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Binge Eating Disorder: causes, symptoms, and treatment

Tamara Willner
Written by

Tamara Willner

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

7 min read
Last updated June 2024

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a severe eating disorder characterised by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food in one sitting, often when not hungry. People with BED experience a loss of control during a binge and feelings of shame or guilt afterwards.

Unlike in other eating disorders, such as Bulimia Nervosa, unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g. purging, fasting, or excessive exercise) aren’t used to counter the binges.

After research found that it was having a big impact on people’s lives, BED was officially classified as an eating disorder in 2013. This means it’s now treated as a mental health disorder in the medical world.

It’s the most common eating disorder, affecting 1.9%-2.8% of the population. It’s almost three times more common than Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Additionally, 40% of those who suffer are male, which is higher than the average percentage of males affected by any eating disorder (25%).

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What causes BED?

The cause of BED tends to be multifactorial. Several dynamics increase the likelihood of binge eating, such as psychological, socio-cultural, and family factors, as well as the presence of social media, societal norms of body image, a history of dieting, and social pressures.

However, mostly, it’s thought that bingeing is a habitual and automatic behaviour developed to cope with emotions. While emotional eating is inherently not a bad thing, the frequency and amount of food eaten during this time can be an issue.

How do I know if I have BED?

There are a few key signs that might indicate that you or a loved one are suffering from BED. These include:

  • Eating a large amount of food in a short period, often past the point of ‘fullness’
  • Eating really quickly and not tasting the food
  • Eating to relieve stress or escape uncomfortable feelings, but then experiencing strong feelings of guilt, shame or distress following a binge eating episode
  • Eating alone
  • Hiding the evidence (e.g. wrappers or packets)
  • Hiding or stockpiling food to eat later in secret
  • Frequent dieting and restrictive eating habits
  • Heightened concerns with weight loss and body shape
  • Altering schedules to make time for bingeing
  • Fear of eating in public with others
  • Spending a large amount of money on food in one sitting.

What’s the difference between BED and occasional overeating?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that BED is a severe mental illness. The frequency of binge eating episodes tends to differentiate between occasional overeating and BED. Those who suffer from BED experience binge-eating episodes at least once a week for three months.

Overeating now and again is perfectly normal. Food plays a pivotal role in shaping our identity, connecting us with our culture, and bringing loved ones together. What you choose to eat should never dictate or determine your self-worth or affect your self-esteem. Thinking that we need to be perfect with our food choices all the time is unrealistic, sustainable, and unenjoyable.

So, overall, the main differences between occasional overeating and BED are the frequency of binges and strong emotions, such as guilt or shame, linked to those binges.

Treatment options

Firstly, if you’re concerned about BED or emotional eating, it’s best to speak to your GP to get a formal diagnosis and access professional help. From here, they’ll likely refer you to a psychiatrist or an eating disorder specialist.

You can also find out more information about potential treatment options through the Beat website.

It can be tough to break the cycle of binge eating, which is why we recommend accessing professional treatment options. Alongside this, the following steps can also be helpful:

1. Plan regular meals and snacks

Having a meal plan ahead of time can help you return to a regular eating pattern. This is one of the first things we teach you on the Second Nature program. We provide a range of healthy, balanced recipes and sample meal plans to help with this.

The key is to plan for three main meals per day, with a few snacks in-between. Try not to go longer than 3-4 hours between meals. By regularly fueling your body with balanced meals, you’ll reduce the urge to binge that can be triggered by extreme hunger.

2. Look for triggers

It can be helpful to identify which situations or scenarios trigger episodes of binge eating for you.

Keeping a food diary and mood journal for a week or longer is a good way to help you identify these patterns or triggers.

Consider keeping notes in a journal, or alternatively, some apps provide convenient tracking features. For example, the Second Nature app provides you with a food diary and journal feature to help you keep track of your diet, emotions and thoughts.

3. Be prepared

Once you know your triggers, try to come up with alternative actions you could do next time you’re faced with this situation. ‘If/then’ scenarios are a great way to plan ahead of time, so you feel more prepared and in control when the situation arises.

For example,

  • If I’m bored at work and get the urge to visit the vending machine, then I will listen to a podcast, so my mind has something else to focus on.
  • If I’m feeling upset after a conversation with a friend and I get a craving for chocolate, then I will sit down, and try a brain training app.
  • If I had an awful day and feel overwhelmed at work, then I will call my friend for a chat.

If you find yourself faced with one of your triggers and your current ‘if/then’ scenario doesn’t work – that’s ok. It may take a few attempts before you find an alternative outlet that’s effective in soothing your emotions.

4. Find alternative outlets for emotion

Depending on your triggers, you’ll need to find alternative coping mechanisms that work for you. Research has shown that the best tasks to do to take your mind off food are cognitively challenging ones. This means going for a walk, meditation, or taking a bath may not be effective ways to distract yourself. However, something that engages your brain can be a better distractor, such as:

  • Sudoku puzzles
  • Crosswords
  • Brain training apps
  • Chess or scrabble
  • Calling a friend
  • Learning a new dance routine or take a dance class
  • Learning a musical instrument or language
  • Playing a board game
  • Listening to a podcast

5. Take away the guilt

It’s also important that you try to take away any feelings of guilt that can arise during or after an episode of comfort or emotional eating. One way to do this is to stop labelling foods as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘treat’ or ‘syn’. This can foster a negative relationship with food and create an ongoing cycle of comfort eating. Instead, there should be foods we enjoy every day and foods that we enjoy less often.

Avoid putting strict rules around food as well, like ‘I can’t eat chocolate during the week’ or ‘I’m not allowed to drink fizzy drinks ever again’. Generally, strict rules tend to have the opposite effect of making us crave these foods even more, then causing feelings of guilt or shame if we break one of these rules.

Try to have a more balanced viewpoint, such as ‘I’ll only have chocolate when I truly feel like it.’ Then allow yourself to enjoy the chocolate when you want it and move on afterwards.

At the end of the day, every one of us will have different triggers for emotional eating. Likewise, we need an individualised approach when it comes to feeling in control of our emotions.

The Second Nature program teaches you to enjoy food mindfully without counting numbers, calories or fixating on weight. We believe there’s so much more to health than the food you put in your mouth. That’s why we take a more holistic approach and focus on mindset, stress, sleep, and exercise, as well as nutrition.

Second Nature isn’t a treatment option for BED. However, it can be a supportive tool for those of us who experience emotional eating. The program combines CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) principles with nutrition recommendations and support from a qualified nutrition specialist as your coach.

Second Nature coaches are all UK registered dietitians or nutritionists. This means they have completed university accredited degrees to gain this professional title. However, coaches are not registered in the US, so don’t meet the regulatory requirements to be considered US registered dietitians or nutritionists.

Take home message

  • BED is a severe mental illness.
  • The causes of BED tend to be multifactorial and result from psychological, socio-cultural, family, and social pressures.
  • There are many warning signs for BED, but the main difference between occasional overeating and BED is the frequency of binges.
  • If you’re concerned about BED or emotional eating, it’s best to speak to your GP to get a formal diagnosis and access professional help so that you receive the best support for your long-term health and safety.
  • Alongside professional help, other steps might be helpful, such as identifying your triggers and finding alternative outlets for emotion.
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