Binge eating is much more than an ordinary episode of overindulgence. During an eating binge, you may take in more calories in an hour or two than you would usually consume in an entire day. A binge often consists of comfort foods or forbidden foods that are high in calories, fat, starch or sugar.
If you overindulge every once in a while as part of a celebration, a holiday or a vacation, these episodes probably aren’t signs of an eating disorder. But if you overeat compulsively on a regular basis at least once a week for three or more months in a row, you may have a condition called binge eating disorder.
Binge eating disorder, or BED, has emotional, psychological and physical sources. This condition can do serious harm to your body and mind, affecting your weight, your internal organs, your mood and your self-esteem. People with BED often battle depression, anxiety or substance abuse along with their eating disorder. The myth that people who overeat compulsively are weak-willed or lazy is false — eating disorder specialists know that this compulsion is a serious psychiatric illness that demands intensive treatment.
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Binge Eating as an Eating Disorder
Compulsive overeating has always been recognized as a health risk by the medical community, and mental health professionals have recognized that the drive to overeat has deep roots in the psyche. More recently, the American Psychiatric Association has established new diagnostic guidelines for binge eating disorder.
A binge eating episode is defined by:
- A loss of control over the length and extent of the episode
- Eating when you’re not hungry
- Eating more quickly than usual
- Eating past the point of physical comfort
- Feeling guilty, remorseful or disgusted after a binge
Binge eating may occur as part of another disorder, like bulimia nervosa, which is characterized by binge eating and purging. However, BED has now been recognized as a condition of its own, which arises from specific causes and responds to certain types of treatment.
What Triggers a Binge Eating Episode?
Binge eating can be triggered by emotions, by memories or by an unhealthy response to stress. This behavior may also be caused by abnormalities in brain chemistry that affect your moods and your appetite. Regardless of the reason for binge eating, hunger alone is rarely the only trigger.
Here are a few of the reasons that people overeat compulsively:
- Biological triggers. According to the Nemours Foundation, abnormalities in brain chemistry can prompt binge eating episodes. People who binge on a weekly or daily basis may have problems with the way the hypothalamus — the area of the brain that controls your appetite — communicates messages of satiety. They may also have a deficiency in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a part in appetite and mood regulation.
- Learned behaviors. Binge eating often runs in families, which could indicate that your genes are partly responsible for the impulse to overeat. Binge eating could also be a result of behaviors that are learned in families where food is used as a source of comfort or emotional reassurance.
- Emotional responses. Do you ever eat in response to anger, happiness, boredom, sadness or frustration instead of hunger? If so, your eating may have an emotional dimension that could make you vulnerable to binge eating disorder. Learning how to manage your emotions without turning to food is one of the most important tasks of treatment.
- A response to dieting. Ironically, binge eating may occur as a result of excessive dieting. On calorie-restricted diets, the body may respond as if it were starving, triggering an impulse to overeat. This response can lead to a cycle of binge eating, fasting and purging to get rid of the calories consumed during the binge.
Binge Eating Disorder vs. Bulimia
Binge eating is a hallmark sign of bulimia nervosa, another eating disorder that is characterized by episodes of compulsive overeating. But unlike people who suffer from bulimia, people with binge eating disorder usually do not purge the food they’ve eaten. Bulimics will force themselves to vomit, go through periods of self-starvation or exercise strenuously in order to compensate for their binges. People with BED either cannot purge their unwanted calories or don’t want to engage in purging behavior. According to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders, binge eating disorder is more common than bulimia or anorexia, affecting one out of every 35 American adults. Unlike bulimia and anorexia, binge eating disorder is almost as common in men as it is in women. While most people who have bulimia have an average body weight, people with binge eating disorder are more likely to be overweight or obese. And while bulimia usually affects females ages 25 and younger, binge eating disorder is most common in men and women between the ages of 46 and 55, according to the Weight-Control Information Network. However, people of all ages and from all socioeconomic backgrounds may display the symptoms of binge eating.
Obesity is one of the most serious health risks of binge eating. Although binge eating disorder does not necessarily mean that you will become obese, many people with BED are in danger of developing the complications of being extremely overweight, such as:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Digestive problems
- Hormonal imbalances
- Gallbladder problems
- Sleep apnea
Binge eating disorder affects the psyche as well as the body. The disorder may cause depression, intense feelings of self-loathing and emotional stress. Kids who binge may be exposed to bullying and teasing at school, while adults may have trouble forming relationships or holding down a steady job. Academic performance, job performance and overall satisfaction with life may suffer. People with BED may struggle with suicidal thoughts and may turn to drugs or alcohol to suppress painful emotions.
Treatment for Binge Eating
An effective treatment plan for binge eating requires careful identification of the causes of this behavior. Binge eating disorder may require a different approach to treatment than bulimia nervosa, depression or anxiety, all of which may accompany compulsive overeating. If binge eating has caused you to gain weight, you may need nutritional counseling and dietary planning to lose the extra pounds; however, long-term weight control won’t be possible unless you also address the psychosocial reasons for your compulsive overeating. A balanced diet and exercise program, combined with individual therapy, group and family counseling, will help you start the process of getting your life back. Treatment for binge eating disorder might involve the use of prescription medications to help reduce the desire to binge or to handle the symptoms of a co-occurring mood disorder. If you are battling depression, anxiety or substance abuse, treatment for these conditions must be integrated with your recovery plan. According to the journal Eating Behaviors, cognitive behavioral therapy in combination with antidepressant medications has proven effective at reducing compulsive overeating and stabilizing mood. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a therapeutic approach that teaches the client practical ways to identify self-defeating thoughts, modify destructive behaviors and avoid relapse. A facility that specializes in the treatment of eating disorders will work with you to develop a plan of care that addresses your unique needs. Eating disorders are complex, highly individualized conditions. No two people who experience binge eating are exactly alike, which means that treatment for each person must be tailored to the individual.