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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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What is binge eating disorder (BED)?

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States, with more cases than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined. (10) BED is a debilitating disorder that disrupts a person’s quality of life in a way that may cause them to isolate themselves from others. These feelings will lead to more episodes of bingeing, continuing the cycle.

However, it is essential to recognize that binge eating disorder is treatable, and recovery is possible for those who have support.

Within Health offers compassionate, highly-personalized eating disorder treatment programs.

What does that look like?

Last updated on 
October 26, 2022
January 19, 2024
In this article

What is binge eating disorder? 

Those who struggle with a binge eating disorder consume vast amounts of food over a short period and experience episodes of overeating regularly. Sufferers with this emotionally challenging disorder often immediately regret their actions afterward.

A common misconception is that binge eating disorder is defined as the behaviors associated with binge eating. In reality, many who struggle with binge eating disorder experience extreme fear, anxiety, and shame around eating. One of the core issues driving binge eating, is actually a restrictive mindset.

People with BED often find that when they eat, they are experiencing a dissociative state. It, therefore, becomes difficult to be able to track hunger and fullness cues. The impulse is possibly tied to restrictive eating in the first place, making treatment that addresses underlying restriction the most effective for people with BED.

woman looking in a refrigerator

Diagnosing binge eating disorder

To diagnose binge eating disorder, a health care provider familiar with all forms of eating disorders will need to form a therapeutic alliance with the patient and be able to have a meaningful conversation around the patient's inner experience and relationship with food.

Many health care professionals who don’t specialize in treating eating disorders will often overlook the laboratory tests and other impacts of restriction beyond binge eating. In some cases, patients may be told to diet and lose weight, perpetuating the issue. 

There are a multitude of issues associated with BED that can be missed without a thorough examination of the patient. Make sure your care team tests for things like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart health, and diabetes, and other signs of binge eating disorder. 

These disorders include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and sleep-related breathing issues like snoring or obstructive sleep apnea. The tests may involve:

  • Blood tests and urinalysis
  • Physical examination, including thyroid studies, and hormonal evaluations
  • Consultation with a sleep disorder clinic

These are only a few procedures someone with BED could expect to happen when diagnosed with this disorder. The patient's medical provider may decide more comprehensive tests are necessary. (1) 

According to the diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association for mental disorders, the (DSM-V) criteria for diagnosing BED those with this condition will exhibit these behaviors (2):

(DSM-V) criteria
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Signs & symptoms of binge eating disorder

When examining the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder, keep in mind that it is misguided to assume a person living in a larger body is overeating and a person living in a smaller body has a healthy relationship with food. The reality is that BED comes in all sizes, and causes pain and suffering regardless of body size. 

The warning signs that a person is struggling with binge eating disorder include (but are not limited to): (3)

  • Eating high volumes of food without the presence of hunger (no purging involved)
  • Feeling of loss of control when eating
  • Eating until painfully or uncomfortably full
  • Secretive eating
  • Hiding food
  • Weight fluctuations (generally weight gain)
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-medicating with food
  • High anxiety and/or depression

Effects of binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder can result in several negative consequences, including depression and social isolation, and can lead to health issues, and substance use. The patient may experience metabolic complications and instability in their weight, including but not limited to weight cycling. (10) 

There are both short and long-term effects of BED.

Short-term effects of binge eating disorder

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Guilt and shame
  • Isolation
  • Poor quality of life
  • Problems at work, school, or home
  • Weight cycling and/or gain

Long-term effects of binge eating disorder

  • Certain cancers
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Sleep apnea
  • Type 2 diabetes. (5)

woman sitting on dock

Related disorders

There are a few co-occurring psychiatric illnesses that can drive forward or exacerbate this condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common co-occurring condition due to the trauma related to micro and macro aggressions tied to living in a larger body (if that is how their condition manifests). 

Other conditions that commonly co-occur with BED include, but are not limited to:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure 
  • Diabetes
  • Gallbladder disease 
  • Heart disease and cardiac problems
  • Some types of cancers
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Depression mood disorder
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADHD) 
  • Anxiety 
Common conditions with BED graphic

Treatment of binge eating disorder

Effective binge eating disorder treatment includes engaging in a therapeutic alliance in which they can begin to explore their relationship to themselves, their body, and food. Oftentimes patients need a great deal of support in being able to give themselves permission to eat, and will benefit from learning the principles of mindfulness. 

Thankfully, no one has to navigate a binge eating disorder alone. There are support groups, therapies, and medications available to help treat BED. (1)

When treating binge eating disorders, a holistic approach focusing on the entire body is recommended by most medical professionals. 

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Therapies for binge eating disorder

Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) is a great way to change eating habits from unhealthy ones into healthy ones. Therapy can also help reduce how often a person engages in binge eating.

 Here are a few types of therapy available for helping someone with binge eating disorder: 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Nutrition Therapy/Mindful Eating
Group Therapies
Interpersonal psychotherapy
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
Social Activism
86%

of those who complete our treatment program report reduced eating disorder symptoms

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Medications for binge eating disorder

Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate), a stimulant used to treat moderate-to-severe binge eating disorders in adults, is the first FDA-approved medication for this purpose. Vyvanse can be habit-forming and misused. Its most common side effects are dry mouth or insomnia. 

Vyvanse also carries more severe risks such as high blood pressure leading to heart failure. Also, involuntary twitching and uncontrolled muscle movements are associated with this medication. 

Other medications can also reduce symptoms of BED:

  • Dietary supplements
  • Antidepressants and other psychiatric medications that address the common co-occurring conditions

Understanding binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder affects people across all genders, sexualities, ethnicities, races, ages, and body types. But even with this disorder being a widespread issue, many still struggle in silence. 

While people with BED may feel alone, they're not. In fact, 30% of people who seek out treatment for eating disorders struggle with BED specifically. (9) 

binge eating patient percentage chart

Some people with BED do not feel safe in traditional eating disorder treatment facilities, and would benefit from private care with a psychotherapist, and nutritionist. Attending group therapy can also be healing with people with BED, to help them recognize they aren’t alone in their disorder. Special care must be paid to understanding the intense emotions behind BED which require compassionate treatment practices. 

When a person is engaging in binge eating behavior they are often in a dissociative state and are not in control of their actions. The majority of the time, the underlying reason for binge eating is because of food or dietary restrictions put on them in the first place. 

Always remember that although binge eating disorder is a serious condition, thoughtful treatment programs are available, and healing is possible. 

couple holding hands

Living with binge eating disorder

Living with an eating disorder is a constant struggle because a person must eat food daily. People with BED have to navigate periods of restriction, as well as episodes of binge eating, and the associated emotions that manifest with both behaviors every day. 

Careful attention should be paid to food restriction around BED episodes. The reason being that the first step of a binge episode involves restricting food intake to the point of individuals being excessively hungry later in the day, which can lead to mindless eating. Keeping a food journal that documents what patterns led to the bingeing episode is therefore an incredibly valuable treatment tool. 

Here are a few additional tips on dealing with BED:

  • Identify triggers
  • Set healthy boundaries
  • Find a positive role-model
  • Confide in a trusted friend or family member
  • Find someone who can be supportive
  • Attend group therapy for BED
  • Focus on self-care
  • Evaluate patterns with food paying attention to patterns of restriction
  • Consider keeping a journal. (1)

History of binge eating disorder

Eating disorders have been around for thousands of years, with descriptions from the Hellenistic (323 BD-31 BC) and medieval times (5th-15th century AD). However, Dr. Albert Stunkard recognized BED in 1959. (8) 

Binge eating disorder in pop culture

Pop culture in the United States is often associated with the diet culture, as many fight an internal battle with body image issues. Societal standards of beauty often cause people to develop unhealthy relationships with food.

A study by the National Institute of Health examined the increase in risk factors for developing BED due to exposure to pop culture and media influence. This cross-cultural study showed that those exposed to pop culture in America were more likely to be diagnosed with BED than other cultures like Mexican-born participants. (8)

Furthermore, the word “binge” is often overused in American pop culture. Binge is associated with such activities as “binge-watching” television shows, or “going on a shopping binge.” This cavalier use of the word is harmful and furthers the stigma BED sufferers feel about their condition for those who struggle with binge disorders.

How to help someone with binge eating disorder 

To those trying to overcome binge eating, support and connection from loved ones are not only helpful but essential. Here are ways to help someone with BED:

  • Be educated about the disorder
  • Avoid (and watch out for) talk of dieting
  • Don't guilt or shame the binge eater
  • Be careful not to enable the person struggling with BED
  • Validate their feeling
  • Consider family therapy
  • Set healthy boundaries

Specialized treatment may be necessary to overcome BED. Yet, treatment is possible, and people do recover from this disorder.

At Within Health, we understand that everyone has a different body shape and size that is deserving of care and love regardless of what number presents on the scale or their specific challenges around food.

If you or a loved one are looking for binge eating disorder treatment or healing for another eating disorder, we are here to help. Call our admissions team now to build a healthy relationship with food.

BED treatment that comes to you

Call for a consultation

866-293-0041

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Binge Eating Disorder - Diagnosis and Treatment - Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 5). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/binge-eating-disorder/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353633
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Association. Published. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  3. Chang, S. (2020, February 7). Eating Disorders and Diet Culture: Culturally Attuned Mental Health Care. Santa Clara County Behavioral Health. Santa Clara County Behavioral Health. https://bhdp.sccgov.org/sites/g/files/exjcpb716/files/eating-disorder-handout-2-2020.pdf
  4. Binge Eating Disorder. (2021, October 12). Help Guide. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder.htm
  5. Binge Eating Disorder - Symptoms and causes. (2018, May 5). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/binge-eating-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353627
  6. Binge Eating Disorder. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder
  7. Olwyn, G. (2018, February 6). Part II: What Does BED Really Look Like? Eating Disorder Institute. https://edinstitute.org/paper/2015/7/10/part-ii-what-does-bed-really-look-like
  8. Swanson, S. A., Saito, N., Borges, G., Benjet, C., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Medina-Mora, M. E., & Breslau, J. (2012). Change in binge eating and binge eating disorder associated with migration from Mexico to the US. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 46(1), 31–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2011.10.008
  9. National Eating Disorders Association. (2021, July 14). Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders

FAQs

Is binge eating disorder the same as bulimia?

No. BED is not the same as bulimia nervosa (BN). BN is characterized by episodes of purging, laxative abuse, over-exercise, and extreme restriction, after a binge. With BED, the person does not purge the food they eat. (8)

Should a person with binge eating disorder go on a diet to lose weight?

No. The word “diet” should not be used when discussing treatment for those with BED, or any eating disorder. Instead, specialists will develop a nutritional plan that establishes a more positive attitude about the need to eat, and solid nutritional support. 

Further reading

Why do I binge eat?

Binge eating is the act of consuming a large amount of food over a certain period of time. By most medical...

Treating binge eating disorder at home

Binge eating disorder (BED) is one of the most recently defined eating disorders, but it is already...

Do I have binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious mental health condition that involves frequent episodes of someone...

Binge eating self-help

Self-help is the process of improving oneself or overcoming one’s problems without help from others...

Why am I eating so much?

Anyone can have a complicated relationship with food, particularly in American culture...

What causes binge eating disorder?

Since it was first officially recognized in 2013, binge eating disorder (BED) has...

Understanding the connection of dopamine and binge eating

Binge eating behaviors are a major aspect of several eating disorders, including binge eating disorder...

Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder

The prevalence of binge eating disorder (BED) is on the rise in the US, with an...

BED of low frequency and/or limited duration

Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United...

What is binge eating disorder (BED)?

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States...

Binge eating disorder related to food insecurity

There are many known risk factors for eating disorders, such as a history...

Binge eating disorder and the trauma of weight stigma

Someone who is struggling with binge eating disorder experiences recurring...