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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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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 definitions, that means eating an amount of food that is "definitely larger" than most people would consume over the course of two hours.6

While everyone participates in this type of eating behavior from time to time, especially on holidays or special occasions, binge eating regularly is part of many eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa (BN), binge eating disorder (BED), and certain types of anorexia nervosa (AN).

But regardless of the case, there are several reasons why people tend to binge eat — and ways to find help for this behavior if it starts disrupting your everyday life.

Last updated on 
January 11, 2024
Why do I binge eat?
In this article

What is binge eating?

When trying to answer the question “Why do I binge eat?” it's important to understand the characteristics of a binge eating episode.

The amount of food eaten and the amount of time it's eaten in are only part of the official understanding of this eating behavior. From a medical standpoint, binge eating episodes are also marked by:6

  • Feeling a loss of control over how much or what is eaten
  • Eating faster than normal
  • Eating until you feel uncomfortably full or sick
  • Eating even though you are not hungry
  • Eating alone or in secret because of shame or embarrassment
  • Feeling ill, disgusted, sad, angry, or guilty afterward

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States.7 To be considered part of this condition, these episodes must occur at least once a week for three consecutive months.6 But there are many reasons why people may binge eat.

Why do I binge eat?

Aside from its connection to BED, BN, and AN, binge eating is commonly related to emotional eating. Many people engage in this behavior as a response to feeling stressed, sad, or experiencing other unpleasant emotions.1

Remote treatment can help you stop binge eating from the comfort of your own home, or wherever you are.

Learn more

The behavior has also been tied to other mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and certain personality disorders.1 People with low self-esteem or negative views of themselves, along with people who have difficulty regulating their emotions, also tend to have a higher risk of engaging in binge eating episodes.3

Dieting has also been connected to both binge eating behavior in general and binge eating disorder in particular.2 Many people try to stop eating or practice skipping meals or other forms of restrictive eating while on these plans, leading to eventual binges and the loss of control over what they consume.

Why do I binge eat at night?

While binge eating episodes can occur at any time, many people find themselves particularly susceptible to binging at night. This could be for several reasons.

It's possible that all the stress accumulated throughout the day builds up and bubbles over at night, leading to the urge to binge. Many people who binge eat often try to hide the behavior from others, as well, which may be easier to do at night. This is also a dangerous time for those on restrictive diets, who may have spent the day depriving their body of enough calories.

Another reason someone may binge eat at night is night eating syndrome (NES). The condition involves binge eating only in the evening or waking up from sleep to eat. More research is needed on NES, but it's thought the condition may be connected to circadian rhythm disorders, certain mood disorders, and a tendency to diet.4

Why do I binge eat?

When should I get help for binge eating?

Remember, not all people who binge eat will have an eating disorder, but many people with eating disorders will binge eat. Focusing on safety and prevention with eating disorders is always a good option, so seeking a professional eating disorder evaluation is helpful.

With the right kind of help, it's possible to overcome binge eating or to treat binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or other eating disorders that may be driving the behavior.

The experts at Within Health can assess your current binge eating habits and determine if treatment is needed. They will investigate:5

  • When the behaviors started
  • How frequent and how intense they are
  • The situations that trigger binges and how you feel afterward
  • How these behaviors are affecting your physical and mental health
Whether your binge eating is related to bulimia, binge-eating disorder, night eating syndrome, or just a typical part of life, the professionals at Within Health can offer assistance and guidance.
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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. Burton, A., & Abbott, M. (2017). Conceptualising binge eating: A review of the theoretical and empirical literature. Behaviour Change, 34(3), 168-198.
  2. Howard, C. E., & Porzelius, L. K. (1999). The role of dieting in binge eating disorder: etiology and treatment implications. Clinical psychology review, 19(1), 25–44.
  3. Burton, A.L., Abbott, M.J. (2019). Processes and pathways to binge eating: development of an integrated cognitive and behavioural model of binge eating. Journal of Eating Disorders 7, 18. 
  4. Night Eating Syndrome. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed December 2023.
  5. Amianto, F., Ottone, L., Abbate Daga, G. et al. (2015). Binge-eating disorder diagnosis and treatment: a recap in front of DSM-5. BMC Psychiatry 15, 70.
  6. DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder. (2015). Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Accessed December 2023.
  7. Definition & Facts for Binge Eating Disorder. (n.d.). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Accessed December 2023.

FAQs

Why do I binge eat?

People experience binge eating episodes for many different reasons, including hunger caused by restrictive diets, high stress, poor self-esteem, a lack of healthier coping mechanisms, and flawed beliefs about self, food, and eating. You could be influenced by one or a combination of these and other factors.

Why do I binge eat at night?

The stress of the day, hunger caused by restrictive diets, and attempts to hide concerning eating behaviors from others are all common reasons to binge eat at night. You could also have night eating syndrome, which is a specific eating disorder.

What causes binge eating?

Experts are not sure what causes binge eating, per se. Like nearly all disordered eating behaviors, it's likely driven by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including stress and certain hereditary traits.

Further reading

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