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.

Binge eating disorder can be successfully treated either by psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two. A psychotherapist can help those with binge eating disorder to identify and correct binge eating triggers and patterns. Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to change unhealthy eating habits by examining the specific emotional and thought patterns that lead to binge eating, then altering these patterns to produce healthier behavioral responses to the disturbing thoughts. For some people, psychotherapy aimed at improvement of relationships or self-esteem can also help. Taking antidepressant medications of the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) class can be of value in some persons with binge eating disorder.

For more in-depth information on this topic, please read the Binge Eating Disorder article.


Last Editorial Review: 5/12/2005