Binge Eating Disorder (BED), also referred to as extreme overeating is an eating disorder that can be characterized as an addiction to food. The inability to fight the urge to eat is one of the defining aspects of BED. In addition, those who suffer from BED often seek emotional comfort in food for a variety of reasons. Unlike bulimia, those who compulsively overeat do not purge following a binge. However, they do often feel extreme distress as the high of eating fades away. Researchers say that specific foods containing high levels of fat, sugar, or salt can be addictive, causing changes in the brain similar to those made by drugs.1 Because of this, many classify BED as an “addiction to food.” However, there are multiple explanations that may cause someone to become an extreme overeater. Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder that is more common than anorexia or bulimia among both men and women.2 Because of its prevalence, understanding Binge Eating Disorder can provide you with the tools to help yourself or those around you develop healthier eating habits.
Signs and Symptoms
Because binge eating disorder has both physical and mental components, there are numerous signs and symptoms, which indicate that someone may be suffering from it:
- Eating large servings regardless of hunger
- Eating quickly until uncomfortably full
- Eating in solitude out of shame or embarrassment
- Fixating obsessively on body weight
- Experiencing depression or mood swings
- Consistently withdrawing from social settings
- Hiding food in strange places
- Using vague or secretive eating patterns
- Finding immense comfort in food
- Undergoing noticeable weight gain
- Stockpiling food
- Never feeling satisfied regardless of how much one eats
While exhibiting some of these signs does not always mean someone has an eating disorder, these symptoms can be indicative that someone is engaging in unhealthy food related behavior.
There are multiple scenarios that lead to the development of binge eating disorder. These influences are drawn from different biological, behavioral, mental, and emotional sources:
- Genetic Predisposition: If binge eating disorder runs in your family, it is more likely that you will develop the condition as well.3
- Biological Abnormalities: There is a genetic mutation that causes the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls appetite) to send incorrect messages about hunger, contributing to food addiction.4
- Evolution of Behavior: Binge eating disorder can begin at a young age as your consumption patterns are developing. If you practice unhealthy eating habits early on, these habits have a possibility of evolving into compulsive overeating later in life.1
- Dieting: Binge Eating Disorder can develop as the result of a strict diet followed by a binge and subsequent feelings of guilt. This pattern of behavior often repeats itself in a cycle that feels impossible to break out of.4
- Body Dissatisfaction: Low self-esteem and a lack of body positivity can lead to the development of Binge Eating Disorder.4
- Food as a Coping Mechanism: Many of those who suffer from Binge Eating Disorder use food to hide behind their physical appearance. In their eyes, gaining weight is a method of shielding themselves from society.5 This is often following a major trauma such as sexual abuse/rape, emotional abuse, divorce, the death of a loved one, or physical violence. These experiences can cause feelings of shame, depression, poor self-image, and guilt, which lead some people to turn to food for comfort. Although the relief is fleeting, it allows them to temporarily forget the pain they feel.
All of these different causes can contribute to the development of an unhealthy relationship with food that can evolve into a binge eating disorder.
Binge Eating Disorder can cause emotional, psychological, and physical side effects that greatly diminish the quality of life. While in the moment binge eating can bring feelings of joy and release from stress, depression, and other negative emotions, it is only temporary. Food will never truly fill the void. Those who suffer from binge eating disorder often encounter feelings of self-loathing, low self-esteem, and poor body image. These negative perceptions of self, coupled with the withdrawn and secretive behaviors characteristic of BED can harm interpersonal relationships with loved ones.
If a compulsive overeater refrains from treatment it can eventually cause concerning medical conditions5:
- High Cholesterol: This is when there are elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood.
- Diabetes: Type 2 Diabetes can develop at any age. It causes the body’s blood glucose levels to rise higher than normal.6
- Heart Disease: This encompasses many problems surrounding the buildup of plaque in the walls of the heart’s arteries.7
- Hypertension: This is another name for high blood pressure that has the possibility to lead to heart disease and death.
- Sleep Apnea: This is a sleep disorder where a person’s breathing is interrupted during their sleep.8
- Depression: A state of low mood and aversion to activity that influences one’s thoughts, behavior, emotions, and overall well-being.
- Kidney Disease: This is the gradual loss of kidney function that can eventually lead to the build up of electrolytes and waste in the body.9
- Arthritis: This overarching term refers to joint pain, inflammation, and disease.
- Bone Deterioration: This can cause bone fragility and increases the chances of fractures.
- Stroke: When someone experiences a stroke, the blood flow to a part of the brain is cut off. This deprives those brain cells of oxygen, and they begin to die. As a result, abilities controlled in that area of the brain can be lost forever.10
- Digestion Problems: Common digestive problems include heartburn/GERD, IBD, and IBS.
- Gallbladder Disease: Gallstones, or the buildup of cholesterol or bile, are the most commonly reported complications of BEDs.11
How Can You Help Someone Suffering from Binge Eating Disorder?
If one of your loved ones is suffering from binge eating disorder, it can be a time of great concern for you. Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to help. One of the most important things you can do to help someone suffering from binge eating disorder is to be supportive and non-judgmental. Avoid making fat-phobic comments about yourself or others. You can help set a positive example by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising. When speaking to them about their eating habits, be sensitive to their feelings and avoid lecturing them. Most who suffer from binge eating disorder recognize the fact that their behavior is unhealthy and already feel an immense amount of guilt and/or shame regarding it. The best thing you can do is gently express that you care about their health and happiness and will support them through this journey to recovery. If they have access to it, you can also encourage them to seek professional help from a counselor.
If You Are Suffering From Binge Eating Disorder
If you feel comfortable, you can try to arrange an appointment with a counselor who can help you uncover the psychological triggers causing you to overeat.1 If this does not appeal to you, consider confiding in a loved one who you trust. Sharing and connecting with others can help you establish a support system as you work towards recovery. Do your best to remain positive and remind yourself that you are greater than your eating disorder. Try not to shame yourself for binge eating and instead look for ways to improve your relationship with food. Introducing healthy lifestyle habits like regular exercise into your routine can help improve your physical health and set the foundation for recovery.
The main focus of overcoming binge eating disorder is regaining control of your eating habits. Before you eat, pause and ask yourself if you are really hungry. Consider why you want to eat not just what you want to eat at the time. This will allow you to become more conscious of when you really need to be eating and when you become full. Also consider what is driving you to binge and actively seek other outlets for whatever emotion is causing you to overeat. Some popular coping responses are practicing yoga, walking, meditating, and listening to music. Trying a new hobby can also be a way to curb unnecessary snacking because it will distract you and take up time. Another way to regain control of your eating habits is to disrupt your previous routines. Remove the foods you often binge on from your home and stop buying them to avoid temptation. Incorporate more healthy foods into your diet while keeping in mind that you do not have to force yourself to try and abide by a restrictive diet. You are still allowed to give into your cravings in moderation, because cutting foods completely out of your diet cold turkey often leads to overeating later on.
BED and Sex
Studies show that those suffering from eating disorders often report a lack of sexual interest during the course of their disorder.12 This is largely because low body weight and/or poor nutrition that are characteristic of eating disorders directly impacts the body’s production of sex hormones.12 Although the physical side effects of eating disorders are not always easily remedied, there are still methods to make sex more enjoyable if one partner has an eating disorder.
A sense of safety and trust is important to be freed of sexual inhibition. However, this can be difficult to obtain for those who suffer from eating disorders because of their distorted body image and hyper self-awareness. This is especially true for those who are survivors of sexual abuse or another form of trauma prior to developing an eating disorder. As always, communication between partners is crucial before engaging in intercourse. Being open about your feelings towards sex can allow both partners to better understand their sexual behavior. In addition, practice positive affirmations to yourself and your partner in order to counteract self-deprecation. This can help establish a more body positive dialogue between partners and boost self esteem. Deciding when to return to intimacy is a personal choice and can happen at varying paces. Through patience and diligent effort, it is possible for those with an eating disorder to have a healthy sex life.
Like many other eating disorders, binge eating disorder can have a large impact on quality of life for those who suffer from it. It can make them feel powerless, ashamed, and afraid of the negative side effects. Overcoming the physical and psychological hurdles of BED can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Often the most helpful treatment is to learn to view food differently and realize that, ultimately, you are still in control of what goes into your body.
Here is a video about Binge Eating:
- Marquez, Jennifer Rainey. “Compulsive Overeating and How to Stop It.” WebMD, 18 Nov. 2014
- “Eating Disorders” American Psychological Association, Oct. 2011
- “Binge-Eating Disorder (Compulsive Overeating).” Psychology Today, 19 Apr. 2017
- Smith, Melinda, and Jeanne Segal. “Binge Eating Disorder.” Binge Eating Disorder: Symptoms, Treatment, and Help for Compulsive Overeating, Oct. 2017
- “Compulsive Overeating Symptoms and Effects.” Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, 4 Oct. 2016
- Type 2.” American Diabetes Association, 5 Mar. 2009
- “What Is Cardiovascular Disease?” American Heart Association, American Heart Association, 7 June 2017
- Blahd, William. “Sleep Apnea.” WebMD, WebMD, 6 Sept. 2016
- “Chronic Kidney Disease.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 4 Aug. 2017
- “What Is Stroke?” Stroke.org, 16 Mar. 2016
- “Digestive Disorders and Digestive Health Center.” WebMD, WebMD, n.d.
- “Sexual Satisfaction and Eating Disorders.” Psychology Today, 19 June 2014
Last Updated: 12 March 2018.