Research on Binge Eating Disorder and Medication

Contributor: Scott Crow, M.D., Director of Research, The Emily Program, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Minnesota

Doctor VisitRecent research has shown that binge eating disorder (BED) is quite common, affecting about 2% to 3.5% of the population. Binge eating disorder impacts quality of life and can cause or worsen various medical problems.

A number of treatments have been developed for BED. The primary treatment used right now is counseling, or psychotherapy. However, a substantial amount of research has also identified medications that can be helpful for binge eating. In this article, we will review past work examining medications for BED and look at potential future developments.

Advantages to Using Medications

It is worth noting that there are some potential advantages to using medications. First, some people may prefer taking medications as opposed to taking part in psychotherapy. Perhaps more importantly, the specialized psychotherapies that can help people with BED are typically used mostly in specialized centers, and are not widely available across large parts of the country.

By contrast, medications for BED are available in any pharmacy. Thus, medication treatments are potentially more portable.

Medications Used to Help with Eating Disorders

Teenage Girl wearing helmet while resting on bicycle outdoors neSince the 1990s, a wide variety of medications have been studied. Initially, medicines used for treating bulimia nervosa (primarily antidepressants) were used for BED and many have been shown to be helpful. These medicines may work by suppressing urges for binge eating, and perhaps also by diminishing eating disordered thoughts.

One limitation of these medications is that many people with BED are seeking weight loss, and for many, diminishing their weight somewhat would improve medical problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc. However, while antidepressants used for BED do cut down on binge eating, they typically do not lead to significant weight loss.

Medications to Treat Binge Eating Disorder

A second group of medications that has been studied for BED are those used to treat obesity. These medicines probably work by diminishing appetite, and the thinking is that they may also cut down binge eating. A wide variety of or weight loss medications have been studied, and these, too, have been shown to be helpful for BED, by diminishing the frequency of binge eating, just as with antidepressants.

In many instances modest weight loss also occurs. This can bring medical benefits; on the other hand, the amount of weight loss that occurs is typically not more than 5-10% of total weight. This can be frustrating because it is usually a smaller amount of weight loss than hoped for by the person receiving treatment.

Medications for the Underlying Issues

Most recently, research has examined other groups of medications for BED that may impact impulsivity (the tendency to act quickly, without carefully considering one’s actions). This may, in part, underlie binge eating, at least for some people.

These medications (some otherwise used for seizures, and one recently-approved attention deficit disorder medication, lisdexamphetamine) appear to work in a much different way.

Multiple Approaches to Treat the Complexities of Eating Disorders

Mother and daughter smiling at each otherIn summary, there are a number of medication approaches to BED that can be helpful, including medications that diminish urges for binge eating, medications that diminish appetite, and medications that may impact impulsive decision making. It is important to bear in mind that medication used in combination with specialized psychotherapy may work better than just therapy or medication alone.

Future research in this area will likely involve a wide variety of new medications that are being developed to impact appetite, urges, and impulsivity. In addition, now that one medication has been approved by the FDA for treating BED, this is likely to attract more attention and more research into effective treatments for BED.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with medication in treatment of Binge Eating Disorder? What has worked well for you?

About The Emily Program:

The Emily Program is a nationally recognized eating disorder treatment center with locations in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington. For more information about services, visit or call 888-EMILY-77.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 17th, 2015
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