Everyone overeats sometimes. But for some people, this pattern of overeating becomes chronic and severe.
A binge eating disorder is a lot more serious than having a little too much ice cream in the middle of the night 一 it’s a dangerous mental health condition (specifically an eating disorder) that requires treatment. Binge eating disorders, like most other eating disorders, cause a significant amount of emotional pain. When left untreated, a binge eating disorder can lead to long-term health consequences as well.
Here’s your guide to binge eating disorders, including symptoms, causes, and a comprehensive list of treatment options.
Symptoms of a Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorders cause people to frequently spend a certain amount of time eating large amounts of food very quickly. It may feel like they have absolutely no control over their eating while they’re having what’s called a binge eating session or episode. Afterward, though, they are consumed with feelings of guilt, shame, regret, and even self-disgust.
If you have a binge eating disorder, this may sound familiar to you. After having a binge eating session, you might feel so badly about your body, eating habits, or weight that you try to go on a diet 一 only to find yourself in another session soon after.
Binge eating disorder is a relatively new diagnosis that was only officially recognized in the last edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V, 2013). Before then, people with a binge eating disorder were simply diagnosed as having “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.” 
However, a binge eating disorder is a unique condition that requires unique treatment. It’s also the most common eating disorder in the United States.
Diagnostic Criteria of a Binge Eating Disorder
According to the DSM-V, which is considered the ultimate authority on psychiatric diagnoses, the symptoms of binge eating disorder include:
- Eating, in a specified period of time (usually around 2 hours), a larger amount of food than what most people would eat in the same amount of time under similar circumstances.
- Feeling like you have no control over the amount you’re eating during this episode. You may wish to stop eating, but feel like you can’t.
- During binge eating episodes, you:
- Eat much more quickly than normal
- Eat until you’re so full that you’re uncomfortable
- Eat a lot even when you’re not hungry
- Eat alone or in secret because of embarrassment or shame
- Feel extremely disgusted with yourself, ashamed, or guilty after you’re finished eating
Note that you must eat more than most people would under similar circumstances. Everyone overeats (or “binge” eats) sometimes, but people with binge eating disorder eat more than others ordinarily would. For example, eating until you’re uncomfortably full during Thanksgiving dinner does not mean you have binge eating disorder.
To qualify for a diagnosis of binge eating disorder, you must go through a binge-eating episode at least once a week for 3 months or more. The binge eating sessions must also bring you significant distress, meaning they upset you and cause you emotional pain. They might even cause problems in your relationships.
Your provider will also rule out other conditions when assessing you for binge eating disorder. If you purge after a binge, for example, you may be diagnosed with bulimia nervosa.
Other Signs and Symptoms of a Binge Eating Disorder
On top of these officially recognized symptoms, some other warning signs and behaviors associated with binge eating disorder include:
- Frequently dieting, whether or not the diet leads to weight loss
- Having a negative body image or having a lot of concern about weight and body shape
- Stealing or hoarding food
- Big changes in weight (people with binge eating disorder are frequently, but not always, overweight)
- Low self-esteem
- Having an irregular eating schedule; for example, skipping meals or eating all day long
- Creating rituals or schedules to make time or account for binge eating episodes (for example, someone might binge eat right before they’re about to go out with friends, but end up canceling)
- Periodic fasting
- Perfectionistic tendencies
- Feeling out of control
If you recognize any of these signs in yourself, it’s important that you talk to a professional right away.
Causes of a Binge Eating Disorder
A binge eating disorder isn’t caused by any one thing. Although, certain things may put you at higher risk. Some of these risk factors are:
1. Genetics and family history
People who have family members with a binge eating disorder may be more likely to have it themselves. There may be a genetic component to this; there’s evidence that suggests this disorder is hereditary. You might have also picked up on binge eating behaviors by watching someone else do it as a child.
Although a binge eating disorder can affect people of any gender, women are more likely than men to have it.
3. Negative body image
People who buy into “diet culture” and have negative feelings about their bodies tend to be at higher risk of binge eating. On top of this, being overweight can be both a result and cause of a binge eating disorder. For example, someone who’s overweight can feel bad about their body shape, and develop a binge eating disorder because of this.
4. Stressful life events
Traumatic events, especially childhood bullying around weight, can heighten your risk of developing a binge eating disorder.
5. Other mental health conditions
Most people with a binge eating disorder struggle with other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these disorders cause a binge eating disorder. It could work the other way around; a binge eating disorder could make someone more likely to have these mental health conditions.
Once you already have a binge eating disorder, different things can trigger each binge eating episode, including:
- Painful emotions
- Dieting or skipping meals
- Feeling bad about your body
At the end of the day, there isn’t just one thing that causes people to develop binge eating disorder. For most people, it is a combination of lots of different risk factors. Anyone can get a binge eating disorder, and having a binge eating disorder is not your fault.
Health Risks and Consequences of a Binge Eating Disorder
A binge eating disorder is not just about emotional pain. It is also associated with several serious and dangerous health risks, many of them physical.
Some of the most serious health effects of binge eating disorder include:
1. Obesity and related risks
Although certainly not everyone with a binge eating disorder is overweight, over 50% are. Obesity can be a tricky subject to think about when you have a binge eating disorder, and it is important to think about it in terms of a health condition 一 not body image.
Obesity comes with a long list of serious health risks, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, and certain types of cancer.
People with a binge eating disorder often get locked into a vicious cycle. Negative feelings about body weight can cause binge eating 一 and the extra calories consumed during a binge can lead to weight gain, and so on.
2. Heart disease
On top of a higher risk for obesity (which then increases your odds of having heart problems), some studies suggest that people with a binge eating disorder and obesity are at even higher risk for developing heart disease than people of the same weight but without binge eating disorder.
Binge eating and obesity can make it difficult for your heart to pump enough blood out to the rest of your body. These conditions also raise your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. All of these things increase your risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
3. Type 2 diabetes
Both obesity and a binge eating disorder can heighten your risk for getting type 2 diabetes, a blood sugar condition that can be life-threatening. Binge eating disrupts your body’s glucose metabolism, or the process by which your body breaks down carbs into simple sugars.
Problems with mental health are also a serious health risk that comes along with binge eating disorder.
A binge eating disorder (and other eating disorders) is highly linked with depression and other mood disorders. The relationship often goes both ways 一 feeling depressed often leads to binge eating episodes. But after a binge eating episode, symptoms of depression usually become worse.
On top of that, a binge eating disorder can start to disrupt your relationships and life. People with a binge eating disorder report more difficulty in their social interactions than people without it. When your relationships start to fall apart, this can put you at an even higher risk of depression.
Depression is a serious medical condition and can have life-threatening consequences when severe.
Some other conditions that have been associated with a binge eating disorder include:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Pregnancy complications
It could be possible that obesity accounts for some of these relationships. However, some research studies suggest that a binge eating disorder can lead to these conditions independent of whether or not you also have obesity.
This information is not meant to scare you, but to help you understand that a binge eating disorder does not exist in a vacuum. It affects the other parts of your life, and can start causing serious problems if left untreated.
Treatment for a Binge Eating Disorder
Thankfully, a binge eating disorder is a highly treatable condition. How it is treated depends on the severity of your condition, as well as any other mental or physical health conditions you may be facing at the same time.
Below are some of the treatment options available to you. Talk these options over with your healthcare provider to decide which might be best for your situation.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help you work through the reasons why you binge eat, and how binge eating makes you feel. Therapy gives you a safe, nonjudgmental space to explore your experience with your binge eating disorder and learn healthy coping tools to start healing.
Some of the most common types of psychotherapy that are used for a binge eating disorder include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most well-studied types of psychotherapy for many different mental health conditions, including eating disorders like a binge eating disorder. CBT is based on the idea that it is the way you perceive and think about the events in your life, rather than the events themselves, that cause you to feel upset.
CBT for a binge eating disorder can help you to reexamine the negative and irrational thoughts you have about your body image or eating habits. For example, if you commonly think to yourself, “I’m disgusting,” after a binge eating episode, CBT may help you change that thought to, “I don’t like that I just gave into binge eating, but that doesn’t make me disgusting. I know that I am a lovable and worthwhile person.”
Interpersonal therapy (IPT) for a binge eating disorder focuses on the important relationships in your life. This can be beneficial for people whose binge eating disorder has been affected by the difficult relationships in their lives, either in the past or in the present.
Dialectical behavior therapy
Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, was originally created for people with suicidal or self-harm behaviors. A DBT therapist or group can teach you skills to better manage stress, intense emotions, and urges. It can also help you improve your relationships with other people.
All of these skills, ideally, can help you to deal with your emotions without resorting to binge eating and start having a healthier relationship with both yourself and with the people around you.
There is only one medication, called dimesylate, that has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of binge eating disorder. However, this drug comes with some risks. Dimesylate is a stimulant drug that is most commonly used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because it is a stimulant, dimesylate can be habit-forming and abused.
Residential treatment programs
Residential, partial hospitalization, or inpatient treatment can be a great treatment option for people with binge eating disorder because they are surrounded by 24/7 support. This includes both staff members as well as other people who are going through a similar experience.
If you choose to enter into a residential treatment program for binge eating disorder, you will reside in and receive treatment at the treatment facility. There are many different settings for residential treatment programs, including hospitals and private luxury homes.
The residential treatment program at The Center • A Place of HOPE is located in condominium-style apartments, which are complete with full kitchens and patios. The apartments are in the beautiful town of Edmonds, Washington, with magnificent views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound.
Nutritional counseling and weight loss programs
Nutritional counseling, or a behavioral weight loss program, can help you develop healthy eating habits and a more positive relationship with food. The Center provides licensed nutritionists and dieticians on staff. People with a binge eating disorder often swing between dieting and binge eating. Nutritional counseling can help you to eat a healthy and complete diet without restricting yourself of food.
If a binge eating disorder has led to obesity or weight gain causing health problems in your life, that may be one of the focuses of your treatment. However, weight loss won’t be addressed until your binge eating disorder is under control. That’s because a binge eating disorder is an eating disorder, and often accompanied by negative body image. If you immediately start focusing on the weight loss, this won’t help you address the underlying causes of your binge eating disorder 一 and may even make them worse.
A weight loss program for binge eating disorder will always be under medical supervision to make sure you keep consuming the calories and nutrients you need.
When nutritional counseling is offered in residential treatment, it is often accompanied by healthy meal preparation as well.
Helping Yourself if You Have a Binge Eating Disorder
On top of getting medical treatment, there are also lifestyle changes and other things you can use to help yourself start healing from a binge eating disorder. These self-care practices include:
- Get physical exercise. Exercise lifts your mood and can also improve your physical health.
- Know your triggers. Keeping a food diary to figure out what your binge eating triggers are might be helpful.
- Connect with your support system. Who can you call when you’re facing an urge to binge eat? If you don’t have anyone you can trust, consider joining a support group.
- Avoid dieting. Binge eating episodes are often triggered by extreme dieting, or feeling deprived of the foods you love. Avoid dieting unless it is supervised by a medical professional (who is aware that you have a binge eating disorder).
- Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. Many people with binge eating disorder skip breakfast, often because they feel guilty about a binge the day before. Always eat breakfast. Not only is it important for your health, but you may find that you are less likely to have a binge eating episode later in the day.
Get Help for a Binge Eating Disorder at The Center • A Place of HOPE
If you’re ready to start healing from your binge eating disorder, our team at The Center • A Place of HOPE is waiting to hear from you. We have over three decades of experience helping people like you recover from disordered eating, and our team truly cares about helping you heal your relationship with food. Our residential treatment program for eating disorders accepts many different insurance plans, and financing is also available.
There are specialized programs for women, men, and adolescents at our program. All of our programs are whole-person based, which means that we see you as a complete human being, not just an eating disorder patient.
To learn more about our admissions process and how you can start your treatment journey with us, get in touch with us today.