Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 15, 2023
4 min read

It's midnight and you've just eaten a party-sized bag of chips, four slices of leftover pizza, and half a tray of brownies. It's not your first time eating like this. These secret frenzies have become something of a regular thing.

So you feel out of control, disgusted, and worried.

Could this be binge eating disorder?

It's normal to eat too much from time to time. We've all gone back for thirds at a holiday meal and felt ready to pop after feasting.

Binge eating disorder, or BED, is different. It's an ongoing psychological problem. You might have it if you eat a very large amount of food -- more than other people would eat -- in a short amount of time (about a 2-hour period) at least 1 day a week for 3 months.

Other signs of BED include:

  • Secret behavior: You binge when you're alone. This may be late at night or in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. You may "get rid of the evidence" and hide wrappers or food containers.
  • Food hoarding: You may stockpile bags of chips or cookies in your closet or under your bed.
  • Lack of control: You have no power over how much you eat or when to stop. You feel uncomfortably full after a binge.
  • Abnormal eating pattern: You may eat lightly throughout the day without set meal times. Or you eat a small bit at meals or skip them all together.
  • Food rituals: You may chew too much or not let foods touch on a plate. You might only eat certain foods or groups -- eating only yogurt, for example.
  • No purging: You don't do things to get rid of extra calories, like make yourself throw up, over-exercise, or take laxatives.

Binge eating often shows up on the scale, but not always. You don't have to be overweight to have it.

BED is a vicious cycle. You binge to relieve tension or numb bad feelings. But you feel worthless, angry, ashamed, and anxious afterward.

Other internal symptoms include:

Mood disorders: Half of people with BED are depressed or have a history of depression. But it's not clear how the two are related. You may also be moody, irritable, or not want to be around other people.

Trouble coping: People with BED often have a hard time with things like anger, boredom, and stress.

You're more at risk if you have these personality traits:

  • You're a people pleaser and avoid conflicts.
  • You demand perfection in yourself -- anything short is failure.
  • You have to be in control.
  • You're inflexible -- have an "all or nothing" attitude.

People with BED also may abuse alcohol or be impulsive, acting quickly without thinking.

Talk to an eating disorder specialist, psychiatrist, or psychologist right away if you think you may have BED. Early treatment gives you a better chance to beat it.

Your therapist will ask about your eating habits and your emotions and help you decide on a plan. Psychological therapy, or talk therapy, can turn your relationship with food into a healthy one again.

You may learn how to get rid of negative thoughts so you can change your behavior. Therapy also can help you deal with stress, anxiety, and other emotional issues that may trigger the problem.

The ADHD drug Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine) is approved for the treatment of binge eating disorder. It may help to reduce the number of binge eating days. It is thought to work by restoring the balance of certain natural chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain.

Look for these red flags if you believe your child or another loved one is binge eating:

  • You find "stashes" of food -- like under a bed or in a backpack.
  • Large amounts of food go missing from the pantry or fridge.
  • Your loved one "disappears" behind closed doors or stays up late at night (to binge in secret).
  • Piles of food wrappers are left in the car, buried in the trash, or hidden in places like a closet.
  • Your loved one hides their body with baggy clothes.

If you think there's a problem, talk with your loved one about it in a comforting, understanding way. They may blame themselves for being weak or not having the willpower to stop. They may be defensive. Start the conversation with, "I love you, and I'm worried you may have a problem."

Tell your loved one that binge eating disorder is a real psychological problem that is treatable with therapy and medication. It may take time and hard work, but assure them that they can find peace with food and their emotions again.