Binge Eating

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 20, 2020

A person with a binge-eating disorder consumes a large amount of food within two hours, and does it often. Having a binge eating disorder means being unable to control the amount of food consumed. You are unable to stop eating, even when you are full.

Most of us overeat from time to time, and many people often feel they've eaten more than they should have. But, does this mean we are "binge eaters?" Probably not: Eating a lot of food does not always mean that a person has an eating problem.

How Common Is Binge Eating?

Binge eating disorder is a relatively recently recognized disorder and is thought by some to be the most common of the eating disorders.

About 3% of all adults in the U.S. (as many as 4 million Americans) have binge eating disorder. About 10% to 15% of people who are mildly obese and who try to lose weight on their own or through commercial weight-loss programs have this condition. The disorder is even more common in people who are severely obese.

Unlike other eating disorders -- such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa -- a substantial number of men suffer from binge eating disorder, but it is still more common in women. It is more common among the severely overweight, but can be found among people of any weight.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

No one knows for sure what causes binge eating disorder, but there are several factors that are thought to contribute. Genetics and biology seem to play a role in the development of the disease. Researchers are actively studying how the abnormal functioning of brain areas that regulate hunger and fullness, or impulse control can contribute to binge eating. Individual psychology is also thought to play a role: about 50% of people with binge eating disorder suffer from depression, and it is thought that negative emotions -- anxiety, shame, and guilt -- contribute to out-of-control eating behaviors. Social and cultural factors also likely play a role in binge eating disorder, as food can become a way to show love, get comfort, or even induce guilt. The food industry and wide availability of processed foods can make it more difficult to be in tune with what will nourish our bodies. As well, Western culture emphasizes a desire for thinness. Many people with binge eating disorder have been on multiple diets.

Is Binge Eating Unhealthy?

Yes, binge eating has been linked to the following conditions:

How Is Binge Eating Treated?

Binge-eating disorder is best treated with a combination of approaches. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and insight-oriented therapy, can help patients learn to recognize the thoughts and feelings that can trigger binge eating. Group therapy can also be quite helpful in helping patients feel less shame around their symptoms. Some self-help strategies such as keeping a journal and meditation can help people to identify and tolerate difficult feelings that can lead to binge eating. Nutritional counseling can be used to educate the patient about healthy food choices and, more importantly, about how to recognize the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Finally, the stimulant medicine lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse) is FDA-approved for the treatment of binge eating disorder. For some people, certain medications such as antidepressants like Wellbutrin or anticonvulsant drugs, such as topiramate (Topamax), can also help to treat associated depressive symptoms and in some patients can help regulate impulse control and the urge to binge eat. 

There’s also a new medicine, naltrexone-bupropion (Contrave) that works on weight loss through the hunger center and the reward system.