Binge eating means eating a large amount of food in a short period of time. Most of us may overeat during a special occasion, like a holiday. But people who have this disorder binge eat on a regular basis and feel a lack of control over their eating.
People with binge eating disorder are usually very upset by their binge eating and may experience stress, trouble sleeping, and depression. Binge eating disorder may lead to weight gain and to related health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Most people who binge eat feel ashamed and try to hide their problem. Often they become so good at hiding it that even close friends and family members may not know that their loved one binge eats.
Binge eating disorder can be successfully treated. If you are concerned that you or someone close to you may have binge eating disorder, talking to a health care provider may be an important first step.
The exact cause of binge eating disorder is still unknown, but researchers are beginning to understand factors that lead to its development. Like other eating disorders, binge eating disorder seems to result from a combination of psychological, biological, and environmental factors.
Binge eating disorder has been linked to other mental health disorders. Nearly half of all people with binge eating disorder have a history of depression, although the exact nature of the link is unclear. Many people report that anger, sadness, boredom, anxiety, or other negative emotions can trigger an episode of binge eating. Impulsive behavior and other psychological problems also seem to be more common in people with binge eating disorder.
Eating disorders, including binge eating disorder, can sometimes run in families, suggesting that a susceptibility to eating disorders might be inherited. Researchers also are looking into possible abnormal functioning of chemical messages to the brain involving hormones that regulate appetite (such as leptin and ghrelin) and proteins that regulate blood sugar and body metabolism (such as adiponectin).
People with binge eating disorder often come from families that overeat or put an unnatural emphasis on food; for example, they may use food as a reward or as a way to soothe or comfort, leading to binge eating as a learned behavioral response to stress.
Binge eating also sometimes can be an undesirable side effect of certain psychiatric or other medications that stimulate appetite and may interfere with people being able to sense when they are full after eating a meal.
Most people overeat from time to time, and many people believe they frequently eat more than they should. Eating large amounts of food, however, does not mean that a person has binge eating disorder. Most people with serious binge eating problems have some of the following symptoms:
- Frequent episodes of eating what others would consider an abnormally large amount of food
- Frequent feelings of being unable to control what or how much is being eaten
- Eating much more rapidly than usual
- Eating until uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food, even when not physically hungry
- Eating alone out of embarrassment at the quantity of food being eaten
- Feelings of disgust, depression, or guilt after overeating
- Fluctuations in weight
- Feelings of low self-esteem
- Loss of sexual desire
- Frequent dieting
Factors that can increase your risk of developing binge-eating disorder include:
- Family history and biological factors. You’re much more likely to have an eating disorder if your parents or siblings have (or had) an eating disorder. Some people with binge-eating disorder may have inherited genes that make them more susceptible to developing the disorder, or their brain chemicals may have changed.
- Psychological issues. Most people who have binge-eating disorder are overweight, acutely aware of their appearance, and feel bad about it. When you have binge-eating disorder, you may act impulsively and feel you can’t control your behavior. You may have a history of depression or substance abuse. And you may have trouble coping with stress, worry, anger, sadness and boredom.
- Dieting. Many people with binge-eating disorder have a history of dieting,some have dieted to excess dating back to childhood. Dieting may trigger an urge to binge eat, especially if you have low self-esteem and symptoms of depression.
- Your age. Although people of any age can have binge-eating disorder, it often begins in the late teens or early 20s.
The poor eating habits that are common in people with binge eating disorder can lead to serious health problems. The major complications of binge eating disorder are the conditions that often result from being obese. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Gallbladder disease
- Heart disease
- Shortness of breath
- Certain types of cancer
- Menstrual problems
- Decreased mobility (inability to move around) and tiredness
- Sleep problems, including sleep apnea
In addition, people with binge eating disorder are extremely distressed by their binge eating. In some cases, people will neglect their jobs, school, or social activities to binge eat.
While there are many things you can do to help yourself stop binge eating, it’s also important to seek professional support and treatment. Health professionals who offer treatment for binge eating disorder include psychiatrists, nutritionists, therapists, and eating disorder and obesity specialists.
An effective treatment program for binge eating disorder should address more than just your symptoms and destructive eating habits. It should also address the root causes of the problem, the emotional triggers that lead to binge eating and your difficulty coping with stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, and other uncomfortable emotions.
If obesity is endangering your health, weight loss may also be an important goal. However, dieting can contribute to binge eating, so any weight loss efforts should be carefully monitored by a professional.
Binge eating disorder can be successfully treated in therapy. Therapy can teach you how to fight the compulsion to binge, exchange unhealthy habits for newer healthy ones , monitor your eating and moods, and develop effective stress-busting skills.
Three types of therapy are particularly helpful in the treatment of binge eating disorder:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on the dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors involved in binge eating. One of the main goals is for you to become more self-aware of how you use food to deal with emotions. The therapist will help you recognize your binge eating triggers and learn how to avoid or combat them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for binge eating disorder also involves education about nutrition, healthy weight loss, and relaxation techniques.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy focuses on the relationship problems and interpersonal issues that contribute to compulsive eating. Your therapist will help you improve your communication skills and develop healthier relationships with family members and friends. As you learn how to relate better to others and get the emotional support you need, the compulsion to binge becomes more infrequent and easier to resist.
- Dialectical behavior therapy combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with mindfulness meditation. The emphasis of therapy is on teaching binge eaters how to accept themselves, tolerate stress better, and regulate their emotions. Your therapist will also address unhealthy attitudes you may have about eating, shape, and weight. Dialectical behavior therapy typically includes both individual treatment sessions and weekly group therapy sessions.
Breaking the old pattern of binge eating is hard, and you may slip from time to time. This is where the support of others can really come in handy. Family, friends, and therapists can all be part of your support team. You may also find that joining a group for binge eaters is helpful. Sharing your experience with other compulsive eaters can go a long way towards reducing the stigma and loneliness you may feel.
There are many group options, including self-help support groups and more formal therapy groups.
- Group therapy – Group therapy sessions are led by a trained psychotherapist, and may cover everything from healthy eating to coping with the urge to binge.
- Support groups – Support groups for binge eating are led by trained volunteers or health professionals. Group members give and receive advice and support each other.
There’s no medication specifically designed to treat binge-eating disorder. But, several types of medication may help reduce symptoms, especially when combined with psychotherapy. Examples include:
- Antidepressants. Antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) may be helpful. It’s not clear how these can reduce binge eating, but it may relate to how they affect certain brain chemicals associated with mood.
- The anticonvulsant topiramate (Topamax). Normally used to control seizures, topiramate has also been found to reduce binge-eating episodes. However, potentially it can cause serious side effects, so discuss these risks with your doctor.
Some people with binge-eating disorder find self-help books, videos, Internet programs or support groups effective. Some eating disorder programs offer self-help manuals that you can use on your own or with guidance from mental health experts. However, you still may need professional treatment with psychotherapy or medications.
Typically, treating binge-eating disorder on your own isn’t effective. But in addition to professional help, you can take these self-care steps to reinforce your treatment plan:
- Get active. Ask your health care provider what kind of physical activity is appropriate for you, especially if you have health problems related to being overweight.
- Stay connected. Don’t isolate yourself from caring family members and friends who want to see you get healthy. Understand that they have your best interests at heart.
- Get the right nutrients. Just because you may be eating a lot during binges doesn’t mean you’re eating the kinds of food that supply all of your essential nutrients. Talk to your doctor about vitamin and mineral supplements.
- Don’t stock up. Keep less food in your home than you normally do. That may mean more-frequent trips to the grocery store, but it may also take away the temptation and ability to binge eat.
- Eat breakfast. Many people with binge-eating disorder skip breakfast. But, if you eat breakfast, you may be less prone to eating higher calorie meals later in the day.
- Avoid dieting. Trying to diet can trigger more binge episodes, leading to a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. Talk with your doctor about appropriate weight management strategies for you don’t diet unless it’s recommended for your eating disorder treatment and supervised by your doctor.
- Stick to your treatment. Don’t skip therapy sessions. If you have a meal plan, do your best to stick to it and don’t let setbacks derail your overall efforts.
When To Contact A Professional And Medical Help
If you suspect that you or someone you know has Binge Eating Disorder, it is important to seek help immediately. The earlier you seek help the closer you are to recovery. While your GP may not be a specialist in eating disorders, they are a good ‘first base.’ A GP can provide a referral to a practitioner with specialised knowledge in health, nutrition and eating disorders.
- Encourage him or her to seek help. The longer an eating disorder remains undiagnosed and untreated, the more difficult it will be to overcome, so urge your loved one to see a health professional.
- Be supportive. Try to listen without judgment and make sure the person knows you care. If your loved one slips up on the road to recovery, remind them that it doesn’t mean they can’t quit binge eating for good.
- Avoid insults, lectures, or guilt trips. Binge eaters feel bad enough about themselves and their behavior already. Lecturing, getting upset, or issuing ultimatums to a binge eater will only increase stress and make the situation worse. Instead, make it clear that you care about the person’s health and happiness and you’ll continue to be there for him or her.
- Set a good example by eating healthily, exercising, and managing stress without food.
- Take care of yourself. Know when to seek advice for yourself from a counselor or health professional. Dealing with an eating disorder can be stressful, and it will help if you have your own support system in place.
Like other eating disorders, binge eating disorder is a serious problem that can be solved with proper treatment. With treatment and commitment, many people with this disorder can overcome the habit of overeating and learn healthy eating patterns.