Find out what defines binge eating and if you could be at risk for the disorder.
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Most of us have overindulged at some point, but what should you do if it becomes a habit? If you find yourself binge eating once a week, or more for several months at a time, it could be a serious issue.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is now the most common eating disorder in the U.S., since its recognition as a specified eating disorder in 2013. There are three times more BED cases than anorexia and bulimia combined, and it is more common than both breast cancer and HIV.

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) classifies binge eating disorder as, “a severe, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder characterized by:

  • recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort) at least once a week for three months at a time or more
  • a feeling of a loss of control during a binge
  • experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards
  • not regularly utilizing unhealthy methods (e.g. purging) to counteract a binge

Binge eating disorders differ from bulimia, as binge eaters don’t always use exercise, laxatives, or other forms of purging to try to “erase the binge.” Instead of falling into binge-purge cycles, those with a BED will most likely isolate themselves,  or even try to go to sleep, instead of attempting to fix the problem with harmful interventions.

What Is Considered a Binge Eating Episode?

NEDA suggests you are experiencing a binge eating episode by participating in three or more of these behaviors within two hours:

  • Eating much faster than you normally would
  • Eating to discomfort, and possibly past that point
  • Eating large amounts of food, even if you’re not physically hungry
  • Feeling out of control while eating and possibly an inability to stop
  • Eating alone out of embarrassment
  • Feeling shame, disgust, guilt, or depressed about yourself afterwards

These episodes can occur at any time of day, most commonly when one is alone. Binge eating can be a result of restricting too many calories earlier in the day, not having the proper tools to deal with emotional and mental health issues, or even boredom. Binge eating episodes can also begin unexpectedly.

Chevese Turner, chief policy and strategy officer for NEDA, said subjective binges are also something to be mindful of. A subjective binge is when someone eats a “normal” amount of food by cultural standards, but still feels the same out-of-control, depressed, guilty, or other negative feelings afterwards.

Who Is at Risk for a Binge Eating Disorder?

Seventy percent of those with BEDs are overweight or obese, but just because you are overweight or obese doesn’t necessarily mean you have—or will have—a problem with binge eating.

Research shows girls who diet are 12 times more likely to develop a BED, and men who diet are also more likely to develop the disorder. BEDs are more prevalent in young and middle-aged women, as they typically start to develop in one’s twenties, but older women with BED are becoming more prevalent.

Those with mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or even PTSD are more likely to have a BED. Your career, financial troubles, toxic relationships, or other high-stress situations can all put you at risk. Those struggling with substance abuse or addiction also have a 20 percent or higher chance of struggling with food addictions and binge eating.

Concerned about your eating habits?

Turner said those with a perfectionist or overachiever mentality tend to be more likely to binge. Turner herself struggled with a binge eating disorder, saying her feelings of inadequacy over not being able to achieve our culture’s body type ideals, were part of the reason she struggled with the disorder. She noted oftentimes binge eaters look put together on the outside, but hide their own struggles through solitary binge episodes.

Symptoms and Signs of Binge Eating Disorders

Turner noted the amount of interference food causes in your life can be a warning sign for an eating disorder. If you are consumed with food—always wondering when you’re going to eat, what you are going to eat, how you’re going to burn the food off later—you might be at risk. Yo-yo dieting and feeling obsessed with being a certain weight or fitting a certain body standard can be both a cause and a symptom of the disorder.

Another sign of BEDs are avoiding social situations and eating meals in secret. BEDs are related to mental health problems and low self-esteem, which can be isolating and lead to secret binge episodes. Binge eaters will often seek out time in their schedule where they know they will be alone, and plan an episode. They also are likely to hoard food and hide it in particular places.

Getting most of your calorie intake at night can also lead to, or be a result of, a binge eating disorder. Restricting your calories too much in the day time can lead to binges later. Nighttime is also when one is likely to be alone and save their calories for an episode.

Consequences of Binge Eating Disorders

Besides weight gain, there’s a host of issues associated with eating disorders that can make a lasting impact on your health.

Physically, binge eating disorders can lead to weight cycling, as the intense ups and downs of calorie intake can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight and healthy relationship with food.  Binge eating can cause one’s body to become insulin resistant, increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes. It can also create gastrointestinal issues, ranging from constipation, to a stomach rupture.

Since a majority of those with binge eating disorder are overweight or obese, this also leads to a risk for menstrual and fertility problems, certain types of cancers, gallbladder disease, and heart problems.

Binge eating disorders can also come with serious emotional consequences. One can easily lose their confidence, desire to thrive and succeed, and develop mental health conditions. These disorders are often part of a coping mechanism for a mental or emotional health problem and are likely to exacerbate the issue.

Ways to Overcome Binge Eating

Turner suffered in silence for years and found the cornerstone of recovery is talk therapy. She advises speaking with a licensed mental health professional who is trained or an expert in BEDs specifically. Turner said those who aren’t well-versed in binge eating disorders often assume it is just the opposite of anorexia, and that restrictive weight-loss treatments are the best way to go. Unfortunately, that can sometimes intensify the disorder, causing more frustration over weight.

While everyone is different, Turner said there are trigger foods, situations, and even relationships which may need to be avoided until recovered from treatment (or even permanently). She had to address our culture’s weight stigma and the pain associated with being “the wrong weight” before she could fully recover. Turner practiced listening to what her body needed, hunger cues, and body acceptance to achieve freedom from the impulses causing her to binge eat.

If you think you may have binge eating disorder, or another form of an eating disorder, you can utilize NEDA’s screening tool with prompted questions to help you determine. You can also call the NEDA hotline at 1-800-931-2237.