What is binge-eating disorder?

Binge-eating disorder (BED) is a condition where you repeatedly eat big portions of food in a relatively short period of time. You do this without control over your eating. You might have feelings of shame or embarrassment. It's common for this condition to begin in your late teens or early 20s. It can also start at any age and last for years if you don't get treatment.

Causes of BED

Scientists and doctors don't know the exact cause of BED. But, they think there are certain factors that can influence whether or not you might develop the condition. Factors that may contribute to BED include:

  • Genetics
  • Poor body image
  • History of binge eating
  • Social pressure to be thin
  • Difficulty coping with feelings
  • Traumatic life events, such as sexual abuse

Risk factors for BED

Some people have an increased sensitivity to the chemical in the brain that makes them feel pleasure. They're more likely to develop BED. The condition is more common in women than men, but BED is the most common eating disorder for men. If you're obese, you're also more likely to be diagnosed with BED. People with emotional trauma, stressful life events and childhood bullying are at greater risk for this condition. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or substance abuse issues can raise your risk.

Symptoms of BED

People who have BED eat very large amounts of food in about a two-hour window. They do this least one day a week for three months or longer. It's an ongoing condition. This behavior usually takes place when you're alone, possibly late at night or in your car. You might get rid of any food wrappers or packages so that no one will know.

Other symptoms include:

  • Feeling a total lack of control when you binge
  • Having secret stashes of food only you know about
  • Following an abnormal eating pattern throughout the day
  • Creating "food rituals" like not letting different foods touch on a plate or chewing for long periods of time

Diagnosis of BED

BED is one of the newer eating disorders doctors are learning about. Your health professional may look for specific criteria if you're showing any symptoms. To call an eating situation a binge, it must meet at least three of these criteria:

  • Eating faster than normal
  • Eating until you're uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts when you're not hungry
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment and feeling disgusted, depressed or guilty afterward

Your doctor may do a physical exam. This helps them make sure there aren't other medical conditions causing your behavior. Then they may want you to see a therapist. This person can confirm the diagnosis.

Treatments for BED

The earlier you start treatment for BED, the easier it can be to overcome the behaviors. Often, BED is a cycle that is similar to addiction:

  • You feel bad.
  • You binge to feel better.
  • You feel even worse because you binged.
  • You may binge to relieve the anxiety.

Residential or outpatient care is a common first step if your symptoms are severe. You may move into a rehab facility. There, doctors and other professionals can help you break the cycle of binge eating. In a treatment program, doctors can monitor your eating habits and medical conditions. You can work with a team of mental health professionals and dieticians to learn coping skills and eat healthy foods.

Talk therapy is a treatment that can last for months or years. You have appointments with a trained mental health therapist. They help you work to understand the behavior and thought patterns that led you to binge eat. There are many different kinds of therapy that can be effective for treating this condition.

Medications are also sometimes part of a treatment plan for BED. Therapy is usually more effective in the long term. Still, doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressants and drugs designed for hyperactive disorders. These may help with your symptoms.

The process of treating BED is a long and challenging one, involving sometimes dramatic change to behavior and the way you think about yourself and food. Keep a food and mood diary and creating a mindfulness practice will help you during this time.

Recovery from BED

There's no cure for BED, and you might relapse. This means you start the negative behaviors again after not doing them for some time. If you notice symptoms returning, call your doctor as soon as possible.

Continue working with a therapist. It can also help to find a support group. Having someone to talk to about your recovery process is important. Start choosing healthy foods. Exercise regularly, too. This can help reduce anxiety and improve your body image. Also, be sure to get enough sleep.