Binge Eating Disorder in Kids and Teens

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 26, 2024
4 min read

Binge eating disorder most often appears in teens and young adults. Both boys and girls can have it. It’s one of the most common eating disorders. About 4 million people in the United States have binge eating disorder.

Binge eating means eating large amounts of food, much more than you need, in one sitting. Someone with binge eating disorder does this at least once a week over 3 months or more, and can’t seem to stop doing it. You may "zone out" while eating. Afterward, you feel shame, guilt, or other sad feelings.

People with this disorder often:

  • Binge when they aren't even hungry
  • Eat in private because of embarrassment
  • Keep eating even though their stomach hurts or they become uncomfortably full
  • Eat faster than normal
  • Feel disgusted or depressed after overeating

Unlike other eating disorders, a person who binge eats doesn't also purge (throw up) or over-exercise. This can lead to obesity and related risks, like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, and some types of cancer. Most people with binge eating disorder are overweight or obese. They often have a history of weight problems and weight fluctuations.

Being obsessed with food can also add stress, spoil friendships, and exhaust mental energy.

Because people who binge eat tend to hide it, it makes it hard for a parent to find out. Signs include:

  • Large amounts of food that seems to vanish. Do whole boxes of cookies or crackers go missing often?
  • Tell-tale wrappers. Do you find empty bags or boxes in trash cans?
  • Food stashes. Have you seen supplies of snacks in desk drawers, backpacks, under beds, in closets,  the garage, or odd places around the house? Has your child stolen food?
  • Late-night binges. Does your child seem to wait to eat huge amounts when alone?
  • Yo-yo weight. Does your child gain and lose? Or has there been a sudden weight gain? Binge eaters tend to weigh too much, but weight may also swing from low to high.
  • Eating quirks. Does your child hardly eat at meals or fast, but not lose weight? Refuse certain foods? They may skimp when around others and gorge later. Or they may skip meals to try to make up for a binge. Other odd eating habits might include eating food directly from a can or taking food from the garbage and eating it.
  • Trouble at home or school. Does your child seem depressed or anxious? Are they bullied or teased? Food can be a way of handling it. A child may eat for comfort, to escape or avoid dealing with tough things, or to rebel against rules. Half of those with binge eating disorder are depressed.
  • Social withdrawal. Is your child missing school, parties, or social events? It may be so they can stay home and binge eat.

If you're worried your child may have this disorder:

  • Learn as much as you can about it. The causes of binge eating disorder are unclear. It's likely there's more than one cause. Genes, body image, diet history, and emotional health are factors that seem to play a role.
  • Talk with your child in private, when you're calm. Say something like, "I'm concerned about you and what's going on with you," without talking about eating or food. Remember, this illness isn't really about eating. It's about feelings and other issues.
  • Listen. Don't judge or make it about blame. Try "I" statements. ("I noticed you ate all the cookies last night.") Avoid saying "you." ("You have a problem." "You should stop that.")
  • Show extra support. Don't harp about what to eat or how much.
  • Have family activities that aren't food-based. Have a game night, walk the dogs.
  • Talk to your child's doctor. The quicker you take action, the less ingrained the habit will become. The doctor can check your overall health and refer you to experts.

There's no single treatment for binge eating disorder.  It’s best treated with a combination of approaches:

  • Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and insight-oriented therapy, can help people learn to recognize the thoughts and feelings that trigger binge eating. Group therapy may help relieve feelings of shame.
  • Learning new ways to contend with triggers that set off binges
  • Nutrition classes or nutritional counseling help educate people about healthy food choices and, more importantly, about how to recognize the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
  • Family training can help your child reach a healthy mindset and stable weight.
  • The FDA approved the use of Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine) for adults who have moderate to severe binge eating disorder.
  • Sometimes antidepressant medications are prescribed either for bingeing behavior itself or for related problems involving depression.

It also helps to work on boosting overall health and body image. Yoga, movement classes, meditation, or doing art may help.

You may need to have a conversation with your child before consulting health care professionals about possible binge eating. If your child feels sad, anxious, or depressed and eats enormous amounts of food to soothe their emotional state, it may help them to talk with a professional. Even if your child doesn’t have these feelings but are 20% or more over their healthy weight, the doctor may have some ways to help control binge eating and lose excess weight.