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About Eating Disorders

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent binge eating episodes that are accompanied by marked distress, a sense of lack of control, and feelings of self-loathing, disgust, or guilt. These episodes involve eating, in a discrete period of time, an amount of food that is objectively larger than what most individuals would eat in a similar period of time, under similar circumstances. Binge eating episodes are associated with eating much more rapidly than normal and/or until uncomfortably full; eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry; and/or eating alone due to embarrassment about the amount one is eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, these binge episodes are not followed by compensatory behaviors.

Call 855-875-5812 to get help with an eating disorder.

What causes binge eating disorder?

Like all eating disorders, binge eating disorder develops over a period of time as a result of a complicated blend of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. There is no single cause to point to and, despite common misconceptions, families and communities of support are not to blame. In fact, they are often recovery’s strongest ally. Many individuals have genetic predispositions to binge eating disorder that, depending on environmental influences, may or may not be awakened over the course of their lifetime. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States and the most prevalent eating disorder among males. The mean age of onset for the disorder is 18 years and the vast majority of individuals who are diagnosed with binge eating disorder also struggle with psychiatric, mood, or anxiety disorders, and/or impulse control and substance use.

  • Malnutrition-induced changes in physiological processes and altered hunger and fullness signals
  • Experiencing a traumatic event may tip someone into binge eating disorder
  • Genetic predisposition and societal pressures (e.g., drive for thinness)
  • Lack of environmental control and persistent, extreme stress, or minority stress can lead to binge eating disorder
Binge Eating Disorder - Symptoms, Causes & Treatments | A daughter hugging her mother from the back

What are symptoms of binge eating disorder?

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by several symptoms, including:

  • Frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food, often quickly and to the point of discomfort.
  • A feeling of loss of control during these binge eating episodes, like you can’t stop eating or control what or how much you’re eating.
  • Eating when not hungry or eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
  • Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about binge eating.
  • No regular use of unhealthy compensatory measures (such as purging) to counter binge eating.

Is depression associated with binge eating?

Yes, depression is often associated with binge eating. Many individuals with binge eating disorder experience symptoms of depression, such as feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, and a lack of pleasure in activities they once enjoyed. The relationship between depression and binge eating can be complex and bidirectional, meaning that depression can contribute to the onset or worsening of binge eating, and binge eating can exacerbate symptoms of depression. It’s important for individuals experiencing both depression and binge eating to seek professional help, as treatment may need to address both conditions.

What is compulsive overeating?

Compulsive overeating is eating an excessive amount of food but not because of hunger. 

When someone compulsively overeats, it is often an unhealthy and ineffective way of avoiding or distracting from difficult emotions or situations. Though engaging in compulsive eating behavior may provide some short-term relief, ultimately it often brings physical and emotional distress, as well as feelings of shame, anger, anxiety, or fear related to food. This blog describes compulsive overeating, including its relationship to eating disorders and its common characteristics.

Is compulsive overeating an eating disorder?

Compulsive overeating is not an eating disorder diagnosis, but instead a behavior that is present in several eating disorders, including binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia nervosa, and OSFED. Those who are affected by bulimia, for example, may engage in overeating and then purge afterward. Overeating is usually seen in BED if there aren’t any purging behaviors. Bulimia and BED both present with feelings of a lack of control around food.

A person who struggles with compulsive overeating may eat an overwhelmingly large amount of food in a short period of time, or they may “graze,” eating throughout the day even when they aren’t hungry. Compulsive eating often happens in secret, as do experiences of secretly fantasizing about food.

Once a person is engaged in compulsive overeating, the initial “high” may settle and the person may notice feelings of self-loathing, disgust, and guilt. Restriction or dieting may follow, setting up a cycle of eating disorder behaviors.

All body types can struggle with compulsive overeating. Many warning signs accompany the disordered eating behavior, such as weight gain, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorder. The experience could present medical complications, including fatigue, diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease.

What is the difference between binge eating and compulsive overeating?

Binge eating and compulsive overeating, although closely related, have distinct characteristics that set them apart. 

Binge Eating

Binge eating is typically characterized by episodes of consuming large quantities of food in a relatively short period, often accompanied by a feeling of loss of control. This form of eating is a central feature of binge eating disorder, a clinically recognized eating disorder, where individuals often experience intense feelings of guilt and distress post-binge.

Compulsive Overeating

On the other hand, compulsive overeating is a broader term that encompasses not only binge eating but also other patterns of disordered eating. It often manifests as a continuous pattern of eating large quantities of food throughout the day, not confined to specific episodes. This kind of eating often happens in secret, and individuals may find themselves constantly fantasizing or obsessing about food. The defining characteristic of compulsive overeating is the amount of food consumed and the compulsive, obsessive nature of the eating behavior. It often coexists with feelings of self-loathing, depression, and anxiety, making it a complex issue to address.

Understanding the subtle differences between binge eating and compulsive overeating can guide more targeted and effective treatment strategies, helping individuals navigate their way to recovery with a nuanced approach. Learn more about the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating

What should you look for if you worry that someone has binge eating disorder?

Being familiar with the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder can help you champion early intervention and recovery through binge eating disorder treatment. Watch for binge eating episodes that are not associated with compensatory behaviors, but are associated with feelings of lack of control or self-loathing and occur, on average, at least once a week for three months. Associated disorders, or “comorbidities,” include major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar I and II disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

  • Binge eating episodes that occur one or more times a week
  • Marked distress around binge eating episodes
  • Avoiding mealtimes and eating alone or in secret can be a sign of binge eating disorder
  • Feelings of lack of control, guilt, shame, self-loathing, or disgust around food or eating

What are the risks of binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder can have extreme medical and physiological consequences that may or may not resolve completely during recovery.

  • Chronic pain including headaches, back, and neck pain
  • Binge eating disorder can lead to diabetes and hypertension
  • In males: decreased frequency of erections and nocturnal emissions
  • In females: polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometrial cancer, and difficulty conceiving
Binge Eating Disorder - Symptoms, Causes & Treatments | mother and daughter looking at each other smiling

How can you recover from binge eating disorder?

If you or a loved one are struggling with binge eating or compulsive overeating, don’t wait to reach out for help. The earlier binge eating disorder is treated, the better the outcomes tend to be.

At Veritas Collaborative, we work with you to create an individualized care plan so you or your child with binge eating disorder get the right treatment at the right time. We offer a full continuum of care, which includes inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), outpatient, and virtual programs for children, adolescents, and adults. This allows us to provide best-in-class care and support throughout your recovery journey, even as your needs change. Our treatment programs focus on real-life skills, including hands-on nutrition and culinary experiences that you can take with you for lasting recovery. We encourage family involvement and offer family-based therapy and educational support for children and adolescents.

Key Takeaways

  • Binge eating disorder is a type of eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, accompanied by feelings of loss of control and distress.
  • Binge eating disorder affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, and can lead to physical, emotional, and social consequences.
  • Binge eating disorder is often accompanied by co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders.
  • Treatment for binge eating disorder typically involves a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and nutrition counseling, and may involve a team of healthcare professionals at an eating disorder treatment center.
  • With appropriate treatment and support, recovery from binge eating disorder is possible, and individuals can learn to develop a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.

Updated December 2023

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