Binge eating is an eating disorder in which a person regularly eats unusually large amounts of food. During binge eating, the person also feels a loss of control and is not able to stop eating.
The exact cause of binge eating is unknown. Things that may lead to this disorder include:
- Genes, such as having close relatives who also have an eating disorder
- Changes in brain chemicals
- Depression or other emotions, such as feeling upset or stressed
- Unhealthy dieting, such as not eating enough nutritious food or skipping meals
In the U.S., binge eating is the most common eating disorder. More women than men have it. Women are affected as young adults while men are affected in middle age.
A person with binge eating disorder:
- Eats large amounts of food in a short period, for example, every 2 hours.
- Is not able to control overeating. For example, a person is unable to stop eating or control the amount of food they eat.
- Eats food very fast each time.
- Keeps eating, even when full (gorging) or until they are uncomfortably full.
- Eats even though they are not hungry.
- Eats alone (in secret).
- Feels guilty, disgusted, ashamed, or depressed after eating so much.
About two thirds of persons who have binge eating disorder are obese.
Binge eating may occur on its own or with another eating disorder, such as bulimia. People with bulimia eat large amounts of high-calorie foods, often in secret. After this binge eating, they often force themselves to vomit or take laxatives, or exercise vigorously.
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your eating patterns and symptoms.
Blood tests may be done.
The overall goals of treatment are to help you:
- Lessen and then be able to stop the binging incidents.
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight.
- Get treated for any emotional problems, including overcoming feelings and managing situations that trigger binge eating.
Eating disorders such as binge eating are often treated with psychological and nutrition counseling.
Psychological counseling is also called talk therapy. It involves talking with a mental health provider, or therapist, who understands the problems of persons who binge eat. The therapist helps you recognize the feelings and thoughts that cause you to binge eat. Then the therapist teaches you how to change these into helpful thoughts and healthy actions.
Nutrition counseling is also important for recovery. It helps you develop structured meal plans and healthy eating and weight management goals.
The health care provider may prescribe antidepressants if you are anxious or depressed. Medicines to help with weight loss may also be prescribed.
The stress of illness can be eased by joining a support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.
Binge eating is a treatable disorder. Long-term talk therapy seems to help the most.
With binge eating, a person often eats unhealthy foods that are high in sugar and fat and low in nutrients and protein. This can lead to health problems such as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, or gallbladder disease.
Other possible health problems may include:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Joint pain
- Menstrual problems
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you think you might have a pattern of binge eating or bulimia.
Eating - binge; Overeating - compulsive; Compulsive overeating
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
Lock J, La Via MC; American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) Committee on Quality Issues (CQI). Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with eating disorders. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2015;54:412-25. PMID: 25901778 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25901778.
Thomas JJ, Mickley DW, Dereene JL, Klibanski A, Murray HB, Eddy KT. Eating disorders. In: Stern TA, Fava M, Wilens TE, Rosenbaum JF, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 37.
Update Date 3/4/2015
Updated by: Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.