Why Am I Binge Eating?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 11, 2023
3 min read

Everyone overeats from time to time. Binge eating disorder is different, though. You might have it if you regularly eat a lot of food in just a few hours -- even when you're not hungry -- to drown out emotions. Then you quickly feel shame or guilt about it.

The disorder is treatable. Your doctor can help you stop and, later on, get to and maintain a healthy weight. The first step is to understand why you're bingeing.

Both may involve mindless behavior. You eat too much without thinking about why. But there are real differences.

General examples of overeating are:

  • Having more than one dessert after dinner
  • Finishing a whole bag of popcorn while watching a movie

When you eat too much because of a stressful event such as a romantic breakup, it's sometimes called "emotional eating."

Examples of binge eating are:

  • Sneaking a large bag of candy into your room and finishing it in secret
  • Eating a whole cake in one sitting, and then feeling guilty
  • Finishing three burgers, even when you’re already uncomfortably full

Binge eating disorder can stem from many things. Some are:

Genes. Eating disorders tend to run in families. If your mother or grandmother binged, you're more likely to do it. Research shows that a number of genes that affect eating behavior may be passed down through families. Those genes can affect brain circuits that control appetite and mood.

A problem with your genes may increase the odds that you’ll have binge eating disorder -- but other things trigger it.

Family. Perhaps you watched your mom or dad overeat often. The habits you learned from the people around you may influence the way you eat in general. Still, eating disorder organizations say that parents and families aren't to blame.

Depression. If you’re depressed, you may be more likely to binge. About half of people with binge eating disorder have had depression. Scientists aren’t sure whether depression causes binge eating, or vice versa.

There are still some questions: Are people with depression more likely to binge? Or, do the guilt and shame make people depressed?

Low Self-Esteem. Often, people who binge aren't happy with the way they look. You might think badly about your body because of what others say or have said. You might compare yourself with TV and magazine photos that emphasize thinness. That might give you what's known as a negative body image. Such low self-esteem can lead to binge eating. After bingeing, a person feels guilt or shame because they ate too much. These feelings can cause more overeating.

Stress and Anxiety. Sometimes people binge after they've gone through a major stressful event, like a divorce or losing a job. Emotional eating can be temporary and may not be a binge eating disorder, though. That said, people with the disorder are usually more likely to overeat if they're anxious or stressed.

Extreme Dieting. Sometimes an attempt to lose weight can lead to bingeing. This is especially true when people follow unhealthy diets to lose weight, such as skipping meals or eating too little. If they don't reach their goal weight, they may feel so guilty and terrible about themselves that they eat even more.

If you think you have binge eating disorder, work with a doctor to get well. Treatment might include counseling and, sometimes, medicine.

Try these tips to avoid food binges:

  • Keep a food diary. It will help you learn when you tend to binge. You can also see what was going on in your life that may have led you to do it.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. They'll keep your blood sugar steady, so you won't feel hungry enough to binge.
  • Portion out your food. Don't just grab a big bag of chips and head to the couch to watch TV. Measure out one serving into a small bag or onto a plate. You'll be less likely to eat too much if you have to get up for more.
  • Think about why you're bingeing. Are you depressed or anxious? Find another way to soothe these emotions.