Binge Eating Disorder: Symptoms, Health Risks, & Treatment
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
Binge eating disorder (BED) is a detrimental and potentially life-threatening pattern of disordered eating. Binge eating disorder is characterized by eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time. The amount of eating gets to the point of being physically in pain and comes with feelings of shame, guilt and being out of control. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), BED is the most common eating disorder despite being the most recent one added to the DSM-5. Up to 1.25% of women can be categorized as having binge eating disorder; an even larger number of people have had episodes that could be classified as BED but do not have long-term symptoms that would justify a diagnosis.
Binge eating has a very specific set of criteria used to diagnose it. The criteria include:
- Eating a large amount of food, more than is normally expected, in a two-hour time frame
- Feeling out of control during the consumption of the food
- Eating to the point of discomfort
- Eating large amounts of food when not hungry
- Eating at a very fast pace
- Feeling shame or guilt related to the amount of food eaten
There is no specific cause for binge eating disorder. Like many eating disorders, a mix of social, emotional and biological factors can contribute to why someone may develop binge eating disorder.
Bulimia vs. Binge Eating
People who are diagnosed with bulimia, as opposed to binge eating, use various purging methods to compensate for the large quantities of food they eat. Methods include vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, fasting and excessive exercise. People diagnosed with binge eating disorder may use compensatory measures sometimes after a binge, but it is not a part of their regular binge cycle.
Overeating vs. Binge Eating
Compulsive overeating and binge eating disorder are often used interchangeably, and the first can be considered a feature of the second. Specifically, binge eating disorder appears in the DSM-5, while compulsive overeating disorder does not. While binge eating focuses on episodes with large amounts of food, compulsive overeating refers to frequent and constant periods of eating.
Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms
Someone suffering from binge eating disorder generally exhibits feelings of guilt and shame after eating large amounts of food in a short period of time. Someone who has a binge eating disorder typically consumes food in a secret manner and may be uncomfortable eating around others. The most common symptoms are:
- Uncontrollable eating
- Eating large quantities of food
- Eating in secrecy
- Shame or guilt around food
- Continuing to eat when full
- Never feeling satisfied with food
- Desperation to control what is being eaten
Do I Have Binge Eating Disorder?
It can be difficult to tell if you are at risk for binge eating disorder or if you’re struggling in your relationship with food. The first step is to ask yourself if you are experiencing the following:
- Do I eat in secret and hide food wrappers?
- Do I have guilt and shame after I eat?
- Do I eat until I am uncomfortable?
- Do I eat when I’m not hungry?
- Do I feel out of control around food and can’t eat average amounts of food?
- Do I eat to comfort myself or self-soothe?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, you could be at risk for binge eating disorder.
Some people are at higher risk of developing binge eating disorder based on their genetic, social and physical backgrounds. Those who are at higher risk for an eating disorder like BED include:
- Growing up with negative comments on their weight, dieting or bodies
- Having low or negative body image
- Having unrealistically high expectations of yourself, or perfectionism
- Loneliness, isolation or bullying in childhood
- Having a close relative with an eating disorder or mental health condition
- Having type 1 diabetes
- Showing signs of an anxiety disorder
Binge Eating Disorder Health Risks
Eating disorders affect the entire body and have serious health consequences if untreated, such as causing fluctuation in weight, imbalance of electrolytes and inconsistent blood sugar. Binge eating disorder can also lead to long-term mental health consequences. It is important to understand the physical and mental health risks for someone suffering from binge eating disorder.
Emotional and Mental Health
Those who suffer from binge eating disorder show higher rates of depression than those who do not. They also report higher rates of anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Weight gain associated with binge eating disorder can also lead to a lack of self-esteem and body image issues.
Those who exhibit symptoms of binge eating disorder are more likely to have increased weight gain due to constantly eating large amounts of food and having a calorie surplus. If a person consumes more calories than their body naturally needs or can burn off, they will gain weight. Over time, continued weight gain can lead to its own health concerns.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is a risk factor as someone continues to gain weight. Binge eating disorder also means that the likelihood of eating salty, fatty and high sugar foods in large quantities increases. These foods can all lead to higher blood pressure if eaten consistently and in large amounts.
High cholesterol is also a risk for those suffering from binge eating disorder. The foods that someone with binge eating disorder eats during their binges tend to be high in calories, sugar and fat. Without a balanced diet and proper nutrition, people who binge are more likely to have high cholesterol.
Type 2 diabetes is a risk for those with binge eating disorder. Due to an increase in weight and a fluctuation of blood sugar, developing diabetes is a concern. For those with type 1 diabetes, bingeing on foods that raise blood sugar can be dangerous and make it hard to maintain a healthy blood sugar level.
Symptoms of binge eating disorder can affect cardiovascular health. Consistent weight gain or cycles of weight gain and loss can also lead to extra stress on the heart. The lack of nutrition of someone who suffers from binge eating disorder can also lead to malnutrition and potentially a stroke.
Binge Eating Disorder Treatment
Treatment for any eating disorder includes various types of interventions that take eating habits and mental and physical health into consideration. Binge eating disorder is no different. To treat BED effectively, there should be a combination of therapies to address each area of a person’s life.
Therapy for Binge Eating Disorder
Traditional talk therapy is one type of treatment option for binge eating disorder. Talk therapy or interpersonal therapy can help look at the emotional relationship someone may have to food and why their coping mechanisms use food to self-soothe. Therapy can also help someone in treatment for binge eating disorder look at their relationship with their body and self-esteem.
CBT for Binge Eating Disorder
Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT is effective in helping treat binge eating disorder. CBT looks at the pattern of thoughts and feelings that lead to a behavior — in this case, bingeing. Helping a person understand what triggers their binge episodes can help reduce these occurrences. CBT works well when used with nutritional counseling and incorporating a healthy diet and exercise routine.
Binge Eating Disorder Medication
Certain medications have been shown to help reduce the urge to binge in patients with binge eating disorder. Some antidepressants, Topamax and Vyvanse have all shown success in helping reduce binge eating disorder symptoms in patients. Antidepressants also help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, which have been shown to co-occur with binge eating disorder. However, patients should always discuss their situation with their doctor and use caution when taking these medications, as some of them can be addictive.
What Resources Are Available to Me?
If you’re looking for an easy way to access tools that can help support your recovery from binge eating disorder symptoms, the Nobu app is for you. This free-to-use app has plenty of resources, including mindfulness tools, mental health lessons, journaling and goal tracking. For an added fee, you can also use the app to connect with a licensed therapist to get even more support.
Edited by – Abby Doty
Abby Doty graduated from Hamline University in 2021 with a Bachelor’s in English and Psychology. She has written and edited creative and literary work as well as academic pieces focused primarily on psychology and mental health. She is passionate about removing the stigma around mental health and recovery. In her free time, Abby loves reading, painting, and petting dogs… Read more.
Written by – Danielle Boland
Danielle is a licensed clinical social worker, currently living and practicing in central Connecticut. Danielle graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a Masters of Social Work, and always had the goal of opening her own private practice. She specializes in women’s issues, maternal health and postpartum mental health. Danielle is passionate about empowering people of all ages and hopes to use her writing skills to provide more resources for those looking to improve their mental health… Read more.
Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips
Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.
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National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. “Symptoms and Causes of Binge Eating Disorder.” May 2021. Accessed November 22, 2021.
University of Michigan Health. “Binge Eating Disorder.” September 23, 2020. Accessed November 24, 2021.