What is Binge Eating Disorder?

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Binge eating disorder is just as serious, just as real, and just as dangerous as anorexia and bulimia. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. About 3.5% of women and 2% of men have it. The disorder can occur in anyone, regardless of age, race, gender or other demographic categorization.

This is an important point to highlight because while many people have some knowledge of anorexia and bulimia, they often pause when we talk about binge eating disorder (BED). The conversation that follows can highlight common misconceptions about binge eating disorder, which may also shine a light on why sometimes people don’t think it’s a big deal. “Oh, I must have that. I binge eat when I get stressed out during [insert occasional situation here].” “When I watch TV I zone out and eat.” “Every holiday I end up overeating.” But there is a difference. Let’s talk about what binge eating disorder is and is not, how it’s caused, and why it’s important to get treated.

Is binge eating disorder the same as overeating?

Binge eating disorder is not exactly the same as overeating. Most people overeat on occasion and don’t experience any major adverse effects. So which characteristics define binge eating disorder as an eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurring episodes of binge eating during which a person feels a loss of control over their eating. Binge eating episodes are often driven by a need to soothe negative emotions. According to the DSM-5, to be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, three or more of the following criteria must be met:

  1. Eating quicker than usual.
  2. Eat enough to feel uncomfortably full.
  3. Eating while not hungry.
  4. Eating alone so no one will notice how much you’re consuming.
  5. Feelings of disgust, depression, or guilt after eating.
  6. Distress about bingeing.
  7. Bingeing at least once a week for three months (or more).

Unlike bulimia, binge eating episodes are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, fasting or other compensatory behaviors. Binge eating disorder occurs more frequently in those who are overweight or obese, but people who are not overweight can also be diagnosed with binge eating disorder. Guilt, shame and/or distress about their eating behavior is common – which can lead to more binge eating. So, even though the common misconceptions and comments involve overeating from time to time, occasional binges are not likely an eating disorder. 

What causes binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder can result from a variety of factors. These include:

  • Genetics: There is evidence that binge eating disorder is hereditary. People with binge eating disorder may also have an increased sensitivity to dopamine, which influences feelings of reward and pleasure.
  • Severe dieting: Dieting which can trigger a backlash of binge eating.
  • Trauma: Emotional trauma throughout a person’s life can contribute to binge eating behaviors.
  • Co-occurring conditions: Almost 80% of people with binge eating disorder have at least one other mental disorder, including depression, phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or substance use disorder.
  • Body image: People with binge eating disorder often have a negative body image, which fuels feelings of shame and helplessness.
  • Body size: Almost 50% of those with binge eating disorder are obese. 25-50% of people seeking weight loss surgery meet the criteria for binge eating disorder. 

Why is binge eating disorder harmful?

Binge eating disorder can contribute to many psychological and physical problems through a person’s life. Complications of binge eating disorder may include difficulty functioning at work, social isolation, dermatological effects (such as dry skin and hair loss), gastrointestinal effects (such as acid reflux, cramping, heartburn and diarrhea), obesity, and medical conditions related to obesity, such as heart disorder, joint issues, diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

What is the best way to treat binge eating disorder?

It is important to seek treatment for binge eating disorder if you suspect that you or someone in your life may be struggling. Because binge eating disorder has effects on both mental and physical health, it isn’t enough to get treated for the physical symptoms only. It doesn’t address the root of the problem, so it won’t truly make it go away.

The best way to treat binge eating disorder is by working with a multidisciplinary team of specialists to address the whole person. These are serious illnesses, but with the right treatment and support, people can and do recover. The Emily Program has provided specialty treatment for eating disorders for over 25 years. Reach out to us today 1-866-247-6440 or start the process online.

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