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:

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 environmental factors.

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:

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:

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 patterns.

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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