Binge eating is an eating disorder where a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis through regular binges.
People who binge eat consume very large quantities of food over a short period of time, even when they are not hungry.
Binges are often planned in advance and can involve the person buying "special" binge foods.
In rare cases, people describe themselves as being in a "dazed state" during a binge – particularly binges during the night – and they are not able to recall what they ate.
People who binge eat feel they have no control over their eating. They often binge in private because they feel embarrassed, guilty or disgusted with their behaviour after they have finished eating.
Episodes of binge eating sometimes alternate with periods where the person cuts down on the amount of food they eat.
This can lead to a vicious cycle that is difficult to break – where blood sugar levels rise and fall rapidly, and false messages are sent to the brain, which result in cravings for food when your body doesn't need it.
Who is affected
Anyone can be affected by binge eating.
While the condition is slightly more common in women than men, the numbers of men and women affected are more equal than in other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa.
The condition tends to first develop in young adults, although many people do not seek help until they are in their 30s or 40s.
It’s estimated that there is around a 1 in 30 to 1 in 50 chance of a person developing binge eating disorder at some point during their life.
Many people will occasionally binge on food – this doesn't necessarily mean you have a binge eating disorder. However, you should see your GP if you binge regularly and excessively, particularly if the binges are having an effect on your physical and/or mental health.
Your GP can diagnose the condition and may be able to refer you to a specialist, such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist.
Your GP will ask you about your eating habits and look for the following signs:
- you eat much faster than normal during a binge
- you eat until you feel uncomfortably full
- you eat a large amount of food when you are not hungry
- you eat alone or secretly due to being embarrassed about the amount of food you are consuming
- you have feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating
People who regularly eat this way are likely to have a binge eating disorder.
What causes binge eating?
It's not clear what causes binge eating, but, like most eating disorders, it's seen as a way of coping with feelings of unhappiness and low self-esteem.
Things that may increase your risk of developing problems with binge eating include:
- low self-esteem and a lack of confidence
- depression or anxiety
- feelings of stress, anger, boredom or loneliness
- dissatisfaction with your body and feeling under pressure to be thin
- stressful or traumatic events in your past
- a family history of eating disorders, which may be related to your genes
- differences in your brain or the level of hormones produced by your brain compared to people who don't binge eat
Binge eating can sometimes develop following a strict diet, particularly if you skipped meals, cut certain foods out and didn't eat enough food. These are unhealthy ways to lose weight and may mean you're more likely to binge at another time.
How binge eating is treated
Binge eating is treatable and most people eventually get better with appropriate help and support.
The main treatments are:
- self-help programmes – this may be individually with a book or online course, or as part of a self-help support group
- guided self-help (self-help supervised by regular contacts with a professional)
- specialist group intervention
- individual (one-to-one) psychological therapy – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- medication called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
These treatments can help you overcome the psychological issues associated with your binge eating, but they won't usually have a significant impact on your weight.
If you are overweight, a healthcare professional may also draw up a weight loss plan to follow during treatment or after any psychological issues have been dealt with.
Read more about treating binge eating
Risks of binge eating
Binge eating can be associated with serious psychological problems, including depression and anxiety disorders. These feelings can be made worse over time while the person is still binge eating.
A common physical effect of binge eating is weight gain, which can lead to obesity. This can put you at risk of a number of related physical health problems, some of which can be life-threatening.
Therefore, it's important to seek help if you think you may have a binge eating problem, because you may need support to help you tackle both your psychological and physical problems.