September 5, 2017

Recognizing Binge Eating Disorder: Binge Eating Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Written by Rachel Eddins

Man having an eating disorder

Are You Binge Eating? 

The old potato chip ads said, “’bet you can’t eat just one!” It’s true that some snacks are designed to tempt us into eating them (and maybe overeating them).

And many of our best social situations and holidays revolve around eating large amounts of food.

These can be okay on occasion and part of normal eating. But binge eating disorder is something altogether different. It’s a step beyond overindulging.

Learn more about what causes binge eating, how to recognize signs and symptoms of binge eating, and what you should do if you or someone you love has the problem.

Are Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms Serious?

Most of us are familiar with the existence of other eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia. But binge eating disorder is actually the most common eating disorder of all—not just in Texas, but in the entire country.

Binge eating disorder can be life-threatening. 

Binge eating can cause chronic kidney problems or kidney failure; osteoarthritis, resulting from the strain of extra weight; and high blood pressure, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

What is the Definition of a Binge?

Binge eating is more than just overeating. A binge is defined as eating a very large amount of food in a very short period of time, generally less than two hours, and feeling a loss of control while eating.

People may eat food very quickly, even when they’re not physically hungry, and will often continue to eat when they feel full. They may be very physically uncomfortable after eating so much and so quickly.

But unlike bulimia nervosa, people with binge eating symptoms do not purge or engage in other compensatory behaviors such as overexercising. People with binge eating disorder symptoms usually feel a lot of guilt and shame about their eating habits.

Most will try very hard to hide their eating behavior by eating in secret and destroying any evidence of eating. But they don’t know how to stop themselves while eating and feel a lack of control over eating patterns.

It’s a very strong form of compulsive behavior, which is why it’s often referred to as compulsive overeating.

It’s important to note that weight is not indicative of binge eating disorder. People of all shapes and sizes can suffer from binge eating. However, not all overweight people have binge eating disorder.

What are Common Binge Eating Disorder Signs & Symptoms?

The best way to define binge eating disorder  (BED) is to understand how it presents in daily life. Certain signs are also likely clues that you or someone you love may have binge eating disorder.

People with bulimia may engage in “corrective” behavior after a binge, e.g. laxative use, vomiting, and extreme exercise. With a binge eating disorder, this is rarely the case. However, after binging, you may experience feelings like shame, guilt, and depression.

Common signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include:

  • Poor body image or preoccupation with weight
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Sensitivity to comments about weight, body image, food, or eating habits
  • Evidence of binge eating, such as disappearance of food or hoarding food
  • Isolation from friends and loved ones and withdrawal from former activities
  • Shoplifting food or spending large amounts of money on food
  • Self-harming behaviors, substance abuse, or suicide attempts
  • Consuming large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time
  • Eating when you’re not hungry
  • Rapid eating
  • Feeling loss of control over your eating behavior or powerless to stop 
  • Eating past the point of fullness
  • Choosing to eat alone, eating in secret or planning food to eat in secret
  • Always being on a diet, yet experiencing little or no weight loss
  • Diet restriction leading to more binge eating
  • Eating to soothe anxiety, stress, worries, loneliness or other uncomfortable sensations
  • Feelings of guilt, disgust or shame after a binge eating episode
  • You eat “at someone or something”, out of rebellion or to stuff anger
  • Eating to escape or distract yourself from something unpleasant
  • Feeling zoned out while binging or unaware of how much food you’ve eaten until after the fact

Who Gets Binge Eating Disorders?

While we may hear more about anorexia and/or bulimia, binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It impacts 3.5 percent of adult women and 2 percent of adult men.

  • Men most commonly get a binge eating disorder between the ages of 45 and 59
  • For women, it occurs much younger: between 18 and 29
  • Less than 2 percent of teenagers are affected

Of course, these statistics cannot reflect unreported cases. In other words, it is not recommended that anyone dismiss their risk if they do not match the usual profile.

What Causes Binge Eating?

Like most psychological disorders, binge eating symptoms are often triggered by stressful life events. Warning signs for an impending binge can include poor sleep or sleep deprivation and suffering psychologically stressful events, like the loss of a loved one, financial strain, or job loss.

Experts don’t know what causes binge eating disorder, but it does appear to be an attempt to control one’s own life, particularly during times of chaos. There are also risk factors that can lead to the development of binge eating symptoms.  

If you feel angry and upset with yourself, it might be time to let yourself off the hook. A problem with binge eating was never your preference; complex psychological and social pressures shaped the way you see yourself in relation to food.

When a binge ends, you see remnants of the food you’ve consumed around you. You may be feeling sick and disappointed, and find yourself asking, “Why?” It doesn’t seem to make sense—you didn’t sit down and rationally decide to binge eat. You never wanted to feel the way you do now.

Risk Factors & Causes of Binge Eating Symptoms 

Let’s review some examples of what causes binge eating or increases the risk of developing binge eating symptoms.

1. Coping with Overwhelming Emotions

Binge eating can be an attempt to cope with overwhelming emotions such as anxiety, shame, or anger, particularly in those with difficulty expressing their feelings. Binge eating helps numb discomfort and pain—even if just for a little while.

It makes sense that if you don’t have the tools to deal with confusing emotions, you’d look for comfort and distraction where you know you can quickly find it.

2. Mental Health Issues 

Binge eating often accompanies other mental health issues such as a mood disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD or anxiety. The psychological drive to binge eat is strongest when your depression or anxiety lingers untreated

3. Biological Imbalances 

For some, biological imbalances can contribute to binge eating symptoms and impaired hunger and fullness cues. 

4. Chemical Imbalances: Dopamine 

Binge eating feels like a dream state partially because fat and sugar release the feel-good, addictive chemical, dopamine.

Dopamine helps explain why you feel compelled to binge eat, and unable to stop: Your brain craves the rush of dopamine, and needs more and more to feel the same high. Low levels of dopamine also lead to a rise in compulsive behavior, such as binge eating.

5. Skipping Meals & Periods of Restriction

Skipping meals during the day or going long periods without eating can contribute to binge eating later in the day. In the same way, skipping out on carbs early in the day can trigger an afternoon or evening binge. 

Periods of restriction or black and white behaviors around food can trigger binge eating symptoms. After a period of deprivation or restriction, even if you just skipped breakfast, your hunger can return with a vengeance. The more you restrict, the stronger your cravings will be.

6. Food Rules & Deprivation

Food rules can lead to feelings of deprivation which can trigger binge eating. Being exposed to the forbidden foods can lead to bingeing on them. Once you’re in a habit of identifying and meeting your needs, you’re ready to make peace with food and keep these foods around at all times. 

7. Excess Focus on Weight or Appearance at a Young Age

Environmental factors such as family pressure on appearance and excess focus on weight at a young age can contribute to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

8. Genetics/Family History

It is unclear when this is due to inherited genes or environmental factors — or a little of both. Either way, if your parents or siblings have an eating disorder, your risk is higher.

9. Psychological Factors

Binge eating symptoms may be triggered by negative self-image. These negative thoughts can run the gamut, e.g.

  • Feeling inadequate
  • Dissatisfaction with one’s accomplishments or status
  • High levels of stress
  • Poor body image

10. Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Trauma

Abuse or trauma, particularly sexual abuse can cause binge eating as a form of coping strategy and protection.

11. Dieting

As mentioned above, unproductive dieting is a symptom of binge eating disorder. Dieting for weight loss, particularly dieting at a young age, often leads to weight gain and binge eating symptoms.

Any form of dieting can trigger this order as a backlash of sorts — particularly in those struggling with depression symptoms. Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet.

12. Convenience

Simply put, the easy availability of preferred binge food can dramatically increase the incidence of binge eating.

13. Boredom

If you’re feeling bored, bingeing can be exciting and pleasurable. Particularly if you have little other sources of pleasure in your life. 

14. Procrastination or Giving Yourself a Break 

Bingeing can also be a way of giving yourself a break if you have little time for yourself. Or if you frequently don’t give yourself permission to take a break. 

15. Environmental Triggers 

Special occasions, social events, holidays, dining out (and getting your money’s worth) can be environmental cues that trigger binge eating. 

Depression Can Cause Binge Eating and be a Result of Bingeing 

A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teenagers who reported feeling depressed were twice as likely to binge eat. Additionally, teens who binge ate regularly were twice as likely to be at risk for depression.

Other studies have shown that as many as half of the people who experience eating disorders also experience depression. The link between eating uncontrollably and feeling bad about life makes sense: both binge eating and depression are characterized by self-directed negative feelings.

Depression-related binge eating problems can look like perfectionism in your life; you might feel like you’re just not good enough. 

You feel more depressed after binge eating, eventually leading you to binge eat again. You’re all too familiar with the feelings of pain that follow an episode, and the feelings of powerlessness around food.

While it might sound overwhelming that binge eating and depression latch onto each other, it makes understanding overeating a little easier.

Ready to let go of binge eating? Join our Make Peace with Food group.

Binge Eating is Treatable! 

There are many emotions connected to eating. We eat to feel comforted. We eat to feel safe. Whether we do not eat enough or eat too much, these behaviors may provoke deep feelings of guilt and shame. 

In order to change your relationship to food, you’ll need to sift through and learn how to manage the pain and hurt you’ve felt in your life. One of the hardest—yet most rewarding—parts of overcoming binge eating is learning to feel good about who you are now.

Bingeing doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Simply trying to understand why you binge eat is an important first step.

Whatever the reasons you believe you’re binge eating, know that it can be really hard to get better on your own—and that’s okay. A therapist can give you the guidance, support, and professional input you need.

Binge eating disorder can be very dangerous, but fortunately, it’s also very treatable.

Treatment for Binge Eating Symptoms May Include: 

  • Individual therapy which may include techniques for learning to change your relationship with food, exploring your physical and emotional triggers to binge and finding alternate coping strategies.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy which can help you learn to regulate your emotions and tolerate stress.
  • Several medications, including antidepressants or Vyvanse, that may also help to reduce the desire to binge.
  • Working with an eating disorder dietitian who can help you manage physical and nutritional triggers that cause binge eating episodes and restore nutritional balance. 
  • Group therapy to learn new skills and strategies to manage binge eating symptoms, gain support from others and reduce feelings of isolation, loneliness and shame about bingeing. 

We Offer Individual & Group Therapy for Binge Eating Symptoms 

Our group therapy program, “Make Peace with Food” teaches coping skills and helps participants identify underlying triggers and issues that can cause binge eating symptoms. Group therapy can also be a powerful way to connect with and learn from others in situations similar to your own and feel less alone.

Binge eating symptoms can cause a lot of distress. When you choose to get treatment, you can recover from the disorder and learn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

To get started now give us a call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online.

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