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What is Binge Eating Disorder?

A binge eating disorder is a serious condition in which someone frequently consumes an unusually large amount of food (called binging) and feels unable to stop. People with binge eating disorders are often battling a feeling of being out of control.

The food choices during a binge episode are usually unhealthy, and ones that have been forbidden for the person to eat. These eating patterns provide short-term relief from painful emotions but, eventually, the emotions return with more intensity, and the binge eating continues.

This disorder is a serious but treatable condition. Episodes of binge eating can significantly and negatively impact your health and well-being, making it especially important to identify the signs and symptoms of binge eating, and to get the help you need to get better.

Signs and Symptoms of a Binge Eating Disorder

People who binge eat often do so in secrecy, hiding their activities because they feel shame or guilt about what they are doing. If you suspect that you or a loved one has fallen into this unhealthy pattern of eating, you should look for some of these signs and symptoms:

  • Eating large amounts of food quickly.
  • Eating alone or eating in secret.
  • Hoarding or hiding food without reason.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame around eating.
  • Dieting continually but not losing weight.
  • Dramatic fluctuations in weight gain or loss.
  • Expressing feelings of perfectionism.
  • Expressing feelings of low self-esteem.

If you observe some of these signs or symptoms in yourself or a loved one, you should consider speaking to a health expert to find out more about what is going on, and if it needs to be addressed by a health professional.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating affects people of all races and genders, and is caused by a combination of social, psychological, and emotional factors. The desire to binge eat may start as early as childhood and this pattern of eating often runs in families.

It is unclear if dieting and binge eating are related, though strict dieting sometimes make the problem worse. Some research has shown that trying to restrict food intake or follow a very restrictive, low calorie diet may actually trigger the desire to binge eat. About half of all people with binge eating disorders will binge right before starting a diet.

If you are experiencing significant distress around eating, and have had at least one binge eating episode a week for three months or more, it is important for you to take the next step and seek treatment.

How is binge eating disorder treated?

The good news is that people can recover from a binge eating disorder. Therapists work closely with each individual to understand how their unique biological, psychological, and social factors have contributed to their condition. If you have an eating disorder you can expect that your mental health professional will consider several interventions, including medications, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes. Nutritional changes, exercise, and stress management have all been found to be helpful in curtailing binge eating behaviors. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which involves combating the ways of thinking that promotes binge eating has also been found to be helpful in stopping these episodes.

Who is at risk for binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is more common in women than in men, although people of any gender, race, or age can develop this problem. There are many factors that can increase your risk of developing a binge eating disorder including:

  • Your family history – You’re much more likely to have an eating disorder if your parents or siblings have an eating disorder. Inherited genes and learned behaviors can both increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
  • If you diet often – Many people with binge eating disorder have a history of frequent dieting, counting calories, or restrictive eating. These behaviors can trigger the urge to binge eat as a way to relieve the stress that comes from self-denial.
  • Existing psychological issues – Many people who have a binge eating disorder also have negative feelings about themselves including anxiety, depression, perfectionism, rigidity, worthlessness, and poor body image.
  • Existing biological issues – Burning off more calories than you take in can lead to a state of negative energy balance and the strong desire to binge eat. People with type 1 diabetes, especially those who skip insulin injections (which can be deadly) are also more at risk for developing a binge eating disorder.

Complications That Can Occur With Binge Eating Disorder

Psychologically, individuals who suffer from binge eating disorder live with a large amount of guilt. They are ashamed of their impulsive behaviors and often have to work hard to hide them. This can lead to worsening symptoms for their mental health issues — such as depression and anxiety — and lead to a complicated and restrictive lifestyle.

Individuals with binge eating disorders tend to isolate themselves so that they can indulge in this behavior freely without the fear of getting caught. This can become a vicious cycle that makes them more isolated, and more pårone to this behavior. Friends and loved ones may have trouble understanding the individual’s secrecy and this may drive them away. This cycle of negativity may exacerbate the individual’s guilt and increase their need to indulge more often in binge eating.