Binge Eating Disorder: The Facts and Path to Hopeful Recovery

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Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States.

Most everyone overeats from time to time, especially around the holidays when we celebrate our cultural traditions with some binge eating of Grammy's famous turkey and mashed potatoes. Or we spring for a wild weekend of eating takeout and (what feels like) binge eating. But there's a difference between an eating disorder—specifically binge eating disorder—and the tendency to overeat.

Binge eating disorder is not simply overeating. It is a condition wherein a person compulsively overeats or binges to mask other feelings of discomfort or shame because of an unhealthy relationship to food. And it's a serious medical condition that affects people's health, body image and self-esteem, and it deserves attention, support and professional help.

In the article to follow, we'll discuss the warning signs and symptoms, health risks and effects, and best plans to address binge eating disorder in healthy, non-punishing ways.

A Quick Overview of Binge Eating Disorder

  • Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States.
  • Binge eating affects 3.5 percent of adult women and 2 percent of adult men.
  • Binge eating manifests for men most commonly in later adulthood (ages 45-59).
  • Binge eating manifests for women most commonly in early adulthood (ages 18-29).
  • Binge eating disorder more commonly affects overweight people and people with obesity.
  • Binge eating can be connected to painful childhood trauma.
  • Binge eating disorder can be genetic, and is associated with environmental factors.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder is a mental health disorder that revolves around frequent or compulsive overeating, and it involves a loss of control over eating and comes with clinically significant distress.

Unlike bulimia nervosa, which also involves binge eating, people with binge eating disorder do not undertake compensating efforts like induced vomiting, excessive exercise or misuse of laxatives. If someone experiences binges and then compensates with any of those measures listed, it's possible they have bulimia nervosa and not binge eating disorder.

Is Binge Eating Disorder Common?

Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health show a lifetime prevalence of 2.8 percent of all American adults, with a 3.5 percent occurrence for women and a 2.0 percent occurrence for men.

The average age of onset is 25 years old for binge eating disorder, and nearly half of people with binge eating disorder (43.6 percent) are receiving treatment for their condition.

Why is any of that important? Because binge eating is common—the most common eating disorder in the United States—and treatable. You are not alone, and you deserve happiness and health.

The Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder are:

  • Reoccurring binge eating episodes involving a large amount of food
  • A perceived loss of control over one's ability to stop eating
  • Eating until uncomfortably full, or after someone is already full
  • Eating alone or hiding one's eating due to feelings of shame or embarrassment
  • Feelings of disgust, depression or guilt after overeating

Emotional and Behavioral Effects of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating might be accompanied by distinct behavioral effects that indicate a disorder, and take a toll on a person's mental health, livelihood and relational satisfaction. Some of the binge eating behaviors and related patterns are: 

  • A refusal to eat meals in front of others for fear of binging
  • Hidden food stashes, and secret meals or binges
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Overly concerned with body weight and shape
  • Engages in repetitive fasting and dieting, and other disruptive eating behaviors
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Low self-esteem, and low opinion of body image
  • Unsuccessful attempts to diet, and other disruptive eating behaviors

Why Get Help for Binge Eating Disorder?

It can be difficult to differentiate binge eating episodes from simple overeating. It's extraordinarily helpful to consult a health professional or specialist who has experience and training related to eating disorders and can distinguish between the different types of disordered eating.

Also, eating disorders often involve co-occurring medical concerns, and coordinating with a medical doctor and mental health professional for proper diagnosis and treatment to address those problems is extremely valuable for long-term health and happiness. Health complications might include:

  • Obesity and related problems
  • Heart disease
  • Acid reflux
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Joint problems

What You Begin to Learn from an Eating Disorder Specialist

Because of the nature of binge eating and other eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, there can be strong, unshakeable feelings of shame or disgust associated with binges. Even when a person understands that their binges and behaviors are out of their control, they may still feel embarrassed about their eating. Talking with a trusted medical professional or eating disorder specialist can start a person on their journey of understanding and empathy for themselves and their condition.

This is also where a person learns more about their triggers and finds new insights about their condition and how to control it. Techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy will allow someone to healthfully, consciously manage binges or eating episodes. The talk therapy techniques often used, either individually or in groups, include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy

Plus teletherapy done over the phone or online is becoming more widely available, making help even more accessible.

Home Exercises and Recovery Practices for Binge Eating

In addition to therapy, there are a few practices people can use at home to lessen the cravings and help manage their eating:

  • Eat regularly and without skipping meals.
  • Avoid diets.
  • Practice mindfulness and yogic exercises.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • Keep a food and mood diary, where eating behaviors and meals are logged.
  • Find and rely on a social support system.

The Key Takeaways for Binge Eating Disorder

  • There are differences between overeating and the clinical condition of binge eating.
  • Eating disorders like binge eating are both common and treatable.
  • The symptoms extend beyond eating and come with behavioral and relational impacts.
  • Binge eating is a medical condition that often requires medical attention.
  • Binges are not a character defect, and there is no shame in having a mental health condition or eating disorder.

If you have noticed unhealthy eating behaviors or suspect a potential eating disorder, please consult a professional to get expert advice and proper treatment. Disorders of all varieties are commonplace. Don't feel shame about any eating disorder—whether it's binge eating or bulimia nervosa—and don't let it affect your livelihood, self-esteem or happiness. Help is always here.

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