidepressants may help to reduce symptoms, especially when combined with psychotherapy.
  • Behavioural weight-loss programs: Many people with binge-eating disorder have a long history of failed attempts to lose weight on their own. Only if appropriate, and often after underlying psychological issues to do with binge eating are dealt with, weight-loss programs are drawn up and carried out under medical supervision to ensure that your nutritional requirements are met. Weight-loss programs that address binge triggers can be especially helpful when you're also getting cognitive behavioural therapy.
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It can be tough to know what to do if you suspect a friend or family member has binge eating disorder. The best thing you can do is to talk to the person about your concerns, as eating disorders can have serious physical and emotional consequences and should never be ignored. While your loved one may get defensive and deny bingeing, there’s a chance that he or she will welcome the opportunity to open up about the struggle. Here are some suggestions for supporting your loved one:

  • Speak out about your concerns: Be honest and tell your loved one about your worries about his or her eating habits. Keep in mind that the person may get defensive or angry. But if he or she does open up, let them express their feelings, listen without judgment and make sure the person knows you care.
  • Ask your loved one what you can do to help: For example, offer to keep certain trigger foods out of the house.
  • Suggest they talk to a professional: It can help your loved one to talk to a professional who knows about eating issues. Offer to help them find a counsellor or doctor and make an appointment, and offer to go with him or her to the appointment.
  • Avoid conflicts: If your friend or family member won't admit that he or she has a problem, don't push. Binge eating disorder is often caused and exacerbated by stress, low self-esteem and shame – negativity will only make it worse. Instead, Helpguide suggests assuring them that you’re always there to listen if they want to talk.
  • Set a good example: Set a good example for healthy eating, exercising, and body image by not making negative comments about your own body or anyone else’s.
  • Schedule regular family mealtimes: Eating at routine times is important to help reduce binge eating.
  • Accept your limits: As a parent or friend, it’s not in your hands to fix your loved one’s eating disorder. The person must make the decision to seek treatment themselves.
  • Take care of yourself: Eating disorders are stressful and affect the whole family, so you need to take care of yourself too. Know when to seek advice for yourself from a counsellor or health professional, as it helps to have your own support system in place.
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