What Does It Mean to Binge?

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A binge eating disorder (BED) is considered a mental illness that is in the eating disorders category of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” (DSM-5), a handbook commonly used by mental health professionals and other diagnosticians as a guide to identify mental illnesses.

A person who has a binge eating disorder has a feeling of being out of control when it comes to eating. Food is ingested very quickly in large amounts. Binge eating differs from bulimia in that a person with a binge eating disorder does not purge themselves—by using laxatives or vomiting— after eating, as a person with bulimia does.

woman binge eating

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What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder is a serious but treatable condition that involves recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food. 

In addition to eating food in excess and to the point of discomfort, the condition is also characterized by feeling out of control when eating and a sense of shame or guilt over the behavior.

Episodes of overeating that are classified as binge eating can significantly and negatively impact your health and well-being, making it especially important to identify the signs and symptoms of binge eating and get help if necessary.

According to the DSM-5, a person must binge at least once a week for three months before being a candidate for a formal diagnosis of BED. Other DSM-5 criteria for BED include:

  • Loss of control over the amount a person eats
  • Discernible distress related to periods of binging

In addition to distress and loss of control, a person must have three or more of the following symptoms to be diagnosed with BED:

  • Experiencing fullness and continuing to eat until the level of discomfort is reached
  • Eating very fast (faster than is considered normal; this could be described as “inhaling” one’s food)
  • Feelings of depression, guilt, or self-loathing (disgust) about overeating
  • Avoidance of eating with others, preference to eat alone due to embarrassment linked with eating such large amounts of food
  • Eating a large quantity of food (even when no physical feeling of hunger is present)

Binge Eating vs. Overeating

People who occasionally overeat do not usually experience the specific signs and symptoms of binge eating outlined in the DSM-5. Eating too much occasionally is not a sign of BED.

Statistics

BED is considered the most common type of eating disorder in the United States. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, BED is over three times more prevalent than anorexia and bulimia (combined).

One study found that 3.5% of women and 2% of men had binge eating disorder in their lifetime.

Although the majority of people diagnosed with obesity are not considered binge eaters, up to two-thirds of those with BED are obese.

Comorbidity

When it comes to comorbidity (having more than one diagnosis at the same time), people with BED have high rates of comorbidity (involving anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and substance use disorders).

Symptoms

There are a number of common signs and symptoms of a BED. A person with this type of disorder often:

  • Eats very large amounts of food in a short period of time
  • Refrains from being finished eating until they feel overly full and often uncomfortable
  • Eats to reduce stress and lower anxiety
  • Has a track record of gaining and losing weight
  • Eats normal amounts of food around others, but often eats large amounts alone to hide symptoms
  • Eats continuously all day (without any type of planned mealtimes)
  • Hoards food to eat later in secret
  • Experiences trouble losing weight and keeping it off (Weight loss is often more difficult for a person who binge eats than people with other serious weight problems, such as those with obesity.)

Specific emotions linked with BED include:

  • Feeling self-disgust, guilt, and depression after binge eating
  • Feeling embarrassed about the amount of food they eat
  • Experiencing stress or anxiety that is only alleviated by eating
  • Feeling numb while binge eating
  • Feeling desperate to control eating and lose weight

Risk Factors

It is thought that several combined factors help to increase the risk of having BED. These include a person’s:

  • Environmental factors (such as childhood experiences)
  • Genetics
  • Emotions
  • Biological factors

Environmental Risk Factors

Several environmental factors are associated with the development of binge eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, factors that may increase the risk of binge eating include:

  • Being an adolescent (mostly female)
  • Being a young adult woman
  • Experiencing social pressures
  • Pursuing professions or activities that involve the need to be thin
  • Experiencing pressure to diet
  • Negative parental influences
  • Factors that impact a person’s self-worth or body image (such as media that portray very thin women)
  • Being subjected to negative comments frequently (particularly comments about body image)
  • Being bullied
  • Sexual abuse

Note, although BED often impacts younger women and teens, it can occur at any age and also occurs in men.

Genetic Factors

Statistically, eating disorders do tend to have a familial link. Female relatives are more often impacted than males in the family. Because people who have a close family member with BED tend to have a higher risk of an eating disorder, it is believed that genetic factors are involved in the condition.

Emotional and Psychological Factors

Several predisposing factors exist for eating disorders, and in the instance of anorexia and bulimia, the research is quite clear. When it comes to BED, however, the disorder’s risk factors have not been as extensively researched, but there are some clues as to common personality factors that may predispose a person to BED. These include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • A history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • A history of depression or anxiety
  • A history of unhappiness
  • The inability to cope with emotions or stress
  • Poor body self-image

 Other factors and emotions commonly linked with BED include:

  • Feeling hurt
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Disappointment
  • Problems with impulse control
  • Body image issues (which is a common symptom for people with other eating disorders, such as anorexia)
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Trouble effectively expressing feelings

Biological Factors

Biological factors that may increase the risk of BED include:

  • Hormonal irregularities
  • Low levels of brain chemicals (such as serotonin)

Note, low serotonin levels are also linked with depression. According to a 2017 study, some people with BED respond well to medications that affect the function of serotonin in the body.

Behavioral Risks

Several behavioral risks may factor into predisposing a person to the development of BED. These include:

  • A history of dieting (particularly when going on extensive fasts and other radical type diets) during a person’s adolescent years
  • An obsession with being thin or losing weight, and the pressure to diet, which can result in anxiety, stress and shame, triggering the desire to binge

Complications

Many complications may arise from BED. Examples include:

In addition to specific disorders, complications of BED may include many different imbalances of various body systems (such as the hormonal system). People with eating disorders (including BED) may have disturbances in various functions of the body, including:

  • Problems with normal digestion
  • Appetite problems
  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
  • Disturbances in normal physical growth and development
  • Hormonal problems
  • Alteration in kidney function
  • Emotional problems
  • Memory and thinking problems

A Word From Verywell

At Verywell Health, we know that when it comes to recovery from binge eating, the process can be quite long and complicated. It is no small undertaking. Recovery may involve many different types of treatment.

Keep in mind that this information does not serve as medical advice and that anyone with a binge eating disorder should seek professional help and follow the advice of their healthcare provider, mental health professionals, and other members of the medical team. 

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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