Binge eating can occur on its own, or alongside other disorders or conditions, such as Prader-Willi disorder, or a lesion of the hypothalamus gland.
Here are some key points about binge eating disorder. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Binge eating disorder differs from bulimia, as there is no purge after the binge.
- People with the condition feel they have no control over their eating.
- Depression and other psychological factors can trigger the condition.
- One binging session can consist of up to 20,000 calories.
- Obesity is a possible complication.
What is it?
People with binge eating disorder feel that they have no control over how much they eat.
A person with a binge eating disorder feels compelled to eat too much. Individuals will consume enormous quantities of food, even when they are not hungry. Binge eaters believe they have absolutely no control over their eating.
After a bout of binge eating the person feels disgust and guilt. This feeling of failed self may form part of an underlying problem, such as anxiety or depression - both can either cause or exacerbate the disorder.
Even the best of us occasionally overeats, helping ourselves to seconds, and even thirds; especially on holiday or festive celebrations. This is not a binge eating disorder. It becomes a disorder when the bingeing occurs regularly, and the binger is shrouded in shame and secrecy. The binger is deeply embarrassed about overeating and vows never to do it again. However, the compulsion is so strong that subsequent urges to gorge themselves cannot be resisted.
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that the moods of college-age women who are concerned about their self-image and diet tend to worsen after bouts of disordered eating.
In many parts of the world binge eating disorder is not considered a distinct condition. However, it is the most common of all eating disorders. Perhaps as more research is published and scientists learn more about it, this may change.
A risk factor is something which increases the likelihood of developing a condition or disease. For example, obesity significantly raises the risk of developing diabetes type 2. Therefore, obesity is a risk factor for diabetes type 2.
Experts are not sure how many people have binge eating disorder; partly because bingers tend to be secretive, and also the exact definition of the disorder tends to vary from person-to-person, expert-to-expert and health center to health center.
According to the Mayo Clinic, USA, there are estimates which suggest that possibly up to 4% of the American population has a bingeing disorder. It appears to be marginally more common among females than males.
The following have been suggested as risk factors for binge eating disorder:
- Age - although people of any age may be affected, a higher percentage of adults in their 40s and 50s have the disorder.
- Other eating disorders - patients who have or had other eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia are at a higher risk of developing binge eating disorder.
- Dieting - experts know that dieting is a risk factor for bulimia and anorexia. Some people with eating disorder have never dieted, while others have a history of dieting. More studies are needed in this area.
- Psychological problems - people with binge eating disorder act impulsively and feel they lack control over their eating. A higher percentage of people with binge eating disorder have problems coping with stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, boredom and worry. It has been suggested that there may be a link with depression.
- Sexual abuse - some individuals with the disorder report that they were sexually abused when they were young.
- Society's expectations - it has been suggested that the media's obsession with body shape, appearance and weight may be a trigger for binge eating disorder.
- Biology - the development of binge eating disorder may be linked to a person's biological vulnerability, involving genes as well as brain chemicals. Current research is looking at how the appetite regulation of the central nervous system may affect people's eating habits. There may also be clues in how some people's gut functions.
- Eating disorders and alcohol abuse are genetically related - people with a genetic risk for certain eating disorders may also be at higher risk of alcohol abuse, and vice-versa, say researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
- Some jobs - there is some looming evidence that a higher percentage of sportsmen, sportswomen and models have binge eating disorder compared with other people. Although some people suggest that individuals who work in catering (making and serving food) may be susceptible, further studies are required.
When people have a binge eating disorder, also referred to as compulsive eating, they frequently eat huge amounts of food - they binge. In some cases, 10,000 to 20,000 calories of food may be consumed in one bout of bingeing. The average person consumes between 1,500 to 3,000 calories per day.
However, there are varying definitions for a binge; it may typically last a couple of hours. Some experts, however, say a binge may last up to a whole day.
In many cases of binge eating disorder there are no clear signs or symptoms. The following signs and symptoms, as well as potential consequences, may include:
Weight gain - the main sign of binge eating disorder. A significant proportion of people with the disorder are grossly overweight. Being obese or very overweight carries with it some serious health risks, including:
- Heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Some cancers
- High cholesterol
- Gallbladder disease.
A person with binge eating disorder may also:
- Crave sugar
- Experience stomach pain
- Find high or low temperatures difficult to bear
- Have more frequent headaches
- Despair at being trapped in a binge -> guilt -> attempt at self-discipline -> binge -> guilt cycle
- Low self-esteem
- Self-blame (which further damages self-esteem).
The following psychological problems may already exist, or occur as a consequence:
- Panic attacks
- Lack of focus
- Despair (hopelessness).
A person with a binge eating disorder may typically (source: Mayo Clinic, USA):
- Have periods when huge amounts of food are consumed
- Eat even when full
- Eat rapidly during a bout of bingeing
- Feel that the eating behavior is uncontrollable
- Have depression
- Have anxiety
- Diet frequently without any success
- Often eat alone
- Hoard food
- Hide empty food containers
- Feel remorse, shame, guilt, disgust, despair about their eating.
Binge eating is often linked to negative feelings about the self.
Treatment is usually aimed at:
- Reducing eating binges
- Improving emotional well-being
- Losing weight (when necessary).
Binge eating is closely linked to guilt, shame, low self-esteem, self-disgust, as well as other negative emotions. These, as well as some other psychological problems need to be addressed.
Anybody who suspects they may have binge eating disorder should get medical help as soon as possible.
The National Health Service (NHS), UK, says that NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) recommends the following therapies for eating disorders:
- A self-help program; which should be under the supervision of health care professionals
- Psychological therapy
- An SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressant (sometimes).
Psychological treatment - the patient is encouraged to cease relying on the guilt-bingeing cycle as a way of coping with emotional problems. The following types of therapy have been shown to help people with binge eating disorder:
- CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy): The therapist helps the patient seek out new ways of interpreting and dealing with situations, feelings and food.
- Joining and attending self-help and support groups
- Various psychotherapie: Regularly meeting with a therapist who helps the patient understand what is making him/her anxious, and to accept his/her strengths, weaknesses, etc. Often this involves interpersonal therapy, which focuses on the patient's current relationships with other people. If poor relationships and unhealthy communication skills have contributed to binge eating disorder, interpersonal therapy may help.
Psychotherapy may also involve dialectical behavior therapy, which helps the individual learn behavioral skills to help tolerate stress, monitor and control emotions, as well as improving relationships with other people.
Weight control - for the patient to successfully reach an ideal body weight, existing underlying psychological problems need to be addressed first. An overweight individual should follow a weight-loss plan set up by a qualified health care professional.
Avoiding low blood sugar - low blood sugar levels can cause food craving, as well as having some other effects on the body. Some studies indicate that good control of blood sugar levels may help reduce the number of bingeing episodes.
Keeping a food diary - by keeping a food diary, the person with binge eating disorder may be able to eventually identify which eating patterns, or types of food, tend to trigger a sudden and false sense of hunger.
Consuming low sugar foods - these foods; those with a low glycemic index, will release sugar (energy, glucose) more slowly and more consistently throughout the day.
Increase eating frequency - in order to keep blood sugar levels constant, eat more meals per day, more smaller meals. Include complex carbohydrates.
Avoid sugary foods, alcohol and caffeine - cut out all foods and drinks which tend to cause severe fluctuations on your blood sugar levels.
While experts continue to disagree on the precise definition of binge eating disorder, there also various different recommendations for prevention. Although there is no definite way to prevent the disorder, most agree that some steps (including those mentioned above) may help.
Pediatricians are often able to identify the early signs of an eating disorder that begins in childhood, and take steps to prevent its development. Psychologist and pediatricians agree that parents should cultivate and reinforce a healthy body image in their offspring, regardless of their body size or shape.