Binge eating disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at May 18, 2016
StartDiseasesBinge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is a mental disorder where a person eats large amounts of food in short periods of time. The person often feels guilt or shame after these binges, but cannot stop them even though they would like to. Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders, and it can lead to other diseases and conditions if not treated.


Definition & Facts

Binge eating disorder is a medical disorder that affects more people than any other eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is defined as a person who eats more food than normal during a short period of time at least once per week for at least three months.

Those that are affected by binge eating disorder cannot control their binge eating habits and typically feel bad about the excessive amounts of food that were consumed. While the causes of binge eating disorder are not exactly known, it is possible that certain chemicals in the brain may play a role.

Symptoms & Complaints

People with binge eating disorder often display a number of similar symptoms. While many are overweight or obese, there are some individuals with this disorder who maintain a normal weight.

Binge eating disorder is characterized by eating unusually large portions of food in relatively short periods of time. Binge eaters may feel that their eating is out of control and may eat when not even hungry. When a person binge eats, an uncomfortably full feeling may ensue afterwards due to the overeating. Further evidence of binge eating disorder is a feeling of disgust with oneself or guilt about the overeating. A binge eater will most often eat alone or in secret to hide from others the fact that too much food is being consumed.

Additionally, the person may feel depressed about the condition they are afflicted with. One with binge eating disorder may frequently diet to try to make up for the overeating, but unlike bulimia and other eating disorders, there are no drastic measures taken to get rid of the excess food. For example, there is no vomiting, no use of laxatives, and no over-exercising associated with binge eating disorder.


The causes of binge eating disorder are not exactly known though researchers hypothesize that binge eating disorder may have a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Researchers believe that the disorder may stem from an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, namely hormones that regulate the appetite. In some cases, it is thought to be caused in part by side effects of some medications, especially psychiatric medications that interfere with appetite and the ability to distinguish whether or not one is full after a meal.

Many with the disorder also have other psychological disorders, including depression. Many patients have also reported feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Moreover, binge eating disorder also seems to run in families. Whether this is due to genetics or environmental factors is still unclear. If the latter case, binge eaters may come from families where food is given extreme importance, such as being used as a reward or as a way to soothe or comfort a person.

Diagnosis & Tests

Binge eating disorder, as well as other eating disorders, may be hard to detect because people often hide their binge eating. Shame and secrecy may allow the disorder to go unchecked for quite a long period of time. Often the disorder is discovered when a person goes to the doctor either seeking professional help with dieting or for another condition. Since binge eating disorder can lead to obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, among other conditions, a person may feel unwell and seek out a doctor.

A physician who suspects binge eating disorder will likely start with a complete physical examination and questionnaire about eating habits. The physician may order blood tests and urine tests to detect any diseases that may have been caused by the binge eating. Finally, the general physician may refer their patient to a psychiatrist or psychologist, particularly one who specializes in eating disorders. These specialists have specific questionnaires and diagnostic criteria for the diagnosis of binge eating disorder.

Treatment & Therapy

The first step to treatment of binge eating disorder is to admit that there is a problem and then to seek out help. One can talk to one's primary care physician who may be able to help or who will recommend a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. Treatment usually involves psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy, and it can be done on an outpatient basis. Remission for patients who have completed cognitive behavioral therapy is 50% according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

In addition, patients may be referred to a support group as well as online chat rooms and message boards for people with binge eating disorder. Sometimes, medications are used to help in the treatment phase. Lisdexamfetamine is a stimulant that is used to treat ADHD as well as binge eating disorder. Antidepressants and anticonvulsants are additional pharmaceutical therapies.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Because of the multiple psychological, social, environmental, and genetic factors that may cause binge eating disorder, prevention may not be totally possible, but increasing one's general awareness of eating disorders can help. For those who already have the disorder, it can help to devise and adhere to a regular meal plan. It is important for the individual to be aware of the situations or emotions that may trigger him or her to compulsively overeat.

Since binge eating disorder begins for many while children or teenagers, teaching children, even at a young age, about healthy eating and good body image may deter later incidences of binge eating disorder. In addition, not placing a huge emphasis on food when parenting may be helpful. For example, power struggles with young children about finishing what is on their plate should be avoided. Also, offering a child a bowl of ice cream in order to comfort, soothe, or reward should also be avoided.

While these strategies are no guarantee of prevention, they promote healthy attitudes towards food among children at an early age. Moreover, treating a person at the first signs of binge eating disorder will allow for better outcomes than waiting until the condition has led to severe health complications.