Binge Eating

Last Editorial Review: 6/19/2012

A person with a binge-eating disorder consumes a large amount of food within two hours, and does it often. Having a binge eating disorder means being unable to control the amount of food consumed. You are unable to stop eating, even when you are full.

Most of us overeat from time to time, and many people often feel they've eaten more than they should have. But, does this mean we are "binge eaters?" Probably not: Eating a lot of food does not always mean that a person has an eating problem.

How Common Is Binge Eating?

Binge eating disorder is a relatively recently recognized disorder and is thought by some to be the most common of the eating disorders.

About 2% of all adults in the U.S. (as many as 4 million Americans) have binge eating disorder. About 10% to 15% of people who are mildly obese and who try to lose weight on their own or through commercial weight-loss programs have this condition. The disorder is even more common in people who are severely obese.

Unlike other eating disorders -- such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa -- a substantial number of men suffer from binge eating disorder, but it is still more common in women. It is more common among the severely overweight, but can be found among people of any weight.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

No one knows for sure what causes binge eating disorder, but there are several factors that are thought to contribute. Genetics and biology seem to play a role in the development of the disease. Researchers are actively studying how abnormalities in levels of certain neurochemicals in the brain can contribute to binge eating. Individual psychology is also thought to play a role: about 50% of people with binge eating disorder suffer from depression, and it is thought that negative emotions -- anxiety, shame, and guilt -- contribute to out-of-control eating behaviors. Social and cultural factors also likely play a role in binge eating disorder, as food can become a way to show love, get comfort, or even induce guilt. The food industry and wide availability of processed foods can make it more difficult to be in tune with what will nourish our bodies. As well, Western culture emphasizes a desire for thinness. Many people with binge eating disorder have been on multiple diets.

Is Binge Eating Unhealthy?

Yes, binge eating has been linked to the following conditions.

What Are the Signs of Binge Eating Disorder?

Someone with a binge eating disorder has frequent episodes of binge eating, occurring at least two days a week for six months.

Binge eating episodes are associated with at least three of the following symptoms.

  • Eating rapidly
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Eating alone because of embarrassment
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed or guilty after overeating

While binge eaters are typically distressed about this pattern, they do not induce vomiting, fast, or abuse laxatives or diuretics.

Binge eating also occurs with another eating disorder, called bulimia nervosa. Persons with bulimia nervosa, however, usually purge, fast, or do strenuous exercise after they binge eat. Purging means vomiting or using a lot of diuretics (water pills) or laxatives to keep from gaining weight. Fasting is not eating for at least 24 hours. Strenuous exercise, in this case, means exercising for more than an hour just to keep from gaining weight after binge eating. Purging, fasting, and over exercising are dangerous ways to try to control your weight.

Often, a person with binge eating disorder feels overweight and has a history of trying to lose weight many times. Yet many failed diets may leave them feeling powerless over the binge-eating pattern.

How Is Binge Eating Treated?

Binge-eating disorder is best treated with a combination of approaches. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and insight-oriented therapy, can help patients learn to recognize the thoughts and feelings that can trigger binge eating. Group therapy can also be quite helpful in helping patients feel less shame around their symptoms. Some self-help strategies such as keeping a journal and meditation can help people to identify and tolerate difficult feelings that can lead to binge eating. Nutritional counseling can be used to educate the patient about healthy food choices and, more importantly, about how to recognize the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Finally, for some people, certain medications such as antidepressants can help to treat associated depressive symptoms and in some patients can help regulate the urge to binge eat.

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Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on June 19, 2012

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