On Your Health

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Shedding Light on Binge Eating

The next time you feel tempted to polish off an entire pizza when someone isn’t looking or shamefully sneak into the pantry to eat a box of cookies, chances are it has little to do with hunger and might be a red flag for something bigger.

Thoughts, feelings, and actions like these are sometimes signs of an eating disorder. They are more common than you think. At least 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. Approximately three percent of American adults deal with binge eating disorder, which makes it three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. 

What is binge eating?

Binge eating is the most common eating disorder in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s more common in women than men and most often begins in late teenage years or early 20s.

Binge eating disorder happens when an individual repeatedly eats large quantities of food in a single sitting and often feels a lack of control over how much he or she consumes. Often, he or she feels unable to stop eating. A person with binge eating disorder often feels deep guilt or shame associated with the binge eating.

Binge eating disorder differs from bulimia in that the person does not binge and purge (eating excessive amounts and then forcing the body to vomit or taking laxatives to get rid of the food), they just binge. Many times, an eating disorder like bulimia doesn’t lead to obesity, but people with binge eating disorder are often obese or overweight.

Diagnosing a binge eating disorder

Just because you might occasionally overeat something like a bag of chips when you’re hungry doesn’t mean you have binge eating disorder. Binge eating is a physiological condition and medical disorder. If you do any of the following once a week for at least three months it means you might meet the criteria for binge eating disorder.

  • Eating very large amounts of food.
  • Staying at home to eat alone or eating in secret so you aren’t judged by others.
  • Feeling like you have no control over what you put in your body.
  • Consuming food until you physically can’t anymore.
  • Eating food at a rapid pace.
  • Eating even when you’re not hungry.
  • Feeling guilty or depressed after you overeat

Why do people binge?

While some might shame binge eaters, it’s not a lifestyle choice by any means. Family history can sometimes play a role in binge eating, but binge eating disorder can often manifest itself in people who frequently diet or have unhealthy eating habits. If you severely limit your body’s caloric intake during a diet, it may produce episodes where you follow that restriction by uncontrollably eating large quantities of food in a single sitting. 

People who suffer from mental health issues like anxiety or depression or low self-esteem are also more likely to suffer from binge eating disorder and may eat compulsively to mask stress or other emotional factors. These issues need to be treated along with the binge eating. The behaviors of binge eaters also share similarities with people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Signs of a binge eating disorder

It’s not easy for individuals to open up and admit struggles like these. People who binge eat regularly can hide symptoms, which makes it harder for parents, spouses, siblings, friends or relatives to be aware of problems. 

Many of the signs and symptoms associated with binge eating and other eating disorders aren’t physical and may be hidden. Instead, be aware of the emotional and behavioral changes that can signal binge eating disorder.

  • Low self-esteem
  • Frequent dieting 
  • Withdrawing from typical day-to-day activities, such as friendships or hobbies
  • Frequently trying new fad diets
  • Hoarding food from others
  • Hiding large quantities of wrappers or containers 
  • Constantly looking in the mirror
  • Complaining of feeling tired and lethargic
  • Complaining of feeling bloated and constipated 
  • Lifestyle changes

Binge eating disorder treatment options

If you suspect someone you love has a binge eating disorder, approach any potential conversations with care. You should make sure to demonstrate your concern comes from a place of love, support and encouragement, and make sure the conversation isn’t attacking in any way.

While binge eating is a medical disorder you should take seriously, know there are options to help treat it. A failure to treat the disorder could result in health problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one type of talk therapy used to treat binge eating disorders. This treatment method helps recognize patterns with the hope of changing negative beliefs and patterns that can lead to overeating. 

When appropriate, certain medications may help curtail binge eating. It’s important to speak with your doctor to go over any potential side effects or other medical interactions.

You may also find success with medications that aren’t for binge eating disorder, but their effects can help reduce problems that lead to eating issues. For example, antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may help control your anxiety and depression, which might curb the emotional component of binge eating. 

Overeaters Anonymous meetings

There are support groups available like Overeaters Anonymous, which help people with eating disorders ranging from anorexia to binge eating. The website features a section with a questionnaire to help you determine if you have problems with compulsive eating.

Much like Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous has a twelve step recovery program that starts with admitting powerlessness over food. Members can receive help in overcoming binge eating by making a plan, attending meetings, using a sponsor and keeping a log of thoughts via a journal.


Binge eating can be a tricky subject to discuss, but the team at INTEGRIS Psychiatry and Mental Health can help get eating habits back to normal. The last week of February is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which makes it a good time for you to take a mental health screening, or to share the link below with others in your life. You might not know who could be silently struggling with disordered eating. 

To take a free, anonymous, online screening and for free information and resources, visit http://screening.mentalhealthscreening.org/integris.

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