The idea of what a person with an eating disorder looks like has been largely influenced by movie and TV show stereotypes. For so long, the signs of an eating disorder have been depicted in ways such as heavily restrictive eating or compensatory behaviors like caloric restriction, overexercising, or purging after eating.

While these may be signs of an eating disorder, these conditions don’t always present in these ways. For instance, you may find yourself constantly consuming large quantities of food and feeling like you’re unable to stop. Many people have periods when they overeat, such as during the holidays, but if you experience a loss of control with food regularly, it may be a sign of an eating disorder called binge eating disorder.

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

You may have heard about eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but, binge eating disorder isn’t as frequently discussed even though it’s one of the most common eating disorders.

People with binge eating disorder may frequently eat large amounts of food in a short time, and feel unable to stop eating. The loss of control is usually triggered by stress-inducing situations, and it may lead them to binge even when they aren’t hungry. These episodes are usually followed by feelings of guilt or unhappiness.

Binge eating disorder commonly affects young people in their late teens or early 20s. Although the common view is that this eating disorder mainly affects women, men can also be affected. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, about 1.6% of adolescents, 3.5% of adult women, and 2% of adult men are dealing with binge eating disorder. For men, it mostly occurs in midlife, between the ages of 45 to 59.

Some people who deal with binge eating disorder maintain a normal weight. But for many other people, binge eating causes rapid weight gain and can bring other associated health issues such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Although most people with obesity do not have binge eating disorder, over two-thirds of people dealing with this disorder do become obese. Binge eating disorder often also leads to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

What Are the Signs of Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder was officially recognized as an eating disorder diagnosis in the DSM-5 manual in 2013. Before then, it was categorized under the non-specific “EDNOS” (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

According to the current diagnostic criteria, you may have binge eating disorder if:

  • You have recurrent and persistent episodes of binge eating
  • You eat much more rapidly than normal
  • You eat until you feel uncomfortably full
  • You eat large amounts of food even when you don’t feel physically hungry
  • You eat alone because you feel embarrassed by how much you’re eating
  • You feel depressed or very guilty after overeating
  • You experience marked distress regarding your eating habits

Binge eating disorder is often mistaken for bulimia nervosa, another common eating disorder. But unlike bulimia, binge eating disorder doesn’t involve regular compensatory behaviors after an episode, such as vomiting or other methods to get rid of calories or prevent weight gain. However, with binge eating disorder, you might try to control the amount of food you eat between binges.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

Experts are still unsure of the exact cause of binge eating disorder, but it can generally be traced to a range of risk factors. For instance, painful or traumatic childhood experiences — such as critical comments about your weight — are associated with developing binge eating disorder. This eating disorder also runs in some families, and some experts believe that there may be a genetic link to it.

Certain psychological factors are also believed to contribute to binge eating disorder, such as increased sensitivity to dopamine (the brain chemical that’s responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward), changes in the brain structure that results in a higher response level to food, or other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder that influence a person’s eating habits.

For many people dealing with binge eating disorder, these episodes bring a temporary feeling of comfort and calm that they become used to. Sometimes, they may plan a binge episode in anticipation of the feeling it brings. These episodes tend to bring regret in the long run, and the condition may last for years if left untreated. It’s best to seek professional help as soon as possible if you’re experiencing any of the signs of binge eating disorder.

How Is Binge Eating Disorder Treated?

Making the decision to get treatment for binge eating disorder is the first step to recovery. Research shows that over 65% of people are successfully able to control binge eating after going through treatment.

The treatment options for binge eating disorder may target eating habits, weight gain, low self-esteem, mental health issues, or a combination of these. Your doctor may also screen you for any condition related to binge eating, such as depression or anxiety, or other health issues such as high blood pressure.

There are several therapy options for people with binge eating disorder, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which helps you identify the causes of negative emotions relating to your eating habits or weight, and how to develop positive emotions to replace them.

Interpersonal psychotherapy also helps those dealing with binge eating disorder by identifying the specific personal problem that led one to adopt binge eating as a coping mechanism, and make changes to these behaviors over the course of 12-16 weeks. Some types of medication such as antidepressants can also be helpful in treating binge eating.

Weight loss therapy can also help control binge eating disorder by boosting your self-esteem and promoting a positive body image. However, it’s important to avoid worrying about your weight or going on a diet, as depriving yourself of food can often actually increase the likelihood of binge eating.

As you work on a suitable treatment plan with the help of your provider, certain strategies can also help you manage your triggers. These include practicing mindfulness, exercising, choosing healthy foods, keeping track of your food habits and your moods, and getting enough sleep. It’s also important to get support from family, friends, a partner, online therapy, or a support group with others who are also dealing with binge eating disorder, and can understand what you’re going through.

What Can I Do To Help a Loved One With Binge Eating Disorder?

A person dealing with binge eating disorder may come up with effective ways of masking the behavior, often making it difficult to detect. If you suspect that someone you know may be struggling with binge eating disorder, you can encourage them to have an open discussion about it by sharing your concerns and providing the necessary support. You can also help them reach out to a professional and go with them to therapy sessions or doctors’ appointments.