Binge Eating Disorder: signs, symptoms and treatment

Learn more about what binge eating disorder (BED) is, why people develop this condition, how to recognise it, and the treatment options available. With the right help and support, people with BED can and do recover.

Written by spunout


Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a common eating disorder characterised by reoccurring episodes of binge eating. Many people overeat occasionally, but people with BED experience overwhelming urges to eat and feel as though they have lost control over their eating. Binge eating can develop as a way to cope with negative emotions and inner turmoil.

While they share some symptoms, BED is different to Bulimia Nervosa, when a person will binge on food and later purge to compensate for all that they have eaten through exercise, vomiting, or laxatives. BED does not lead to an immediate purge after a binge. BED can affect people of any gender, age, sexual orientation, body size or ethnicity.

Why do people develop binge eating disorder?

It is not always clear why someone develops BED. The condition doesn’t have one specific cause and the causes are different for different people. Some research suggests that BED has a neurological component, with the brain’s ability to control impulses and certain brain chemicals potentially playing a role.

While the condition can seem like it’s all about food on the surface, the root causes of BED are usually linked to difficult emotions that the person is dealing with and what they’re going through in their lives. The behaviours around eating that other people can see are just the external expression of inner emotional turmoil.

Mental health difficulties like anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, a family history of eating disorders, and traumatic experiences are all associated with developing BED. Research has found that emotional abuse and sexual abuse in childhood are associated with developing BED later in life.

To better understand how BED affects a person, it can be helpful to think of it as a coping mechanism. Like any eating disorder, BED causes a person to control food and their body to manage distress and feel in control when something else in their life is making them feel out of control or unsafe. Understanding this makes it easier to understand how scary it can be to stop engaging in eating disorder behaviours.  

Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder

BED is a mental health condition that causes people to engage in repeated episodes of binge eating where they eat a lot of food in one short time period. During this time, they feel they can’t control what they’re eating, how much they are eating, or when they will stop.

Not everyone who experiences BED will have the same profile of symptoms and different symptoms can emerge as the condition develops over time. People experiencing BED will often try to hide their eating behaviours because they feel guilty or embarrassed. These feelings can make it more difficult to reach out for help. Although it might not always feel like it, it’s important to know that experiencing eating binges is nothing to be ashamed of and you deserve support and understanding. 

What is an eating binge?

Eating binges are the central symptom of BED. Bingeing on food is a term that can often come up casually in conversation, but in the context of eating disorders, an eating binge has a specific definition. An eating binge means eating an amount of food within any 2 hour period that is much larger than most people would eat during a similar period of time and under similar circumstances.

During an eating binge, the person feels like they can’t stop eating or control what or how much they are eating. Following the binge, the person often feels ashamed of what they have eaten. Shame is a common element of an eating binge but it is important to remember that experiencing an eating binge is nothing to feel ashamed of.

How often you binge eat is different for everyone, maybe it only happens once every few months or maybe you binge every day. People who receive a clinical diagnosis of BED have been bingeing at least once a week for 3 months, but if you are experiencing less frequent binge episodes, you can still get help and support.

Is binge eating different from emotional eating or comfort eating?

Emotional eating, sometimes called comfort eating, is where you eat food because you’re experiencing negative feelings and you try to replace them or numb them with positive feelings. Food can bring people pleasure and eating to feel comfort is common. It isn’t something to feel guilty about. Similar to emotional eating, an eating binge can also be triggered by emotional factors like stress and negative feelings. Unlike emotional eating, binge eating is a compulsive behaviour where the person overeats and feels like they can’t control what they’re eating and can’t stop when they want to. Emotional eating and binge eating exist on a spectrum, with emotional eating at the lower end and binge eating at the more severe end. Engaging in emotional eating doesn’t mean that you will go on to engage in binge eating or develop an eating disorder, but if your eating habits are beginning to worry you, talking to your GP or calling the Bodywhys helpline can help.

The Diet/Binge Cycle

Sometimes, the symptoms of BED can present in the form of a Diet/Binge cycle.

  1. Dieting: A person may feel bad about themselves and decide to restrict food intake
  2. Urges to eat: After restricting food intake, this person might have an urge to eat more or eat something they’ve been avoiding. 
  3. Bingeing: After giving in to the urge to eat, they consider their whole diet ruined. The person experiences a compulsive urge to binge and over-eat.
  4. Feelings of guilt or shame: After bingeing, the feelings of guilt and shame set back in.
  5. Repeating the cycle: The person goes back on a diet and begins the cycle again.

Other behavioural symptoms of binge eating disorder

  • Eating a lot faster than normal
  • Eating until you’re feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating a lot, even when you’re not hungry
  • Eating alone to hide your binge eating out of shame or embarrassment

Psychological symptoms of binge eating disorder

  • Feeling inadequate or worthless
  • Feeling guilt or shame after binge eating
  • Experiencing depression and low moods
  • Feeling anxious
  • Struggling with body image
  • Having a low sense of self-esteem

Physical symptoms of binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder changes your eating behaviours and may result in physical symptoms and changes in your body. These can include:

  • digestive issues like stomach pains, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
  • weight gain 

Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder

Thinking that you might be experiencing BED can be a scary thought. If you have recognised that you’re experiencing some of the symptoms listed above you might be tempted to ignore them or try to avoid the subject, but you deserve to reach out for help and support. No matter how hard it may seem, it is possible to make a recovery. Recovery is not always linear. It can be one step forward and one step back sometimes, and what recovery means to you might be different to what it means for someone else. Everyone’s recovery journey is different and it may take time, but you can recover from BED.

If you think you may have BED, going to your GP as soon as you can and letting them know what’s going on is an important first step. They will be able to point you in the right direction to get treatment. Sometimes the idea of speaking to your GP about concerns around eating habits can be daunting. If you feel like you’re not ready to take that step just yet, you could call the Bodywhys helpline. Their helpline is open to anyone, and is delivered by a team of trained volunteers. It offers non-judgemental and confidential support and information about eating disorders.

If you are worried about a friend or family member, talk to them about it and encourage them to go see their GP. You can also offer to go with them if they don’t want to go alone. 

The types of treatment you receive can depend on your situation, but in general, The aim of treatment is to help you gain over binge eating and to help you work on the thoughts, feelings and experiences that are underlying the behavioural symptoms. Getting treatment that is evidence-based and specialised for eating disorders makes a substantial difference to a person’s recovery and quality of life. Trying to recover from BED, or any eating disorder, by yourself can be difficult.  Reaching out for support from professionals, family, and friends can make all the difference and help to get you through. 

Talking therapy and family therapy

Talking therapy is usually a part of treatment for BED. Some people will take part in individual talking therapy or group therapy, while others (especially young people) might do family-based treatment with members of their family.

A form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) called CBT-E is often used to support recovery from BED. CBT-E has been enhanced in certain areas, and particular strategies have been added to specifically address eating disorders and their core symptoms. CBT-E looks at the ways that our thoughts affect our behaviours and feelings. Through CBT-E, you can develop strategies to help you build self-awareness and identify triggers, create helpful routines, and manage compulsive thoughts and unhelpful behaviours.  All of these are important steps towards a future free from BED. 

If you’re younger, you may take part in family-based treatment (FBT), involving you and your family talking with a therapist. FBT will look at how you have been affected by your BED, and what your family can do to support you in getting better. 

Other sources of support for binge eating disorder

You can reach out to Bodywhys for advice or information on BED. Bodywhys is the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland and provides confidential support, information, understanding and a listening ear to those affected by eating disorders. You do not need a diagnosis to talk to Bodywhys.

How friends and family can help

Setting out on a recovery journey can be daunting, but you don’t have to do it alone. Recovering from BED can be made easier if the people around you take the time to learn about the condition, how it impacts you, and how they can show understanding and support you. If you found the information in this article helpful, it could be a good idea to share it with some of the people in your life. 

Feeling overwhelmed and want to talk to someone?

If you are a customer of the 48 or An Post network or cannot get through using the ‘50808’ short code please text HELLO to 086 1800 280 (standard message rates may apply). Some smaller networks do not support short codes like ‘50808’.

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