What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

The eating disorder known as binge eating disorder affects approximately 1-5% of the U.S. population, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). The most recently described eating disorder, binge eating disorder is also likely the most common eating disorder. As the name implies, people suffering from this condition have recurrent episodes of binge eating.

Binge eating is more than having a healthy appetite or enjoying a lavish meal. True binge eating involves loss of control, and consumption of unusually large amounts of food even when the person does not feel hunger or take pleasure in the food. Other characteristics of binge eating include eating rapidly, eating alone, attempting to hide or "cover up" the eating episodes, and feelings of intense guilt and shame after an eating episode.

Most people with binge eating disorder are overweight or obese, but the condition also occurs in individuals of normal weight. Children and teens may develop binge eating disorder. Whites and African Americans are affected in roughly equal proportions, and the condition is slightly more common in women than in men (three women are affected for every two men). Unlike the eating disorder known as bulimia nervosa, the binge eating episodes in binge eating disorder are not followed by so-called "purging" behaviors such as induced vomiting, fasting, strenuous exercise, or laxative and diuretic abuse.

Doctors do not know exactly what causes binge eating disorder. As with other eating disorders, certain psychological factors may play a role in its development, including dysfunctional relationships, personality traits such as low self-esteem, or feelings of helplessness. About half of people with binge eating disorder have experienced depression at some point in their lives. Sufferers from binge eating disorder report that their binge eating episodes are often brought on by mood changes or states such as stress, anger, sadness, worry, and boredom. Binge eating disorder poses a significant risk to health, because those who suffer from binge eating disorder are at risk for weight gain and obesity with its associated health problems.