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Binge-Eating Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Beat It

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By Martha Michael

Binge-Eating Disorder

Celebrities from Lady Gaga to Jared Leto have discussed unhealthy relationships with food and struggles with starving themselves or bingeing and purging, but fewer people in the public eye have specifically identified binge-eating disorder as their diagnosis.

There are eating disorders of various kinds with symptoms that set them apart from the others. In most cases, a person with unhealthy food consumption patterns can find strategies to reduce symptoms, including those battling binge-eating disorder.

Let’s chew on what we can do about it.

What Is Binge-Eating Disorder?

People may be more acquainted with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, but binge-eating disorder, or BED, is the second-most common food-related mental health issue, according to an article by the National Eating Disorder Association, or NEDA. It affects approximately 2.7 percent of women, 1.7 percent of men, and 1.8 percent of adolescents. The most common eating disorder category is called other specified feeding or eating disorders, or OSFED.

Most people associate anorexia nervosa with extreme weight loss after avoiding food over a period of time. We tend to associate bulimia nervosa with binge eating; however, BED has similarities to bulimia but it’s characterized by an individual who eats larger quantities of food at a rapid pace. They binge at least one day per week for three months before being properly diagnosed with binge-eating disorder.

Other characteristics may include:

  • Eating when not hungry
  • Eating far beyond feeling full
  • Eating alone
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Feelings of shame and guilt

Any of us might do these occasionally, but the commonness of it determines whether we have a problem.

What Are the Symptoms of Binge-Eating Disorder?

Just as there are physical markers for disorders such as anorexia, there are signs that you or someone you know may be suffering from binge-eating disorder.

Physical Signs of BED

When people engage in behaviors associated with binge-eating disorder their bodies may react in ways that signal there’s a problem. Physical symptoms of BED include:

  • Weight fluctuations -- both weight gain and loss
  • Acid reflux
  • Gastrointestinal abnormalities
  • Stomach cramps
  • Inability to concentrate

Emotional Signs of BED

Emotional reactions and behaviors driven by unhealthy thoughts can become the norm for people with binge-eating disorder. Emotional symptoms may include:

  • Secret episodes of binge eating a large amount of food in a short time
  • Refusing to eat in front of others
  • Embarrassed about the quantity of food they consume
  • Hoarding food in unusual places
  • Inability to sustain weight loss
  • Carving out time for emotional eating sessions
  • Withdrawal from friends, loved ones, and activities
  • Long-term problems with self-esteem
  • Manipulation of insulin dosage for planned binge episode

An article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders says that mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol- and drug-use disorders, and personality disorders are psychiatric problems linked to eating disorders of every kind. Major depressive disorder and alcohol-use disorders have the highest correlation to eating disorders.

Somatic conditions commonly associated with BED include an increased risk of:

  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • High triglycerides

Obviously, a pattern of binge eating can take you down an unhealthy path.

What Causes Binge-Eating Disorder?

Some of the conditions that co-occur with binge-eating disorder can be viewed with a sort of chicken-or-the-egg complexity. Many of them can be precursors or have a causal relationship to BED, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use

Like other disordered eating, people with binge-eating disorder are juggling attitudes about their appearance and cycles of unhealthy eating behavior that become difficult to control. People are paying attention to the negative outcomes of conditions such as binge-eating disorder thanks to more information disseminated through the media.

An article by PsychCentral discusses the experiences of famous people who have battled disordered eating issues, including actress Portia de Rossi and singer Zayn Malik, both of whom found their problems exacerbated by their careers.

English comedic actor and radio host Russell Brand has shared candidly about his mental health issues and talked openly about his history of mental illness, including binge-eating disorder. When he was a child he ate to comfort himself and fell into a spiral of negative self-talk after bingeing. He’s course-corrected by creating structure around food and being more positive about his body image.

“I suppose what I have to let go of is the idea of the archetype of the perfect body that I’m trying to aspire to,” he says.

How Can We Overcome Binge-Eating Disorder?

If your eating habits and lifestyle choices start to show signs of unhealthy patterns, there are many courses of action you can take to address the problem. It may take time, but you can make small steps to change course and stop binge eating, according to an article on WebMD.

Create a support system - Identify people in your life who you can turn to when you need to talk about your struggles with food.

Eat breakfast - Designing a meal plan that includes a balanced course of food intake can deter you from becoming famished and overeating.

Exercise - Use movement instead of food to relieve stress and boost your mood.

Identify triggers - Everyone has stressors that can lead to unhealthy behaviors, so if you identify those, you can make plans to avoid situations or deal with problems directly.

Find stress relievers - There are various techniques to promote calm when a person’s anxiety feels out of control:

  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Reading
  • Socializing
  • Sports

It is important to be self-aware of what causes you to act the way you do, and what will benefit you as you try to mitigate it. But it may not be something you can do on your own.

How Should You Treat Someone With Binge-Eating Disorder?

If you suspect someone in your life is suffering from an eating disorder, there are ideal ways to show your support. An article by Scotland’s Health Information Service has suggestions for making a positive impact on someone who needs assistance with BED.

Initially ask how they feel and listen intently. When possible, guide the conversation toward the possibility of their accessing professional help. If not a psychotherapist, their general practitioner or chiropractor can interface with them to assess the situation and offer guidance. Be careful not to apply pressure or offer criticism.

Once they move in a direction for treatment, you can support them along the way. They may need rides to appointments or a listening ear as they process their emotions and make plans for change.

There are charities, hotlines, and other resources available if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. Eating Disorder Hope is an online community dedicated to connecting sufferers with resources. The website offers the following options you can reach out to for help.

The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness Helpline - It’s appropriate for individuals struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, or body image issues. Call 866-662-1235 or visit https://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - Call 800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).

Binge-eating disorder can be a serious issue. Respect its danger because, if left unchecked, extra pounds on the scale won’t be the only thing you’ll have to worry about.

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