A guide to binge eating an eating disorder with a compulsion to overeat. Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
See also: Bulimia Nervosa
Binge eating is an eating disorder where you feel compelled to overeat.
Binge eaters usually eat large quantities of food, including when they’re not hungry, in a short period of time and in private. They feel they have no control over their overeating.
The bingeing is followed by feelings of guilt or disgust at having eaten so much. This self-loathing highlights underlying psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety, which can be a cause and an effect of the disorder.
Binge eating is different to occasional over-indulgence, which is not an eating disorder.
Who is affected?
Anyone can be affected by binge eating, but it is more common in women than men and usually starts in the teenage years or early twenties.
How is binge eating different to bulimia?
Binge eaters and people with bulimia often eat until they are uncomfortably full.
Bulimics then purge the food they have eaten by making themselves vomit or by taking laxatives. People who binge eat do not purge themselves, and feel ashamed of their behaviour, whether they are overweight or not.
Why do people binge eat?
Binge eating is a mental disorder, but it is also triggered by the effect that overeating has on the body. The Causes section (below) has more information on this.
Causes of binge eating
There is no single cause for binge eating but, like most eating disorders, it is seen as a way of coping with feelings of unhappiness, depression and low self-esteem.
Pressure to lose weight
Pressure from the media and from society to achieve a slim body shape can cause a tendency to binge eat.
This is because binge eaters who may be obese or may perceive themselves to be obese may not be able to achieve their desired body shape. This sense of inadequacy causes them to overeat, and then feel guilty.
Stress and mental health
Stress is another common trigger of eating disorders. Moving house, job or school, or the death of a friend or relative, can cause someone to binge eat.
It is estimated that about 50% of people with a binge eating disorder have had depression at some point in their life.
People with eating disorders usually experience difficulties in their personal life. Binge eaters often feel ashamed at the volume of food they consume, and may feel that their lack of control around food mirrors the lack of control they have over their personal lives.
People working in occupations that require weight control, such as sportsmen or models, are more likely to binge eat. Also, those who work with food, for example in catering, may be more susceptible to binge eating.
Symptoms of binge eating
The main symptom of binge eating is weight gain. Many people with the disorder are already seriously overweight. People carrying too much weight are vulnerable to other health problems associated with obesity, including:
- high cholesterol,
- high blood pressure,
- gallbladder disease, and
- heart disease.
Other physical symptoms
In addition, the physical effects on the body caused by fluctuating blood sugar levels are:
- sugar cravings,
- stomach pains,
- intolerance to heat and cold, and
People who binge eat are unable to understand why they cannot control their body’s sugar cravings, and become trapped in a cycle of bingeing, guilt, restrain and bingeing.
Binge eaters blame themselves for their weakness, which reduces their sense of self-esteem even further. Binge eating may cause the following psychological problems:
- panic attacks,
- lack of concentration,
- hopelessness, and
Diagnosing binge eating
If you think you have a binge eating problem, it is important to see your GP. They can diagnose your eating disorder and refer you for specialist treatment.
Your GP will ask you about your eating habits and look for three or more of the following signs:
- eating much faster than normal during a binge,
- eating until feeling uncomfortably full,
- eating a large amount of food when not hungry,
- eating alone or secretly due to embarrassment about the amount of food being consumed, and
- feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after overeating.
People who routinely eat this way may be diagnosed as having a binge eating disorder.
Treating binge eating
It is important to get help quickly if you think you have a binge eating disorder. Your GP will assess you and recommend the best course of treatment.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends the following treatments for eating disorders:
- a self-help programme, under the supervision of healthcare professionals,
- psychological therapy (see below), and/or
- a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant, in some cases.
People who binge eat are encouraged to stop relying on the cycle of bingeing and guilt as a way of dealing with emotional problems. It is possible to recover fully from binge eating with certain forms of therapy, such as:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): talking to a therapist and working out new ways of thinking about situations, feelings and food.
- Self-help and support groups: listed in the Useful links section.
- Psychotherapy: Regular sessions with a therapist to help you understand what makes you anxious and accept your strengths and weaknesses, and
- Diet and nutritional advice.
Usually, underlying psychological issues need to be dealt with first if weight loss is to be successful and lasting.
People who are overweight should follow a weight-loss plan drawn up by a healthcare professional. This will involve eating food high in complex carbohydrates and eating little and often.
Preventing binge eating
It is important to understand the effect of low blood sugar levels on the body, and the food cravings it causes. The following advice may help:
- Keeping a food diary may help to highlight when you binge, and the types of food you are eating that trigger a rapid and false sense of hunger.
- Eating food that is low in sugar will provide a slow and sustained energy release throughout the day.
- Eating little and often, and including complex carbohydrates to fill you up, will also help.
- Cutting out alcohol, caffeine and sugary foods will prevent the yo-yo effect on the body’s blood sugar levels.
Services for people with eating disorders
The term ‘eating disorder’ covers conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.
These disorders generally develop over time, sometimes over years, and often at a point when life brings fear and insecurity.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance to the NHS on eating disorders. Although chiefly intended for people with eating disorders, the information may also be helpful for family members and those who care for people with eating disorders.
The guidelines aim to improve the care and treatment provided in the health service and it looks at different areas of diagnosis, treatment, care and self-help.
The NICE guidelines contain information on the following topics:
- Advice for carers of someone with an eating disorder.
- What you can expect from the NHS if you have an eating disorder.
- Support and treatment if you have anorexia nervosa.
- Support and treatment if you have bulimia nervosa.
- Support and treatment if you have another type of eating disorder, including binge eating disorder.
For more information, download the NICE guidelines on eating disorders (links to external site).