Binge Eating Disorder
What is binge eating disorder?
Binge eating disorder, also known as compulsive overeating, is a newly
recognized eating disorder. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses in
which emotions and thinking patterns cause a person to adopt harmful eating
habits, such as overeating or starving. Often, these habits are a way of coping
with depression, stress, or anxiety.
Binge eating disorder is a serious condition characterized by uncontrollable
eating and a resulting weight gain. People with binge eating disorder frequently
eat large amounts of food (beyond the point of feeling full) while feeling a
loss of control over their eating. Although the binging behavior is similar to
what occurs in bulimia nervosa, people with binge eating disorder usually do not
engage in purging by vomiting or using laxatives.
Many people who have binge eating disorder use food as a way to cope with
uncomfortable feelings and emotions. These are people who never learned how to
properly deal with stress, and find it comforting and soothing to eat.
Unfortunately, they often end up feeling sad and guilty about not being able to
control their eating, which increases the stress and fuels the cycle.
What are the symptoms of binge eating disorder?
Most people overeat from time to time, and many people believe they
frequently eat more than they should. Eating large amounts of food, however,
does not mean that a person has binge eating disorder. Most people with serious
binge eating problems have some of the following symptoms:
- Frequent episodes of eating what others would consider an
abnormally large amount of food
- Frequent feelings of being unable to control what or how much is
- Eating much more rapidly than usual
- Eating until uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food, even when not physically hungry
- Eating alone out of embarrassment at the quantity of food being
- Feelings of disgust, depression, or guilt after overeating
- Fluctuations in weight
- Feelings of low self-esteem
- Loss of sexual desire
- Frequent dieting
What causes binge eating disorder?
The exact cause of binge eating disorder is still unknown, and researchers
are just beginning to understand the consequences of the disorder and the
factors affecting its development. Like other eating disorders, binge eating
disorder seems to result from a combination of psychological, biological, and
Binge eating disorder has been linked to other mental health disorders.
Nearly half of all people with binge eating disorder have a history of
depression, although the exact nature of the link is unclear. Many people report
that anger, sadness, boredom, anxiety, or other negative emotions can trigger an
episode of binge eating. Impulsive behavior and certain other psychological
problems also seem to be more common in people with binge eating disorder.
Eating disorders, including binge eating disorder, tend to run in families,
suggesting that a susceptibility to eating disorders might be inherited.
Researchers also are looking into how brain chemicals and metabolism (the way
the body burns calories) affect the development of binge eating disorder.
People with binge eating disorder often come from families that overeat or
put an unnatural emphasis on food; for example, using it as a reward or as a way
to soothe or comfort.
How common is binge eating disorder?
Although only recently recognized as a distinct condition, binge eating
disorder is probably the most common eating disorder. Most people with binge
eating disorder are obese (more than 20 percent above a healthy body weight),
but normal-weight people also can be affected.
Binge eating disorder probably affects 2 percent of all adults, or about 1
million to 2 million Americans. Among mildly obese people in self-help or
commercial weight loss programs, 10 percent to 15 percent have binge eating
disorder. The disorder is even more common in those with severe obesity.
Binge eating disorder is slightly more common in women than in men. The
disorder affects African Americans as often as Caucasians. Its frequency in
other ethnic groups is not yet known. Obese people with binge eating disorder
often became overweight at a younger age than those without the disorder. They
also might have more frequent episodes of losing and regaining weight.
How is binge eating disorder diagnosed?
Identifying eating disorders can be challenging, since secrecy, shame, and
denial are characteristics of the diseases. As a result, the illness can go
undetected for long periods of time. In most cases, binge eating disorder is
discovered when a person requests professional help with weight loss, or seeks
treatment for an obesity-related health problem.
In cases of suspected binge eating disorder, the doctor will begin an
evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam.
Although there are no laboratory tests to specifically diagnose eating
disorders, the doctor might use various diagnostic tests—such as X-rays and
blood tests—to rule out physical illness as the cause of the symptoms.
If no physical illness is found, the person might be referred to a
psychiatrist or psychologist, health care professionals who are specially
trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists
use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for
an eating disorder.
How is binge eating disorder treated?
Treatment of binge eating disorder is challenging because most people feel
ashamed of their disorder and try to hide their problem. Often they are so
successful that close family members and friends don't know they binge eat.
Eating disorders require a comprehensive treatment plan that is adjusted to
meet the needs of each patient. The goal of treatment for binge eating disorder
is to help the person gain control over his or her eating behavior. Treatment
most often involves a combination of the following strategies:
- Psychotherapy — This is a type of individual counseling
that focuses on changing the thinking (cognitive therapy) and behavior
(behavioral therapy) of a person with an eating disorder. Treatment includes
practical techniques for developing healthy attitudes toward food and weight,
as well as approaches for changing the way the person responds to difficult
- Medicine — Certain antidepressant medicines called
selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) might be used to help control
the anxiety and depression associated with an eating disorder.
- Nutrition counseling — This strategy is designed to
teach a healthy approach to food and weight, to help restore normal eating
patterns, and to teach the importance of nutrition and a balanced diet.
- Group and/or family therapy — Family support is very
important to treatment success. It is important that family members understand
the eating disorder and recognize its signs and symptoms. People with eating
disorders might benefit from group therapy, where they can find support, and
openly discuss their feelings and concerns with others who share common
experiences and problems.
What are the complications of binge eating disorder?
The poor eating habits that are common in people with binge eating disorder
can lead to serious health problems. The major complications of binge eating
disorder are conditions that often result from being obese. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Gallbladder disease
- Heart disease
- Shortness of breath
- Certain types of cancer
- Menstrual problems
- Decreased mobility (inability to move around) and tiredness
- Sleep problems
In addition, people with binge eating disorder are extremely distressed by
their binge eating. In some cases, people will neglect their jobs, school, or
social activities to binge eat.
What is the outlook for people with binge eating disorder?
Like other eating disorders, binge eating disorder is a serious problem that
can be solved with proper treatment. With treatment and commitment, many people
with this disorder can overcome the habit of overeating and learn healthy eating
Can binge eating disorder be prevented?
Although it might not be possible to prevent all cases of binge eating
disorder, it is helpful to begin treatment in people as soon as they begin to
have symptoms. In addition, teaching and encouraging healthy eating habits and
realistic attitudes about food and body image also might be helpful in
preventing the development or worsening of eating disorders.
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