Binge Eating Disorder: All About Compulsive Overeating

binge eating disorder written on a small blackboard chalkboard, being held by a doctor wearing a white coat and latex gloves

Binge eating disorder is a real eating disorder–and the most common. If you’re suffering from compulsive overeating, know you’re not alone. | Source: ShutterStock

Binge eating disorder (often abbreviated as “BED”) gets swept under the rug a lot and is often misunderstood–but there’s nothing fun about binges. They’re dangerous, they’re no joke and they require help to stop. Here’s everything you need to know about compulsive overeating and binge eating disorders.

What is binge eating, anyway?

Binge eating is also called compulsive overeating. When someone binge eats or compulsively overeats, they feel out of control of their food intake and literally can’t stop themselves from eating. Often, when someone is binge eating, they eat so much so quickly that they can barely even register what the food tastes like. Binges usually last around two hours, but can go on and off all day. Binge eating doesn’t happen when someone is hungry, either–and when someone is binge eating, they keep eating long after they’re full, often until they actually feel sick.

One big factor in binge eating is a lack of control and a feeling of shame. Compulsive eating is often used to numb bad feelings on the inside (think of “comfort food,” but taken to a whole other level). Once the binge is over, binge eaters feel worse than they did before, ashamed of what they’ve done and their lack of control … and that causes them to binge eat more to feel better. It’s a vicious cycle.

Another crazy fact about binge eating? It’s one of the most common eating disorders out there, but most people who have it either don’t even realize it’s a medical problem or feel too ashamed to confess their habits, so they don’t seek out help.

What’s difference between pigging out and binge eating?

Everyone pigs out once in a while–Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday, or, if you’re me, every Sunday, because it’s macaroni day and I’m Italian. But binge eating is distinctly different in a few ways. For one, there’s a lack of control associated with binge eating: if you’re binge eating, you literally feel like you can’t stop yourself. There’s also an element of shame, low self-esteem and a high frequency of overeating that make binge eating much different than just eating a little too many slices of pizza, followed by cake and Cookie Dough Oreos. (Stop judging me.)

What are the symptoms of binge eating?

You’re probably like, “Okay, I eat a lot. Do I have a problem?!” But binge eating is a lot more complicated than it sounds. Here are the most common symptoms of binge eating–there are a lot more than just, well, eating:

o Eating what most people would consider abnormally large amounts of food
o Eating a lot of food even when you’re not hungry
o Feeling unable to control how much you’re eating
o Eating rapidly, even if you’re not in a hurry
o Eating until you’re so full that you feel bloated, sick or just blah–and often
o Hiding your eating habits from friends and family
o Only eating alone because you’re ashamed at how much you eat
o Blanking or spacing out while you’re eating and not even realizing what you’re doing
o Feeling grossed out, embarrassed, depressed or guilty after your overeat
o Eating thousands of calories in one sitting a few times a week
o Hiding or hoarding food for future binges
o Eating normally around others but overeating when you’re alone
o Eating constantly throughout the day without any real planned mealtimes
o Fluctuating weight
o Changes in your period
o Suicidal thoughts
o Shortness of breath, thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, blurred vision and/or areas of darkened skin, which may be signs of type 2 diabetes–which can be caused by binge eating disorder
o High blood pressure
o Joint pain
o Low self-esteem
o Dieting a lot and often
o Eating getting in the way of intimacy, activities, work, school, friendships or extracurriculars
o If you’re sexually active, a decrease in your sex drive

What are the most common foods associated with binge eating disorder?

People who suffer binge eating disorder often have a pattern or a certain few foods that they consume more than others. Studies have shown that light colored, smooth textured carbohydrates are the types of food most often scarfed down in a binge. Additionally, binge eating often has a pattern of salty, sweet, salty, sweet. In terms of specifics, studies found that the most common foods among binges are cereal, peanut butter and ice cream.

What causes binge eating?

Binge eating is often triggered by stress. If you’re worried about finals, just got dumped or are under extreme pressure, you may seek comfort in a snack … and that snack turns into an hours-long binge session. Then you feel so crappy about what you just did that you beat yourself up over it … and then end up binge eating again to feel better. It’s a very vicious but very easy cycle to fall into.

Stress isn’t the only binge eating trigger, though. Compulsive overeating can also be caused by boredom: think of how on a rainy Sunday you sit in front of a Walking Dead marathon with the intention of eating a handful of Doritos, only to space out and realize a few hours later that the bag is completely empty and your hands the color of Snooki and J-Woww’s skin.

Depression can also trigger compulsive eating, for similar reasons as stress: A heaping plate of macaroni and cheese feels really good in the moment, but when you’re done with it–and with the ice cream and pretzels you had afterward–you probably feel bloated, sick and worse than you did before. This can make you feel more depressed, which can lead you to look for more comfort. If you look for that comfort in food, you’ve entered the cycle once more.

There are also biological links to binge eating disorder. For some people, their hypothalamus

Who is most at risk for binge eating disorder?

Studies have shown that those with a family history of binge eating disorder are most likely to develop it, because they may have a genetic mutation that causes the disorder. Alternatively, changes in your brain chemicals–which can happen a lot of ways, not all of which are under your control–can lead to binge eating disorder.

Not everyone who suffers from binge eating disorder is overweight, but many binge eating disorder patients are already overweight … and they know it, and it hurts their feelings and self-esteem. These patients turn to food to cope with their emotions, and they get trapped in a cycle of binge eating and shame, which leads to more binge eating. It’s scary, it’s a slippery slope and it can happen to anyone, whether or not they’re currently overweight.

young African-American girl binge eating cake, donuts, cupcakes, muffins and various desserts

Sweets aren’t so sweet when you’re dealing with binge eating disorder. | Source: ShutterStock

While adolescent and college-age girls are often the most common victims and survivors of eating disorders, binge eating disorder really doesn’t discriminate at all. It affects nearly as many boys and men as it does women and girls, but middle-aged women are usually the most susceptible to binge eating disorder. Why’s that? Experts think it’s a combination of factors, including hormonal changes in mid-life (usually menopause), metabolic changes (how your body processes, digests, uses and stores food) and pressures of various kinds, ranging from work issues to family life to balancing both. Some experts also say that many adult women focus so much more on taking care of others that they neglect their own health and well-being, which can translate into binge eating disorder eventually. So please, be nice to your mom!

 What are the effects of binge eating?

You probably think people with binge eating disorder and compulsive eating habits are pretty overweight, right? But that’s actually wrong … sort of. A lot of people who suffer from binge eating disorder are actually thin. This is in part because binge eaters are often trapped in a cycle of binges and fasts, so it becomes sort of an “all or nothing” thing. While obesity can be and often is a result of binge eating, is isn’t always.

Often, those suffering from binge eating disorder feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at their lack of control over their food intake. This ends up in low self-esteem, and then often someone with binge eating disorder will overeat to make themselves feel better … and then they’ll feel crappy again. This is especially true for sufferers of binge eating disorder who also suffer from weight gain or obesity.

Therapist Leora Fulvio explains the shame of binge eating disorder pretty perfectly. “People with binge eating disorder or bulimia are treated differently than those struggling with anorexia,” she says. “Someone who is starving themselves is thought of as being very disciplined or superhuman—although we know that’s not true. Our media dotes on people who have lost weight and have that ‘discipline.’ We treat people who are not emaciated as inferior, and there is this public shaming of people, women especially, if they are curvy. Vuluptuous. Fat. And so if someone is binge eating, they sit there and say to themselves, ‘There is something wrong with me. I have to stop doing this. I’m so ashamed of myself. I need to stop. I need more willpower. Why did I do this again?'”

What should I do if I think I have binge eating disorder?

If you suspect that you’re suffering from binge eating disorder, the most important thing to know is that you’re not alone. Reach out to your parents or another trusted adult (think a cool aunt or a guidance counselor) who can help you get professional treatment for binge eating disorder.

Fulvio says, “It’s really difficult to get help because there’s such a strong belief that ‘All I need is to just not do this again. I just need more willpower.’ But once you reach out for support, you realize there are so many other people who are dealing with this, and that it’s not about willpower. It’s about being in contact with yourself and allowing yourself to be kind to yourself,” she continues. “It’s something very different. People with binge eating disorder or bulimia are never really kind to themselves. It’s not a lot of compassion: ‘Why can’t I stop? Why can’t I do this by myself?'”

She adds, “Because we don’t talk a lot about overeating as being an actual eating disorder, it’s hard for somebody to admit that they may need actual help. It feels very shameful and private.”

The worst thing you can do is not reach out. You don’t need to be ashamed. You need to get help.

What types of treatment can I get for binge eating disorder?

If you seek treatment for binge eating disorder, chances are you will have three goals in mind for your healing process to really kick in: Obviously, you’ll want to reduce (if not outright stop) binge eating, but there are other necessary steps other than to just quit cold turkey. To completely treat binge eating disorder, you will also need to treat the emotional issues that cause your binge eating, as well as to improve your self esteem and possibly to lose weight, depending on your individual case. A doctor and therapist can come up with the ideal treatment just for you.

So how will you actually do all that? There are a lot of steps and processes, and it won’t be easy … but you can bet it will be worth it.

Psychotherapy for binge eating sounds scarier than it is–but don’t worry! It just means talking to a therapist, and you may do it in group or individual therapy sessions, or a combination of the two. There are a few different kinds of psychotherapy, and your doctor may recommend one particular type or a few different kinds to get your binge eating disorder under control. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you cope better with the issues that trigger your binges, as well as helping you gauge, monitor and control your behavior as a whole–which will in turn keep your binge eating in check.

Interpersonal psychotherapy examines your relationships with others in order to improve how you relate to others, including family, friends and peers. If your binge eating is triggered by strained relationships, whether it be with your parents or your best friend, interpersonal psychotherapy can help a lot.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) will teach you behavioral skills to help you better cope with stress, regulate and handle your emotions and improve your relationships with other. All of those can quell your urges to binge eat.

Behavioral weight-loss programs usually aren’t recommended until you’ve had at least some form of psychotherapy to treat your binge eating disorder, and depending on your individual case, you may not even need to lose weight. Any weight loss program should be carefully monitored by your doctor, as well as your eating plan, because it’s very easy to cut down too much … which can lead you to binge eat later, taking you right back to square one.

What will my doctor ask me about binge eating disorder?

Your doctor will probably ask a lot of the questions we listed above, but he or she may also delve further into your medical and family history to see if there are genetic or environmental links to binge eating disorder in your family or your lifestyle.

I have a doctor’s appointment to talk about my binge eating disorder. What should I do to prepare?

Before you get to the doctor’s office, grab a notebook and a pen and write down any and all symptoms you’re experiencing of binge eating disorder. If your appointment is a few days or weeks away, keep a journal of any and all of your binges, and write down what you ate, when it happened, how you felt before, during and after the binge, as well as the circumstances of your day in general. This can help your doctor narrow down your triggers.

Another important thing to write down and discuss with your doctor are any sudden or recent emotional, personal, stressful or traumatic experiences. Did you just move to a new town where you don’t know anyone? Did a guy who clearly has crappy taste dump you? Are your grades dropping? Are your parents fighting? Are you being bullied at school?

Also be sure to note any medications you may be taking, as well as any vitamins or supplements, whether you’re on birth control pills or just have a Flintstone gummy habit, so your doctor can be sure to prescribe the best treatments and/or medications for your particular case of binge eating disorder–because some medications can have adverse effects when combined with others, and your doctor may find that a medication or supplement you’re currently taking may be a factor in your binge eating disorder to begin with. You don’t want to withhold any information at all, because it’s all super important for your recovery. And don’t worry–depending on where you live, your doctor may not have to tell your parents something unless you give them the okay.

A crucial step in your recovery is bringing someone with you to the doctor’s office to discuss your treatment. Having someone you trust with you will not only make you more comfortable talking out your options, but they may also notice and pick up on things you missed. They may also be able to take better notes during the appointment and remember more details, since they’re less likely to be as stressed and frazzled about the ordeal as you are.

One last thing to do before you go: Jot down any questions you’ll have for your doctor, including asking if there are any medications you should take (and if there are generic versions of those), if he or she thinks your issue is long-term or short-term, if you’ll have to take any tests and how to prepare for those tests and if he or she has any brochures or written information you can take home to look over.

chocolate ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, potato chips

Bland foods like these are some of the most common foods that patients of binge eating disorder find themselves compulsively overeating. | Source: ShutterStock

Are there medications for binge eating disorder?

Depending on your individual situation, your doctor may prescribe medications to help you cope with your binge eating disorder along with your therapy. No medication exists specifically for binge eating disorder, but there are medications that can help reduce your symptoms. These include antidepressants, which can affect and regulate your moods, as well as certain seizure medications like Topamax. However, both antidepressants and Topamax have serious side effects, so make sure you go over all of them with your doctor and monitor your intake, moods and progress thoroughly and carefully if you do use them.

Do self-help books or programs help for binge eating disorder?

Self-help books, online forums, videos and support groups for binge eating disorder certainly won’t hurt your progress, but they probably aren’t a great substitute for full-on professional help. However, using them along with a doctor’s program and professional help and therapy can absolutely speed up and sustain your recovery.

What is purging?

Purging is usually regarded as forcing yourself to throw up after eating, but purging isn’t always done by inducing vomit. (I know, gross–but it gets worse.) Some people who purge do so through overexercising, and others sometimes use laxatives to have the food come out from the opposite end of the Human Centipede spectrum. (Listen, I told you it got worse.)

People who suffer from the eating disorder bulimia nervosa (or in the case of those who purge by overexercising, bulimia athletica) often binge eat, then purge by forcing themselves to throw up or go to the bathroom. While it’s a little bit more well known as a disorder as a whole than binge eating disorder is, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more common: It’s just more immediately recognizable as an illness because more people have heard of and are aware of it.

Do you have to purge to have an eating disorder?

You have to purge in some way to have the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. You don’t have to purge at all in order to have an eating disorder, though. In fact, binge eating disorder may be even more common than bulimia, and it is a full-blown eating disorder. Thing is, most people don’t realize that. Combine that with the shame that a lot of people feel about admitting (to themselves or to their doctors) that they have a problem, and you have an eating disorder that’s going widely and severely underreported and undertreated.

How do I explain binge eating to someone who doesn’t understand?

It’s very easy for people who don’t understand how disordered eating works to just be like, “Oh, so you eat a lot? Why don’t you just, you know, stop eating?” These people are ignorant and just don’t get it. If someone you’re close with doesn’t have a handle on what you’re suffering through when you’re battling an eating disorder like binge eating, let them know that if you could feel like you had a sense of control over the issue, you’d be handling it.

One way to explain binge eating disorder to someone who doesn’t quite get it? You know the feeling you get when you start eating a handful of Doritos, then you sort of wake up after spacing out for a few hours–and you’re bloated, gassy, sick to your stomach and grossed out and only just realized what you did? It’s like that, but it happens a lot more often than it would for the average physically and mentally healthy person.

You can also point out that sometimes genetic history and brain chemistry play a role in binge eating disorder, so it’s not something you can necessarily just turn off once you think you’ve had enough cookies. Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder, which is a mental illness, and it requires treatment just like any other mental or physical illness does.


What percentage of teens with a binge eating problem recover?

Good news: Binge eating disorder has one of the highest recovery rates of any eating disorder out there. Of course, that doesn’t make it good, and it’s still serious–just as serious as anorexia or bulimia–but knowing that it’s one of the most treatable eating disorders will probably lift a lot of weight from your shoulders. Around 75 percent of those with binge eating disorder have a full recovery. So knowing that, if you think you’re suffering from binge eating disorder, make sure you get help. You deserve it, and you can beat this.

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  • Marie-Adelaide

    Hi Sophie,
    I can’t speak for everyone with BED, but I definitely think about calories and how much weight I’m going to gain, and it’s horrible. I don’t necessarily enjoy my food, and even when I do, I feel enormous guilt during and after a binge. Trust me, it’s no fun at all. Also, I commend you for having the courage to seek help. I have yet to do that because I’m so ashamed of myself.
    Best of luck in your fight against anorexia and bulimia!

  • Emily

    I totally understand why you would think that; what you’re saying and thinking is logical. But sadly it’s not true. I have binge eating disorder, and it makes it impossible to enjoy food. It’s knowing that it’s awful for you, knowing that the food will make you gain weight and feel worse about yourself, but being unable to stop. Then hating yourself when it’s done. It’s terrifying and awful and it makes any situation involving food horrible and panic ridden. I’m currently getting help as well; and I wish you so much luck in conquering your issues, but don’t wish for this disorder; I’m not in your shoes so I won’t say it’s worse than your disorder, especially because what’s worse for me could be easier for you and we’re all fighting our personal battles, but living with binge eating disorder, I can’t imagine anything worse for myself.

  • Sophie

    I know that I’m going to get a lot of flack for this, but here it goes. I kind of wish that I had this type of ED. I honestly don’t wish to have one at all, and I most certainly would never wish one on anyone-even my worst enemy! I’ve struggled with anorexia and bullimia for years now. For once, I wish I could actually eat food and enjoy it. I wish I wouldn’t be thinking about the calories, or about the amount of weight I could gain from it. I know that it’s not healthy, but I feel like compulsive eating sounds sounds better than ana or mia. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s any less serious than those other two (all EDs are serious), but I feel like it might be safer than the others. I feel like they actually enjoy food, not dread it. Does anyone else get what I’m saying? From what I understand, it sounds like when eating, the binge-er doesn’t think about calories and weight or food intake, and that sound a better than eating and regretting it. I am currently getting help for my issues, and I do agree that anyone with an ED should get help. Maybe this is just my twisted mind talking.

    • Amelia

      I feel like this is such eating disordered thinking. I struggle with BED and I can tell you that I’ve felt similarly. I’ve wished that I had a different eating disorder, because then at least I could get rid of it. With binging yes my mind shuts off, but when I wake up I feel this awful sense of guilt and so desperately wish that I could get rid of all the food, and I feel like I’m just so weak because I can’t. There really is very limited, if any, enjoyment that I get from food. Sometimes it does feel less serious than anorexia and bulimia (and that often leads to a lot of feelings of guilt and failure for me), but I can assure you that it is still very serious just as all eds are.