Binge Eating Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and More


Binge eating disorder referred to as compulsive overeating, this condition is thought to be the most common eating disorder. It is estimated to affect about 3 percent of all adults in the United States (up to 4 million people). Binge eating is a little more common in women than in men; three women for every two men have it. Occasional overeating is normal, and not all people who overeat have a binge eating disorder. Binge eating is described as:

  • The consumption of large amounts of food in a limited period of time, such as a two-hour time frame
  • Feelings of loss of control and marked distress over eating behavior
  • Eating large amounts of food without being hungry
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Feelings of disgust, depression, and guilt after overeating
  • Eating alone or in secret out of embarrassment at the quantity of food being eaten
  • Behavior that usually occurs at least 1 day a week for at least 3 months.

Binge eating disorder does not involve purging (forced vomiting).

If you think you have binge eating disorder, it is important to know that you are not alone. Most people who have this disorder have tried to control it themselves for years without success. Talk to your healthcare provider about the type of help that may be best for you.

binge eating disorder

What causes binge eating disorder?

The causes of binge eating disorder are still unknown. It may start as early as childhood or the early teens and may also run in families. Research indicates that up to half of people with this condition suffer from depression. Whether depression is a cause or the effect of binge eating is unclear.

Binge eating may be triggered by emotional feelings or reactions, such as anger, sadness, boredom, or worry. Impulsive behavior (acting quickly without thinking) and certain other emotional problems can be more common in people with binge eating disorder.

It is also unclear if dieting and binge eating are related, though strict dieting may actually make the problem worse. Some research shows that restricting food intake or trying to follow very-low calorie diets may set off a binge. About half of all people with binge eating disorder will binge right before starting a diet.

What are the complications of binge eating disorder?

People with binge eating disorder tend to be deficient in vitamins and minerals because much of the food they eat is full of fat and sugar, which lack good nutritional value. Approximately half of the people who binge are obese.

The majority of complications are conditions that accompany obesity. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Certain cancers
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders related to distress over binge eating

What are some tips for success if you are living with binge eating disorder?

Tips for success

The following are some ideas that may be beneficial to help control or prevent binge eating:

  • An important way to decrease the urge to binge eat is to recognize your own hunger cues. Possible signs of hunger include:
    • Stomach growling
    • Light-headedness
    • Irritability/crankiness
    • Low blood sugar
  • Try using a hunger scale of 1 to 5 with 1 = lack of hunger and 5 = starving. Try responding to hunger when you are at a 3 = urge to eat is strong. Sometimes waiting until you are at a 5 can trigger binge behavior.
  • Cleanse your home of all “binge” foods. If there are particular problem foods that you usually binge on, try not to have those foods in your home. If a spouse or family member insists on having those foods around, insist that they hide them from you. You can also have your spouse or family member give you a designated portion of these “binge” foods, so you feel less deprived. It is helpful to eat these foods when you are not alone.
  • Identify triggers. For example, don’t meet someone at a bakery if that’s your weakness! Skip the all-you-can-eat buffets or potluck dinners where the temptation to overeat is overwhelming. Try to engage in more non-food social activities as much as possible.
  • Make eating a singular activity. Avoid doing multiple activities while eating, such as working in front of the computer, watching TV, driving, or reading. You want to be mindful about what you eat and how the food tastes.
  • Keep a food record and write down everything you eat and drink. This will help keep you accountable to yourself. If you know you have to write it down, you may be less likely to eat it. You may also wish to record any emotional thoughts and feelings that you’re experiencing, since these may be leading to a binge. Also, make yourself accountable to someone. Having to report to someone every day or a few times a week may help you not to binge.
  • Plan a healthy menu with a variety of foods from each food group. Remember, there are no “forbidden” foods. Having a plan is often a good way to help keep you on track. Your menu should not make you feel deprived. Set up an appointment with a registered dietitian to assist you in creating a realistic eating plan.
  • Plan to exercise. Choose an activity that you enjoy doing. Consider asking a friend to exercise with you. This will make it more enjoyable and help keep you accountable.
  • Drink plenty of water—at least 64 fluid ounces a day. Most binges incorporate a lot of sugar and sodium, both of which are dehydrating. It’s very important to be properly hydrated, especially after a binge. It is also common to confuse hunger with thirst.
  • Avoid idle time. Many times, people will eat out of boredom. Fill your time with projects or activities that you find enjoyable or work that needs to be accomplished. Having a list of things to do when bored or anxious can be very helpful in preventing a binge.
  • If you find yourself thinking about weight all the time, try reducing the number of times you weigh yourself. It may be best to check your weight only once per week. You may want to consider weight checks with a health professional, like a registered dietitian, and getting rid of your scale. Knowing weight numbers can sometimes trigger binge behavior.
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