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Binge eating is not what families do at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It is not having a second dish of chocolate ice cream because it’s your favorite flavor. It’s not overindulging in fried chicken while visiting someone in the South.
Binge eating is a serious disorder that affects 1.2% of American adults, making this eating disorder much more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.  The effects of binge eating are both physical and psychological, and life with the condition can be incredibly difficult.
Understanding Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating involves consuming a great deal of food in an uncontrolled and/or rapid manner and eating beyond the point of fullness.
Binge eating is not motivated by physiological hunger—it is driven by psychological issues, such as:
- Fear of failure or rejection
- Unmet expectations
- Feeling inadequate
Binges may be spontaneous or planned. No purging is involved, but sporadic fasting or repeat dieting may occur.
Binge eating disorder (BED) is typically diagnosed when binge eating episodes occur, on average, at least once a week for three months.  But even with less frequency, binge eating can be a serious problem.
Effects of Binge Eating Disorder
Secrecy characterizes binge eating disorder. Many people with this issue struggle in silence, and as they do, their consequences worsen. People may deal with physical effects, psychological effects, or both.
Physical Effects of Binge Eating Disorder
All humans need food to survive. But the unusual eating habits involved in BED can lead to significant health consequences that can be painful, life-threatening, or both.
- Physical discomfort: A typical meal contains about 850 kilocalories. During a binge, people can eat close to 3,000 kilocalories in one sitting.  Gastrointestinal distress frequently occurs due to the high volume of food ingested.
- Sudden death: Eating so much so quickly can lead to stomach or intestinal perforation. As liquids leak into surrounding tissue, your life is at risk.  Even people without a formal BED diagnosis can experience sudden death during a binge.
- Weight gain: Many, but not all, people with BED are overweight or obese.  Those who gain weight may experience cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and adult-onset diabetes.
- Insomnia: Binge eating and sleep problems are closely related.  Many people with BED can’t sleep after a binge, and some binge because they’re unable to sleep. A lack of adequate rest can leave you feeling foggy and upset the following day.
- Gout: Binge eating and an inactive lifestyle can lead to an inflammatory arthritis episode known as gout.
Psychological Effects of Binge Eating Disorder
It’s easy to focus on the physical effects of binge eating disorder, but psychological changes also occur, and can profoundly impact your quality of life. Many people with BED struggle with these issues:
- Isolation: Extreme shame usually surrounds this disorder, meaning it must be done privately. Social isolation occurs as people need time to binge and then recover from that binge.
- Poor mental health: Immediately after a binge, feelings of shame, self-hatred, anxiety, and depression are common. Continuing in the behavior for months or years intensifies feelings of depression, anger, sadness, and loneliness.
- Lack of treatment: There is often tremendous weight stigma surrounding this disease, where a person with BED may not seek help due to feeling they are not “sick enough” for eating disorder treatment. Stereotypes like this often cause a person to suffer in silence unnecessarily for long periods before seeking help.
- Substance abuse: Binge eating and substance abuse are closely tied.  Some people use substances to deal with the psychological distress caused by bingeing, but their substance abuse can worsen the eating disorder.
Seeking Help & Treatment For Binge Eating Disorder
It can be difficult to discuss BED and disordered eating. But understanding how the illness works and talking with a professional could be crucial to your recovery. Try these steps.
Evaluate Your Beliefs
There are two reasons to eat:
Food meets the body’s requirements and provides pleasure. Both need to be present in balance.
With binge eating, the potential exists for neither to be present. Often, the type of food ingested is not beneficial to the body and is not enjoyed.
- What is Binge Eating Disorder (BED) | Symptoms, Risks & Causes
- Medical Nutrition Therapy for Binge Eating Disorder
- Correlation Between Binge Eating Disorder and Trauma
- Partner Abuse, Trauma and Binge Eating Disorder
Acknowledge the Issue
Look closely at the behavior and ask: “Am I eating for reasons other than nourishing my body or enjoyment?” Then, consider what needs you are trying to meet through food.
Especially if overweight, individuals with binge eating may diet. Since dieting involves restriction, it leads to feelings of deprivation, which leads to bingeing.
Instead, try to reconnect with your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. If a desire to eat is present, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” If not, try to understand why you want to eat when not hungry. Could it be loneliness, anger, frustration, or depression?
A therapist or counselor can help you get to the “why” of your eating behavior and find new ways of dealing with the emotions that underlie the behavior. Therapists who use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques are usually the most successful. If medical complications exist, consult a physician.
Visit a dietitian to learn about or return to healthy eating and to plan appropriate and enjoyable exercise.
Finally, if counseling is going slowly, consult a psychiatrist since newer medication combinations appear promising in reducing binge eating. More severe cases may require treatment at a clinic for eating disorders.
- Eating Disorders. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed September 2022.
- Berkman ND, Brownley KA, Peat CM, et al. (2015). Management and Outcomes of Binge-Eating Disorder [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2015 Dec. (Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 160.) Table 1, DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder.
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Edited & published on January 4, 2023 and recently reviewed by: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC