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Binge Eating Disorder: Signs, Symptoms & What to Do

Binge eating goes beyond moments and feelings of weakness. Dr. Cederquist weighs in on what it really means to have binge eating disorder and how it can be overcome.

Binge Eating Disorder: Signs, Symptoms & What to Do

It happens…

Reaching for a spoon to eat a small bowl of ice cream turns into finishing an entire container of ice cream. Then maybe grab a bag of chips, crackers, and anything else in the pantry. It is important though, to realize that binge eating is much more than eating a large amount of food.

Bingeing episodes can be identified as eating more rapidly than usual, until uncomfortably full, and when not feeling physically hungry. One may also avoid social eating and feel very guilty and depressed after overeating.

However, the science of binge eating goes beyond moments and feelings of weakness. Find out just what binge eating is and ways it can be overcome.

What Is Binge Eating?

Binge eating is compulsive eating, which is often triggered by unwanted stress and emotions. After binging, feelings of guilt, shame, and depression often emerge. 

The Cleveland Clinic suggests binge eating disorder (BED) is thought to be the most common eating disorder in the United States. "Indeed the most common eating disorder is binge eating disorder," agrees Dr. Caroline Cederquist, founding physician of bistroMD.

Despite its prevalence, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) suggests what is known about BED is limited compared to bulimia and anorexia nervosa. To bridge the gap, the NEDA compiled some of the facts and statistics on BED:

• About 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men have had BED during their life.

• Between 0.2 and 3.5 percent of females and 0.9 and 2.0 percent of males will develop binge eating disorder.

• Binge eating disorder often begins in late teens or early 20s. However, it can also occur in both young children and older adults.

• Approximately 40 percent of those with binge eating disorder are male.

• Three out of ten individuals who show signs of binge eating, weight loss is often sought out.

Binge Eating Causes

The causes of binge eating disorder are not well-known. However, genetics, biological factors, family histories, dieting patterns, societal pressures, and other psychological issues can increase the risk.

People who have binge eating disorders typically also display the following characteristics:

• Low self-esteem
• Lack of self-confidence
• Depression or anxiety
• Poor body image
• Stressful or traumatic past events
• Pressure to be thin
• Perfectionism

There is also a link between hormone imbalances and binge eating. These particular hormones are ones that regulate appetite and satiety, including leptin and ghrelin.

Ghrelin, the "hunger hormone," is one of the key gut signals associated with appetite. Leptin is linked to satiety and has the opposite effects of ghrelin. For some individuals, these hormones become out of whack. The imbalance of each can lead to an increase in appetite and a decreased feeling of fullness, ultimately contributing to overeating.

Dopamine is also activated during binge eating bouts and is released as a sense of pleasure heightens. It makes one feel good, and the reason why it is also known as the "feel good" hormone.

With the pantry cleared out and containers and wrappers empty, guilt starts to kick in. The guilt spins more thoughts and feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression and the binge eating cascade occurs all over again.

How to Know When It Becomes a Disorder

"A lot of us eat more than we should," says Dr. Cederquist, "But that doesn't make binge eating." She describes the most important thing about binge eating is feeling that you have a loss of control over eating. You do not want to do this eating, but you do it anyway.

Individuals with BED are often overweight or obese, though they can also be of average weight and not experience weight gain. However, binge eating disorder signs are mostly based on behavioral and emotional cues, including the following sourced by Mayo Clinic:

• Eating an unusual large amount of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a two-hour period.

• Feeling that eating behavior is out of control.

• Eating even when full or not hungry

• Eating rapidly during binge episodes.

• Eating until uncomfortably full.

• Frequently eating alone or in secret.

• Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about eating patterns.

• Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss.

In addition to signs and symptoms, there are also a variety of triggers that can cause an episode of binge eating. These include:

• Stress
• Boredom
• Anger
• Fear
• Anxiety
• Loneliness

If facing any of these symptoms, seek medical attention right away. And if hesitant to reach out for help, confide in a trusting and supportive individual. This may include a close friend or family member.

If noticing these patterns in a loved one, it is important to acknowledge them as non-judgmentally as possible. Be open and honest, along with supportive and encourage getting treatment.

Proper care is vital to lower risks of serious health conditions, including malnutrition and heart disease tied to yo-yo dieting. What’s more, it could even be lifesaving.

Binge Eating Treatment Options

The science of binge eating can be a vicious cycle that brings on a tougher challenge than just stopping eating habits. Resorting to food for comfort during stressful moments can ultimately correlate negative relationships with food.

Overall, binge eating disorder may present an individual with a way of coping with problems of identity and personal control. That being said, it is imperative to dig deep into the underlying cause that raises the risk of a binge.

Bingeing may also be related to a negative self-image or persistent stress. The following self-help and methods could be beneficial:

• Wearing clothes feeling both comfortable and confident in.

• Steering clear from the scale.

• Staying away from outlets that often distort an appropriate body, including magazines and social phone apps.

• Getting a massage or facial.

• Keeping active by hiking out in nature, biking with friends, and other favorite physical activities.

• Relieving stress by taking a warm bath, journaling, or calling a family member.

Fortunately, "Binge eating disorder is probably the most treatable eating disorder," states Dr. Cederquist, "But it involves a multidisciplinary approach."

She continues to lay out a binge eating treatment plan, including a structured nutritional program and various forms of therapy. Meditation and medications have likewise shown to be effective, especially if the strategies are performed together.


Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is useful for teaching how to develop healthier coping techniques. Sessions may be in individual or group settings and may include cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and family therapy.

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) can be helpful for resolving BED, too. In IPT, the focus is on interpersonal difficulties in the patient's life and provided in single or group settings.


Meditation is a growing intervention for disordered eating patterns, including an effective component of treating BED.

A study found using meditation decreased binge eating frequency from 4 times per week down to 1.5 times per week. Their sense of control increased, while the Beck Depression and Anxiety scores decreased significantly as well. 

A more recent review published in Eating Behaviors also suggests mindfulness meditation decreases binge eating and emotional eating.

Medications for Binge Eating & Depression

There are a number of known medications that may be effective in managing BED, including:

• Vyvanse, a drug primarily used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

• Topamax, which is an anticonvulsant prescribed to control seizures, may also reduce binge eating.

• Antidepressants, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been shown to be modestly effective for reducing binge eating over. This is particularly over the short-term in individuals who have been diagnosed with binge eating disorder.

• Anti-anxiety medications.

Ultimately, though, seek out professionals for a true diagnosis and binge eating disorder treatment. This especially serves true if bingeing has become an uncontrollable, regular component of life.