Binge Eating Disorder

What is it?

Binge eating is when you consume large quantities of food, in a short space of time, with seemingly no control. It is not simply indulging in food or over eating once in a while. It is an sense of feeling completely out of control around food, not being able to stop yourself even if you wanted to, and feeling incredibly guilty and ashamed during and after eating.

Binge eating disorder is when this is a regular occurrence. Anyone can suffer with Binge Eating Disorder - it does not discriminate.

Sometimes a binge is planned, and special foods are bought, and it is almost ritualistic. Other times, binges are spontaneous. Unlike bulimia, those with binge eating disorder do not usually engage in purging behaviours after a binge.

Although the diagnosis of binge eating disorder was created with obesity in mind, the person does not have to be obese or even overweight for a diagnosis to be made. Like I said, binge eating disorder (or any eating disorder for that matter) does not discriminate.

In fact, a study has shown that the characteristics of someone with binge eating disorder resemble those of a bulimia sufferer more closely than those of an obese person.

What causes Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder is a relatively new diagnosis, however there has already been some research into it's causes.

There is some evidence to show that, like many other eating disorders, it is more common in women than in men. However this may be due to more women seeking help than men.

Furthermore, evidence has suggested that people who suffer from binge eating disorder have a higher sensitivity to dopamine, which controls the body's internal reward system. Therefore, the body releases dopamine (the happy hormone) when the person eats comfort food therefore associating eating with happiness.

Stressful life events, such as abuse, death, separation from a family member or a car accident, have been found to be risk factors. Childhood bullying due to weight may also contribute to the development of the disorder.

People who suffer from binge eating disorder are often caught up in a cycle of dieting, restricting food, and then losing control.

What can trigger a binge?

Like most eating disorders, the food is not actually the main issue - the food and the eating behaviours are used to cope with emotional distress.

People often binge on foods that remind them of a comforting time, perhaps in their childhood, such as ice cream, fast food, sugary foods, and so on. Some of the things that can trigger a binge eating episode are stress and anxiety, boredom, and trauma.

The food is used to comfort the mind, and to bring the person's mind back to a time when they felt safe and happy.

What are the symptoms?

There are some psychological symptoms that you can look out for either in yourself or in someone else if you are worried about them. For example;

  • spending most of their time thinking about food

  • a sense of being out of control around food

  • feeling anxious or tense, especially regarding eating in front of other people

  • low confidence and self-esteem

  • feelings of shame and guilt after a binge

  • the presence of co-existing mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.

There are also physical signs to look out for as well, however these could be due to a number of other factors, therefore caution is advised.Physical symptoms may include;

  • gaining weight

  • tiredness

  • difficulty sleeping

  • bloating

  • stomach pains

  • and so on.

What are the treatment options?

The first place to go is normally going to be your GP. Your GP, although likely not a specialist in eating disorders, will know enough to point you in the right direction for treatment. There are national guidelines that the GP can follow in order to point you in the right direction or organise a referral for you.

The main treatment options for binge eating disorder are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy, and medication.

CBT focuses on the thoughts and behaviours surrounding food, for example what triggers a binge, what thoughts do you have about yourself, your body, and so on. Specific interventions might include self-monitoring, keeping a journal, keeping a food log, keeping an activity journal, and so on.

DBT views binge eating as an emotional reaction to negative experiences that the person has no other way of coping with. DBT teaches people how to handle their emotional responses rather than using food to cope with emotions. The four key areas of treatment in DBT are mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness.

Interpersonal Psychotherapy is based on the idea that binge eating is a coping mechanism for unresolved personal problems such as grief, relationship conflicts, significant life changes or underlying social problems. The goal is to identify the specific issue that is related to the binge eating and constructively tackle this issue.

Although less effective than talking therapies, there are some medications that can relieve the symptoms of binge eating disorder in the short-term. These include anti-depressants, anti-epileptic drugs, and medications traditionally used for hyperactive disorders.

How to help someone who might be suffering?

If you think that someone you know might be suffering from binge eating disorder, if possible try to get them to seek professional help. There are some potential long-term health effects of binge eating disorder such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, infertility, heart disease, and so on, and therefore the sooner help can be sought out, the better.

Be patient and non-judgemental. Remember that it is an illness, not a choice - it is not something that they are doing on purpose. Encourage them to talk to you, or someone that they trust, when they are feeling particularly under pressure, anxious, or stressed. It may be helpful for them to feel that they have this kind of support rather than turning to food for comfort.

Practising mindfulness, particularly mindful eating and intuitive eating is particularly helpful in starting to overcome binge eating disorder and in avoiding any relapses.

As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at

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