What is Binge Eating Disorder And How Do You Navigate It?

June 23, 2023


Anne Carroll, MS, RDN

While you may hear the term “binge” used casually in the context of overeating, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a serious condition that can significantly impact a person’s physical and mental well-being. People with BED may be at an increased risk for obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health problems related to overeating. BED is also associated with mental health issues, including low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. (1)

We’ve asked our Registered Dietitian Nutritionists that specialize in eating disorders to break it all down for you – what it is, what the signs and symptoms are, and what steps you can take toward recovery.

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is one of the newest eating disorders recognized in the DSM-5 criteria, the standard classification of diagnosable mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States. (2) It’s an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time, accompanied by feelings of loss of control. Often those with BED feel guilt and shame about their eating actions. (3)

Are You Binge Eating Or Overeating?

BED is different from overeating, or even having an episode of binge-type eating behavior. Most of us, if not all of us, overeat occasionally. It’s perfectly normal and natural to do so on occasion, even if it means we feel full or too full afterwards. After all, so much of our culture and traditions revolve around food and are celebrated with different types of food. Also, when something tastes delicious, sometimes we can have a hard time stopping when we are full. For some, it can also be challenging to identify hunger and fullness cues, which can sometimes lead to overeating. Emotional eating can also lead to binge-like eating behaviors. Mindful eating practices can often help with occasional overeating episodes.

Binge eating disorder’s hallmark, however, is a feeling of loss of control and compulsion, and treatment is often more complex than simply following mindful eating practices. Binge eaters often report that as much as they may want to, they feel completely incapable of stopping during a binge. Binge eating is also frequently followed by intense feelings of fullness, to the point of severe discomfort and pain, as well as feelings of shame and guilt. (4)

Why Do People Binge Eat?

The causes of BED are not fully understood, but a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors are thought to play a role. People with BED may have a genetic predisposition to the condition, and there may also be underlying psychological issues such as stress, trauma, depression, anxiety, or feelings of low self-worth. (5)

At Culina health, we work with many patients with binge eating disorder. We often see that binge eating disorder is associated with periods of restrictive eating, which can perpetuate feelings of deprivation. These feelings can be of physical deprivation (i.e. not giving your body the amount of fuel it needs), and/or mental and emotional deprivation (i.e. not allowing yourself to enjoy the foods you love because this diet deems them “unhealthy”). In some cases, that restriction and deprivation can lead to binge eating, which we refer to as a binge and restrict cycle. While the binge and restrict cycle can lead to BED, not all individuals that binge and restrict meet the criteria for a BED diagnosis. We also see that binge eating can originate from dysregulated emotional eating.

What Are The Signs Of Binge Eating Disorder?

Symptoms of binge eating disorder include: (6, 7)

  • Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, often when not feeling physically hungry
  • Feeling unable to stop eating or control what is being eaten during a binge episode
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, or distressed after binge eating
  • Always thinking about food 
  • Regularly eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment
  • Having a strong desire to stop eating but feeling unable to do so
  • Having a sense of feeling out of control during a binge episode
  • Experiencing physical discomfort such as bloating, constipation, or indigestion after a binge

How Common is Binge Eating Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, binge eating disorder affects about 1.25% of adult women and 0.42% of adult men, as well as 1.6% of teens. However, this statistic only includes those that are diagnosed with BED, meeting all of the diagnostic criteria as outlined by the DSM-5, the standard classification of diagnosable mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States.(8) There are many people that experience binge eating episodes that may not meet the specific BED criteria, and are therefore not accounted for in this statistic.

How To Get Help with Binge Eating Disorder

Treatment for BED typically involves an interdisciplinary approach, involving a medical doctor (ie. a general practitioner), a psychologist or psychiatrist, and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. From the psychotherapy perspective, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that is commonly used to help people with BED shift their thoughts and behaviors around food. Additionally. medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have also been shown to be effective in treating binge eating disorder. A general practitioner physician can diagnose and treat any potential medical issues related to binge eating. (9, 10)

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists can help educate BED patients about food, addressing any misconceptions that the patient may have about food and nutrition. Through nutrition education and counseling, the RDN can help patients identify binge triggers and disordered eating patterns and thoughts. They can then work collaboratively on developing alternative coping mechanisms and dietary strategies to avoid emotional eating episodes. (11)

It is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of BED, you can speak with a healthcare professional or a mental health professional experienced in treating eating disorders. With the right treatment team, people with BED can learn to manage their condition and improve their overall health and well-being.

BED is a serious and complex disorder that affects many people. Its physical, mental and emotional impacts mean that it’s vital to seek professional help to treat the disorder and develop healthy eating habits. Fortunately, nutritional and emotional support for BED is available, and can be crucial tools in assisting with recovery.

If you are interested in working with a Culina Health Registered Dietitian Nutritionist that specializes in Binge Eating Disorder, schedule a free intro call to get started.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or application is intended for reference and educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately qualified and licensed medical services provider.

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