Binge Eating Disorder 101: Understanding Signs and Treatment

Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder that involves repeated episodes of consuming large amounts of food within a short period. Being in this way of disordered eating impacts quality of life, and brings about guilt and shame.

It’s actually a relatively new eating disorder. Binge eating disorder was officially named in 2013 in a new edition of the DSM (the manual for diagnosing and treating mental health conditions).

But that doesn’t make it any less worthy than other eating disorders. It also doesn’t make it more rare than other eating disorders. In fact, binge eating disorder is the eating disorder with the highest prevalence, alongside OSFED.

In this article, I’ll let you know exactly what binge eating disorder is, the signs, and how to recover from it.

Signs of binge eating disorder

If you are experiencing the following signs, you may have binge eating disorder:

  • Recurring episodes of binging
  • Binge eating episodes happen at least once per week for three months
  • No making up for binges with compensatory behaviours, like with Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa

It is important to note that binge eating disorder does not discriminate based on body size, ethnicity, or gender. Although certain health conditions such as PCOS and ADHD have a higher rate of binge eating disorder, anyone can be affected.

If you are experiencing signs of binge eating disorder, seeking help can be beneficial in managing and overcoming it.

What exactly counts as a binge?

Binge eating is different for everyone.

A general explanation of what binging is:

  • Eating more than the amount of food that someone who doesn’t binge eat would eat in a similar situation. This is quite vague, right? We would add that this happens for a continuous period of time, e.g. more than three months.
  • Feeling a lack of control over eating when binge eating
  • Eating more rapidly than normal, especially when you’re eating alone or when you’re emotional
  • Eating until you become uncomfortably full
  • Eating until you feel physically unwell
  • Eating large amounts of food when you don’t feel physically hungry
  • Eating alone because you feel embarrassed over how much you eat
  • Feeling distress, guilt, shame, or frustration over how much you ate

There’s a difference between binge eating and having binge eating disorder. The main differences are the intensity, frequency, and the amount of time binging has been happening.

Both are deserving of support, but with binge eating disorder it will likely take longer to recover.

Causes of binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is a multi-factorial disorder, which means there is no single cause.

Many different factors can contribute to its development including:

  • Cultural aspects such as diet culture, fatphobia, healthism, and health beliefs that centre around restriction
  • Beliefs about food such as food rules and health perfectionism
  • Past life events where your relationship to food is serving a purpose. Like control, giving an identity, or protecting you in some way. This includes trauma related to bullying, abuse, or adverse childhood events (ACE’s)
  • Genetics and upbringing. Genetics plays a big role in the development of binge eating disorder and binge eating. It’s more common to struggle with binging if your parents did. This is due to the literal genetics, but also the environment you are raised in with food
  • Dieting, restriction, and trying to lose weight can all cause binge eating and binge eating disorder to develop. One of the biggest causes of binge eating is mental and/or physical restriction

Treatment

Binge eating disorder treatment mostly includes therapy and nutrition counselling.

Therapy for binge eating disorder

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a popular one and is usually the one offered via the NHS.

As I am an integrative therapist, I am trained in CBT but do not use this as my only approach. For binge eating disorder, I find a person-centred approach is most important so I work with my clients needs rather than a set therapy type.

Therapy usually focus on:

  • Developing coping skills to manage triggers for binge eating
  • Addressing the underlying emotional issues
  • Managing emotions with emotional regulation
  • Uncover and process some of the driver causes of your binge eating
  • Understanding yourself and binging more
  • Having a space to speak and work through any problems you’re having
  • Developing your emotional resiliance
  • Unravelling your identify from your eating disorder

Nutrition therapy for binge eating disorder

Nutrition counselling can also be part of your recovery. This focuses on addressing disordered eating patterns, promoting a healthy relationship with food, and managing emotional triggers.

The primary goals might include:

  • Establishing regular, adequate, and balanced eating
  • Increase your awareness and connection to hunger and fullness cues
  • Building satisfaction around eating
  • Reducing binge eating by uncovering and processing root causes
  • Address underlying psychological factors contributing to binge eating
  • Education on nutrition principles
  • Meal planning and the practical side of eating
  • Strategies for coping with cravings and emotional eating
  • Challenging negative thoughts and beliefs about food and body image

1. How do I know if I’m binge eating?

Some common signs of binge eating are:

  • Eating rapidly and until uncomfortably full
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed after eating
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Hiding food or eating in secret
  • Feeling depressed, anxious, or distressed about binge eating behavior

2. If I binge eat, does that mean I have binge eating disorder?

Simply put, binge eating disorder is a diagnosed eating disorder whereas binge eating doesn’t fit a set criteria.

Binge eating becomes binge eating disorder when you’ve had episodes of binging three or more times a week for more than three months.

The binges should also be objective binges, rather than subjective. Which means your binges have to be true binges, and not something only you view as binges. As in, it actually has to be a large amount of food.

The official criteria for binge eating disorder is:

In the last 3-months, for at least 2-3x per week, you:

  • Have eaten more than others would in a “normal” circumstance
  • You have a lack of control when eating
  • You are eating much more rapidly than normal
  • You have been eating until uncomfortably full
  • You find yourself eating alone due to embarrassment
  • You feel disgust, guilt, or shame about how much/how you are eating
  • Your eating is making you feel distressed
  • You’re not making up for food by vomiting, over-exercising, taking laxatives, or restricting

3. How does binge eating disorder differ from occasional overeating?

While occasional overeating is pretty normal and not necessarily a cause for concern, binge eating disorder is a serious mental health condition that involves frequent episodes of overeating accompanied by a sense of loss of control. Binge eating disorder is often associated with feelings of guilt, shame, and distress, and can have significant physical and emotional consequences.

4. What are the potential health risks of binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder can have a range of physical and emotional consequences, including:

  • Health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease
  • Digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, acid reflux, diarrhea, and abdominal pain
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions
  • Social isolation and difficulties with relationships and work

5. Can binge eating disorder be treated by a meal plan?

It’s very tempting to try to solve your binge eating with a food plan. But binge eating disorder isn’t due to a lack of willpower. If a food plan worked to cure binge eating, it would be a widely available thing.

The treatment for binge eating disorder typically involves a combination of therapy and nutrition counselling. As part of your treatment, you may have some version of a food plan but it shouldn’t be a prescriptive set plan.

Binge eating meal plans are more like a guidance to help you with your eating structure and to ensure you meet your nutrition needs.

6. How can I support my friend or family member who is struggling with binge eating disorder?

If you have a friend or family member who is struggling with binge eating disorder, there are several ways you can offer support.

Some ways include:

  • Listen non-judgmentally and offer emotional support
  • Encourage your loved one to seek professional help
  • Avoid commenting on their weight or appearance – or anyone’s for that matter
  • Be patient and understanding as they navigate their recovery journey
  • Work on your own relationship with food and your body. Sadly, the majority of adults have some form of disordered relationship with food

7. I’ve had help for my binge eating but it was so weight-confused and made me feel worse. What should I do?

Many people, especially those in larger bodies, have been subject to harmful treatment for their binge eating. You might have been told to simply try harder to eat “healthy”, or you might have been given a leaflet by Weight Watchers.

It’s very common for professionals to sadly recommend weight loss surgery, weight loss medication, anti-depressants, and dieting to those struggling with binge eating.

Let me be clear: none of these will get to the root of your binging. They will likely make it much worse and convoluted.

Myself and my team are weight-inclusive and Non-Diet clinicians. Every one of the nutritionists, dietitians, and therapists on the team works from an anti-diet lens that does not focus on weight.

Your binge eating support will never be about changing your body – you might want it too. But your relationship to food is separate from your body size.

8. I don’t have a diagnosis of binge eating disorder, can I still reach out for help?

Yes of course.

Myself and the team work with all types of relationships with food, no matter if someone has a specific diagnosis or not. You’re worthy of support no matter how long you’ve been struggling or if you don’t feel like it’s “bad enough” too.

Hope this blog on binge eating disorder brings clarity.

Shannon x

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