Key Takeaways

  • Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It’s characterized by chronic and compulsive (out-of-control) overeating.
  • With BED, people consume large amounts of food in a short period, eating past the point of satisfaction or until they’re uncomfortably full.
  • When unmanaged, BED can cause mental and physical health problems. However, a combination of therapy, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle changes can help people treat symptoms and improve their health.

When presented with our ideal meal or very favorite dessert, many of us will choose to help ourselves to seconds or even thirds. But occasional overindulging is very different from overeating on a regular basis. Chronic overeating may be a sign of a serious but common eating disorder called binge eating disorder.

What is binge eating disorder (BED)?

Binge eating disorder is when people regularly consume an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time. With BED, it can feel like you don’t have control over your eating habits. This could include eating until you’re uncomfortably full, consuming food when you’re not hungry, or having trouble ending a binge eating episode.   

BED, like other eating disorders, is a medical condition and not a personal choice. However, many people with BED experience feelings of shame, guilt, and disgust because of their eating habits. Binge eating can also lead to other health complications, like cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and type 2 diabetes. 

To be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, you must experience at least three of the following symptoms while binging at least once per week for three consecutive months.

  • Eating faster than normal
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when you’re not hungry
  • Eating alone because of embarrassment
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed, ashamed, or guilty after binging 

Binge eating disorder versus bulimia nervosa 

BED and bulimia nervosa both involve binge eating, which means eating a large amount of food in one sitting without feeling like you have any control. But unlike bulimia, BED doesn’t involve behaviors to prevent weight gain, like forced vomiting or excessive exercise. People with BED may try these behaviors, but it’s not a consistent habit.

Examining the common causes of binge eating disorder 

Anyone can have BED, but certain risk factors increase your chance of developing the condition. Here are some of the most common biological, psychological, and environmental causes of BED. 

  • Genetics: Similar to other eating disorders, researchers believe that BED may run in families
  • Disposition: Low self-esteem, negative body image, and unmanaged stress may contribute to disordered eating behaviors like binge eating.
  • Health history: BED tends to present with co-existing mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance use disorders.
  • Dieting: Frequent dieting and other practices that disrupt normal eating patterns can be both a cause and symptom of BED. Some data show that women and girls who diet often are 12 times more likely to binge eat than those who don’t diet often.
  • Environment: Being criticized for your weight, body shape, or eating habits as a child can contribute to the development of BED later in life. Childhood trauma including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse has also been linked to eating disorders like BED.

Five treatment options for binge eating disorder

When treating BED, most people benefit from a comprehensive approach that integrates therapy, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle changes. 

1. Therapy

Talk therapy is a first-choice treatment for managing the mental symptoms of BED. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and interpersonal psychotherapy are effective techniques to help people reduce binge eating. They can also improve self-esteem and help people manage co-occurring mental health conditions. 

2. Nutritional counseling and support

Nutritional counseling is another essential component of treating BED. Registered dietitians help people analyze their unhealthy eating patterns and replace them with more balanced habits. For example, preparing healthy snacks and meals, recognizing hunger and fullness cues, and practicing mindful eating are ways to break the cycle of compulsive overeating.

3. Medication 

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved one prescription drug to help manage BED, medication isn’t considered a first-choice treatment for BED. That said, some people benefit from using medication to address specific symptoms or comorbid conditions.

4. Lifestyle modifications

For many people, overcoming an eating disorder requires an ongoing commitment to change. Here are some simple lifestyle modifications that can have a major impact on your health and well-being.

  • Avoid dieting. Dieting can lead to a binge eating episode, and it can become a cycle that’s hard to escape. 
  • Eat mindfully. Intuitive eating involves respecting your body, making peace with food, eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full. 
  • Exercise. Physical activity has been shown to decrease binge eating. But be sure to talk to your doctor before changing your level of physical activity. 

5. Strong support system 

Overcoming an eating disorder is challenging, so set yourself up for success by surrounding yourself with a strong support system. Find a trusted family member or friend to confide in, or join an eating disorder support group for a safe space to share and heal with others in a similar situation. This also means surrounding yourself with positive people on social media. 

Find help with Rula

Seeking professional support for an eating disorder can be a life-changing decision, and we’re here to help you navigate that process. 

At Rula, we can connect you with a therapist who is taking new clients and accepts your insurance so you can get the support you need. With Rula’s easy-to-use therapist-matching program, you can find the right provider for your needs in less than 30 seconds and begin treatment as early as this week. And if medication management is part of your treatment plan, we can connect you with a psychiatrist to find the right solution for you. 

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