Binge Eating

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Introduction

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is an illness where people overeat on a regular basis.

A binge is an episode of excessive eating or drinking. People who binge eat very large quantities of food over a short period of time, even when they're not hungry.

This page covers:

Signs of binge eating disorder

Getting help

Treatment

Causes

Who's affected

Health risks

Signs of binge eating disorder

Signs of binge eating disorder include:

  • eating much faster than normal during a binge
  • eating until you feel uncomfortably full
  • eating a large amount of food when you're not hungry
  • eating alone or secretly because you're embarrassed about the amount of food you're consuming
  • having feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating

People who regularly eat this way are likely to have a binge eating disorder.

What happens during a binge

Binges are often planned in advance and the person may buy "special" binge foods.

Sometimes, a person will describe being in a "dazed state" during a binge - particularly binges at night - and not being able to remember what they ate.

The person often feels they have no control over their eating.

Getting help

If you occasionally binge eat, it doesn't necessarily mean you have a binge eating disorder.

But see your GP if you binge regularly, particularly if it's affecting your physical and/or mental health. With the right treatment and support, most people get better.

Beat is a UK-based charity that provides help and support for people with eating disorders. You can contact them either by phone or email:

Both helplines are open every day of the year from 4pm to 10pm.

You can also find out more about Beat's support services.

Treating binge eating

The main treatments for binge eating are:

  • self-help programmes - this may be individually, using a book or online course, or as part of a self-help support group
  • guided self-help (self-help supervised by regular contact with a professional)
  • specialist group intervention
  • individual (one-to-one) psychological therapy 
  • medication called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Read more about treating binge eating disorder.

What causes binge eating?

It's not clear what causes binge eating, but, like most eating disorders, it's seen as a way of coping with feelings of unhappiness and low self-esteem.

Factors that may increase your risk of binge eating include:

  • having low self-esteem and a lack of confidence
  • depression or anxiety
  • feelings of stress, anger, boredom or loneliness
  • dissatisfaction with your body and feeling under pressure to be thin
  • stressful or traumatic events in your past
  • having a family history of eating disorders

Binge eating can sometimes develop following a strict diet, particularly if you skipped meals, cut out certain foods and didn't eat enough food. These are unhealthy ways to lose weight and may mean you're more likely to binge at another time.  

Who's affected

Anyone can be affected by binge eating disorder, although it's slightly more common in women than men.

Binge eating disorder tends to first develop during early adulthood, but many people don't seek help until they're in their 30s or 40s.

It's estimated that you have a 1 in 30 to 1 in 50 chance of developing binge eating disorder at some point in life.

Health risks of binge eating

Binge eating is often associated with serious psychological problems, including depression and anxiety which may get worse if you continue to binge eat.

Weight gain is a common physical effect of binge eating, which can lead to obesity. Being obese puts you at risk of getting a number of serious physical health problems, including:

Treatment

Treatment

Binge eating disorders are usually treatable and most people will eventually get better with appropriate help and support.

The main treatments are outlined below.

Self-help programmes

A self-help programme is often the first step towards recovery. There are many different types of self-help and it's important to find one that suits you. Your GP may be able to recommend a self-help book or a self-help group that would be suitable.

You can find out about self-help books at your local library or from the eating disorders charity Beat, which also has information about online support groups and peer support groups for eating disorders.

If you're referred to a mental health professional, they might encourage you to work through a self-help book under their supervision. This is called "guided self-help".

For some people, a self-help programme alone may be enough to help them overcome their eating problems.

Psychological therapy

You may be referred for psychological therapy to help tackle the underlying problems that cause you to binge eat.

The three main types of therapy used to help people who binge eat are:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for binge eating disorder (CBT-BED) - a specially adapted type of CBT that involves talking to a therapist and working out the patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that are driving your problem, to help you change your behaviour 
  • an adapted form of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) - therapy that mainly focuses on improving your ability to control and regulate your emotions
  • interpersonal therapy (IPT) - therapy that focuses on relationship-based issues and how they may be influencing your eating habits

These therapies can work very well, although it's not clear how long-lasting the results are.

You may experience periods where the problem improves (remission) and periods where it gets worse (relapses), particularly in the early stages of treatment.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Some people may be prescribed a type of antidepressant medication called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) instead of, or in addition to, a self-help programme.

SSRIs boost levels of a chemical in the brain called serotonin, which may help reduce the frequency of binges and lift your mood. However, the long-term effects of the treatment for binge eating are unknown.

Common side effects of SSRIs include:

Most of these side effects will usually improve within a few weeks, although some can persist.

Read more about the side effects of SSRIs.

Losing weight

The above treatments won't help you lose weight but, importantly, will help you stop gaining weight. Dieting isn't recommended during treatment because it makes it much more difficult to stop binge eating. Regular exercise alongside treatment may help you lose weight.

The treatments described above will typically include a plan to help with eating and exercise. Your plan may involve:

  • keeping a food diary - to see if there's a pattern to when you binge and to highlight the types of food you binge on
  • having regular, planned meals and not skipping meals
  • eating healthy snacks between meals - to stop you getting hungry
  • not depriving yourself of specific foods - you may be encouraged to include some unhealthy foods in your eating plan to reduce your urge to binge on them
  • having a balanced, calorie-controlled diet - as recommended by your GP or other healthcare professional
  • exercising regularly - most adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week (read more about the physical activity guidelines for adults)

It's important that you lose weight healthily. Extreme dieting and cutting out meals can make binge eating worse.

If you're struggling to lose weight, talk to your GP or a weight loss management healthcare professional, such as a dietitian.

Read more about treating obesityweight loss and healthy eating.