Emotional triggers, such as stress, guilt, and loneliness, or environmental triggers, such as grocery shopping, media, and dieting, can cause binge eating episodes in individuals with binge eating disorder (BED).

BED is a mental health condition that causes someone to consume large amounts of food while feeling a lack of control over their eating behavior. Food cravings and compulsive eating may occur after exposure to certain triggers.

Triggers can vary from person to person, and not everyone with BED will experience the same triggers.

This article lists some of the different triggers of BED, advises how people can avoid them, and explains when and how to get help.

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Emotional triggers for BED are internal feelings, thoughts, or emotional states that can lead to binge eating episodes. Some potential emotional triggers for BED include:

  • Stress and anxiety: High levels of stress or anxiety, whether due to work, relationships, financial issues, or other life events, can trigger a person to compulsively eat to seek comfort and relieve stress.
  • Depression: Sadness, hopelessness, or a low mood can trigger compulsive eating if someone turns to food to elevate their mood temporarily.
  • Loneliness: Feelings of isolation or loneliness can lead to emotional eating, as individuals may use food to fill an emotional void.
  • Boredom: When individuals are bored, they may turn to food as a source of entertainment or a way to pass the time, even when they are not physically hungry.
  • Anger: A 2023 review suggests negative emotions, including anger, may trigger binge eating episodes in people with BED.
  • Guilt: Past binge eating episodes can result in feelings of guilt and shame, triggering further compulsive eating to cope with or escape from these emotions.
  • Trauma: People with a history of trauma or abuse may use binge eating to cope with unresolved emotional pain or as a means of self-soothing.
  • Low self-esteem: Low self-esteem and negative self-perceptions may increase the risk of developing BED and may lead to emotional triggers for BED.

Environmental triggers are external factors or situations in a person’s surroundings that can contribute to someone developing BED or exacerbate food cravings. Some potential environmental triggers include:

  • Availability of foods: The presence of readily accessible and tempting foods that are high in sugar, fat, and calories may be a significant trigger for binge eating episodes.
  • Social gatherings: Events, such as parties, family gatherings, holidays, and celebrations, often involve a surplus of food. The social pressure to eat, and the abundance of food, may trigger binge eating behaviors in some people.
  • Eating out: Dining at restaurants or fast-food establishments, where portions may be larger and food may be high in calories, can trigger overeating in people with BED.
  • Media: Food advertisements, cooking shows, or food-related media can stimulate cravings and trigger binge eating episodes.
  • Food shopping: Grocery shopping while hungry or without a clear shopping list can lead to impulse purchases of binge-triggering foods.
  • Stocking the kitchen: Keeping large quantities of high calorie, binge-inducing foods at home can create an environment where it is easier to engage in binge eating. This includes hiding or hoarding food.
  • Late-night eating: People with BED may also have night eating syndrome or shared symptoms, which can cause someone to eat late at night or feel that they cannot sleep without eating.
  • Dieting: Short-term restrictive diets may contribute to cravings, which can trigger episodes of overeating when the diet finishes.
  • Eating patterns: Irregular eating patterns, such as skipping meals or going for long periods without eating, can lead to extreme hunger and increase vulnerability to binge eating.

The first step for someone with BED to avoid triggers is to become aware of their specific triggers. Keeping a journal can help someone record when and why they binge eat. This can help identify patterns and specific situations that precede the episodes.

If possible, people can avoid places, other people, or activities they know might trigger binge eating episodes.

When someone feels the compulsive urge to eat without any control, distracting themselves with alternative activities could help prevent a binge eating episode. This may include:

  • going for a walk
  • taking a bath
  • engaging in hobbies
  • exercising
  • journaling
  • talking with a friend

Establishing regular eating patterns with balanced meals and snacks throughout the day may also help people control the urge to binge eat.

Some people may also benefit from support groups or finding people with similar experiences when working to overcome BED. People in these support groups can share their tips for avoiding triggers.

Occasional overeating does not necessarily mean that someone has BED. However, if people have difficulty with overeating, they can speak with a healthcare professional to determine whether they have this condition.

Binge eating can link to physical health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, which doctors can also help treat and manage.

As well as avoiding triggers, treatment options for BED may include the following:

Binge eating disorder is a complex condition, and a person’s triggers can be multifaceted. Identifying and addressing these triggers is a crucial part of treatment.

If someone is experiencing BED, they should seek professional help from a mental health professional, therapist, or counselor specializing in eating disorders.

Treatment may include psychotherapy, including CBT, medication, support groups, and lifestyle changes.