Binge Eating Disorder

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 13, 2021
6 min read

Most people have had times when they ate too much, especially during a special occasion or holiday. Binge eating disorder is different.

You feel like you can't stop, even if you're already uncomfortably full. You may eat a lot, quickly, even if you're not hungry. You feel ashamed about it. Unlike bulimia, you don't try to make yourself throw up, use laxatives, or exercise a lot after a binge.

You can overcome that out-of-control feeling with treatment. Talking with a specialist (such as a psychiatrist or psychologist) who treats people with eating disorders is key. For some people, taking medication also helps.

It helps to have emotional support from family and friends, too. Their backing makes it easier to change the way you think about food.

A large number of men have binge eating disorder, but it’s still more common in women than in men. About 3% of all adults in the U.S. (as many as 4 million people) have binge eating disorder.

People who are obese are at a higher risk of getting binge eating disorder, although people of normal weight can also get it. About two of every three people in the U.S. who have the condition are obese. And 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.

It’s not known for sure what causes binge eating disorder, but several things are thought to play a part. Researchers are studying how the abnormal functioning of brain areas that regulate hunger and fullness, or impulse control can contribute to binge eating disorder.

If you have binge eating disorder, you may have trouble handling your emotions or feel out of control in other ways. You may use food as a way to comfort or reward yourself. Skipping meals and other severe dieting may trigger a backlash of binge eating.

The disorder often goes hand-in-hand with depression. Researchers are studying whether brain chemicals or metabolism (the way your body uses food) play roles.

The disorder also runs in some families. Also, people with binge eating disorder often come from families that overeat or put an unnatural emphasis on food; for example, using it as a reward or as a way to soothe or comfort.

Obese people with binge eating disorder often became overweight at a younger age than those without the disorder. They also might lose and regain weight many times.

Some people with binge eating disorder have gone through emotional or physical abuse, or had addictions, such as alcoholism. If that sounds like you, getting help with those issues will be part of getting better.

If you have binge eating disorder, you:

  • Eat more food than other people do in the same situation.
  • Feel like you can't control how much you eat.
  • Feel upset after you binge.

You may also:

  • Eat much more quickly than normal
  • Eat enough to be uncomfortably full
  • Even when you're not hungry you eat a lot
  • Eat alone  out of embarrassment, so no one will see how much food you're having
  • Feel guilty, disgusted, or depressed about your eating
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Diet a lot
  • Lose desire for sex

People with binge eating disorder don't try to throw up after overeating. You can get other health problems related to gaining weight or unhealthy eating, too, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease.

You also may have trouble sleeping, muscle and joint pain, and digestive problems. Women may have irregular or infrequent menstrual periods.

Your doctor may ask you questions such as:

  • Once you start eating, can you stop?
  • How do you feel about how much you eat?
  • Do you eat really fast?
  • Do you keep eating even after you're uncomfortably full?
  • Have you ever lied to someone about how much you eat?
  • Do you want to eat alone? Why?

People with eating disorders often try to hide it. In order to get diagnosed, though, you need to be open with your doctor. They are on your side.

Your doctor may consider binge eating mild if it happens 1-3 times a week, moderate if it happens 4-7 times a week, severe if it happens 8-13 times a week, or extreme if it happens 14 or more times a week.

  • Have you worked with many people with binge eating disorder?
  • What treatment do you recommend? How long will it last?
  • Do I have any other conditions or issues that need to be treated?
  • How can my family or friends help me?

The poor eating habits that are common in people with binge eating disorder can lead to serious health problems. The major complications of binge eating disorder are the conditions that often result from being obese. These include:

  • Malnutrition
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Heart disease
  • Shortness of breath
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Menstrual problems
  • Decreased mobility (inability to move around) and tiredness
  • Sleep problems

In addition, people with binge eating disorder can be extremely distressed by their binge eating. And in some cases, people will neglect their jobs, school, or social activities to binge eat.

Beating binge eating disorder is not about willpower.

Sometimes medications such as lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse) will be prescribed to suppress the desire to binge eat. It is the first FDA-approved drug to treat moderate to severe binge eating by curbing the binge eating episodes. You also need the help of a specialist, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.

They may use an approach called cognitive behavior therapy, which focuses on what you do and how you feel. It can help you change your thoughts about eating and understand what triggers your binges.

Your therapist may suggest that you include your family in counseling so they can learn about the disorder, spot sources of stress at home, and know how to support you. Family support is very important to treatment success. It is important that they understand the eating disorder and recognize its signs and symptoms.

Ask your doctor or therapist about finding a support group in your area. It can help to talk to other people who know what you're going through.

You also may need help with other conditions, such as depression or anxiety. A doctor may prescribe an antidepressant, a drug to help manage the urge to binge (such as the anti-seizure drug topiramate), or other medications. The medication naltrexone hcl/bupropion hcl (Contrave) helps with weight loss.

Although it might not be possible to prevent all cases of binge eating disorder, it is helpful to begin treatment as soon as symptoms start. In addition, teaching and encouraging healthy eating habits and realistic attitudes about food and body image might be helpful in preventing the development or worsening of eating disorders.

Feeling stressed makes it more likely that you'll binge eat, so you'll need positive ways to manage that. Yoga, meditation, exercise, and massage therapy can help you feel calm. Some self-help strategies such as keeping a journal and meditation can help you identify and tolerate difficult feelings that can lead to binge eating.

Ask your doctor or therapist to recommend a nutritional counselor who can teach you about healthy eating. If you have type 2 diabetes or high cholesterol, you may need to limit certain types of foods or lose weight. You need your doctor's advice on how to lose extra weight without triggering binge eating.

The goal is to get healthier. It's not about numbers on a scale or serving sizes. It's also about how you relate to food and to your own body.

If you feel stuck in a cycle of binge eating, take heart: Most people can overcome this disorder with treatment. It's possible for you, too.

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. People with binge eating disorder often blame themselves. As you work toward recovery, you may have setbacks. Those bumps in the road aren't unusual as you gradually gain more control over your eating.

You can find support groups, doctor referrals, and other information from the Binge Eating Disorder Association, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

If you'd like to talk to someone, you can call the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237 or the ANAD helpline at (888) 375-7767. They're available Monday through Friday 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM CT.