Binge Eating Disorder (BED) affects an estimated 3.5% of women and 2% of men. BED is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined, which makes it the most common eating disorder. Men make up 40% of people who have BED. It is estimated that 3 out of 10 people who are currently seeking methods to lose weight are actually suffering from some form of BED. Binge eating disorder has also been referred to as compulsive overeating and some may describe feeling like they’re addicted to food.
People of all ages, socio-economic statuses, gender identities, abilities, and races can suffer from BED, which is characterized by frequent sessions of binge eating where the individual feels very out of control and ashamed of their eating pattern. These uncontrolled eating episodes often lead to intense and disturbing feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression. Currently, the exact causes of BED are not known, however, potential factors include; a history of dieting, genetics, trauma, depression and anxiety. Additionally, there is evidence that being the subject of weight stigma (discrimination based on one’s weight) can correlate with binge eating.
It’s important to note that people of all sizes can suffer from binge eating disorder. We can’t assume someone has BED based on their weight or the size of their body. This is often a misconception about all eating disorders but especially BED. In order to be diagnosed with BED, one needs to exhibit symptoms of the diagnosis (see below), and weight is not one of the criteria.
According to the DSM-5, the official manual used by mental health professionals to make a diagnosis, the behavioral and emotional criteria that characterize BED include:
- Frequent binge episodes that happen at least once every week for three months or more
- During a binge, eating a much larger amount of food than what is considered to be normal within a two hour period
- Inability to control what is being eaten or to stop eating
The binges are also characterized by some of the following:
- Eating to the point of discomfort
- Eating when not hungry
- Eating very fast
- Eating in private out of embarrassment
- Feeling guilty or shameful
People with BED often feel very distressed about their inability to control their food intake, however, a person with BED does not usually over-exercise or purge after a binge as a person with bulimia nervosa might do. It’s common for eating disorder behaviors to change over time and for symptoms to not fit the exact criteria for diagnosis. This is why it’s recommended to seek treatment even if someone doesn’t experience all symptoms for a diagnosis. If you’re struggling in your relationship with food and your body, it’s enough of a reason to get support.
Rigid dietary practices have been linked to a higher incidence of binge eating disorder. This can include restricting the amount of food someone eats, the type of food they eat, or by engaging in periods of fasting. These are all practices that are common when dieting for intentional weight loss. Those who struggle with negative body image might initially restrict food through dieting, and this restriction in calories may then spark a cycle of binge eating behavior. It’s natural for the eating pendulum to swing from not eating enough to eating past comfortable fullness as our bodies try to protect us from self-induced famine (dieting).
Eating disorders tend to serve a purpose for the individual. Engaging in binge eating behaviors may help the individual distract themselves, numb, or suppress difficult emotions, and cope with challenges they’re facing in their life including past trauma, abuse, bullying, and neglect. It’s not uncommon to engage in these behaviors to bring relief, euphoria, or other positive emotions. This is part of why it can be difficult to “just stop” using eating behaviors, as they serve an important function. It will likely be difficult to recover without the proper support and tools.
People don’t always gain weight from this eating pattern but if they do it can be followed by increased feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness and failure. This can also drive the urge to binge eat. Our culture has made up unrealistic body ideals that are difficult for most people to attain. It has created a hierarchy of what we deem as “good” or “bad” and perpetuated body shaming and disordered eating. Our bodies are not the problem, it’s our society’s glorification of appearance and certain body types. Body acceptance and weight changes could be easier if all bodies were represented, accepted, and treated with kindness and respect. This is something the Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance movement is aiming for.
Binge Eating Disorder is a serious condition that can be treated. Like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, BED can result in chronic disease and death. Treatment for BED is essential in order to help the individual fully recover. Treatment is often in the form of outpatient therapy but inpatient facilities may also be relevant. Treatment may take the form of individual, group, family, and nutritional counseling and sometimes psychiatric care. Additional therapies may also be effective such as yoga, movement classes, dance, meditation and mindfulness, art and equine therapies.
As with any eating disorder, it’s important to get a medical check-up by your doctor to address any medical conditions that may be present. Medical conditions can result from eating disorder behaviors and will need to be addressed as soon as possible to support full recovery.
Recovery can be a long term process for most people with an eating disorder. As with any eating disorder, there are many complicated and influencing factors involved. It can be difficult to recover in a culture that is so focused on weight and how our bodies appear on the outside. However, despite the complexity, BED is treatable and can be overcome with the right interventions and support. Evidence-based forms of treatment for BED include mindfulness-based interventions, cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy and psychotherapy.
If you think you may be suffering from BED, remember that you are not alone. Binge eating disorder is the most common of all eating disorders. It is important that you tell someone you trust and seek professional treatment.
Binge Eating Disorder in Children – Signs, risk factors, treatment.
Health at Every Size (HAES) – Information on the HAES approach to body acceptance.
Causes of Eating Disorders – What causes a person to develop an eating disorder.
Telling Someone You Have an Eating Disorder – How to take that difficult first step.
Eating Disorder Treatment – How treatment will work. The importance of treating eating disorders ASAP.
Alternatives to Bingeing – How to prevent the urge to binge.
Weight Loss Surgery and Eating Disorders – An eating disorder can complicate the potential effectiveness of bariatric surgery.
Binge Eating Facts – Additional facts about binge eating, causes, and treatment information.
What is Weight Stigma – How weight stigma can contribute to eating disorders.
Recovery From An Eating Disorder – Recovery takes time and is not easy, but its worth it.
Weight-Related Bullying and Eating Disorders – A look at the consequences associated with weight-related bullying.
Navigating Eating Disorder Treatment – Understanding levels of care, the admissions process in a treatment center, what to expect when treatment begins.
Binge Eating Disorder, The Journey To Recovery And Beyond – By Amy Pershing and Chevese Turner
Updated by Molly Bahr – 2020
Updated by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 2001