Understanding Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is one of the three top most common types of eating disorders. If you’re unfamiliar with it, binge eating is the phenomenon where one overeats regularly, to the point where they are doing themselves harm.

It can be easy to judge someone for not having any self control when they’re really struggling with this disorder.

Where it’s true that some people might just not have self control, others might really want to change but their disorder has them trapped.

When someone is suffering from binge eating, they experience the uncontrollable urge to binge. While binging, they are unable to stop even if they want to due to discomfort.

When a binge like this takes place, it’s usually because the individual is seeking the sense of comfort and pleasure that we get when we eat.

This sense of comfort and satisfaction comes from a chemical release (dopamine) in our brain  when we feed ourselves. When someone with binge eating disorder binges, they are usually doing it to get the dopamine that is released.

While this is a true occurrence when we eat, it is meant as a reward that you’re keeping yourself alive by eating.

Research has shown that people who binge have developed higher tolerances for the dopamine that is released.

When this happens, the neurological operation of the brain becomes unbalanced and it is difficult to undo it. This is because their tolerance is so high that they need more and more. Similar to the addiction that is experienced with the abuse of drugs or alcohol.

How can we recognize BED? There are a variety of symptoms and causes that are clear signs of this disorder.

If you or someone you know is struggling, it’s important to be open to talking with someone in order to receive treatment and achieve better health.

While BED is commonly considered “not that serious”, many health concerns and a decreased mortality rate are nothing to be taken lightly.

Now that we know a little more about what binge eating disorder is, let’s look at typical symptoms, causes and treatments.

Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

There are many symptoms that help identify binge eating disorder. While it’s unhealthy to binge in general, it’s important to understand that just because someone is binging does not mean they have BED.

binge eating disorder

People without this disorder are capable of the occasional binge. When this happens it is usually what we refer to as “stress eating”.

This is not a habit of the individual partaking in this sporadic binge. While unhealthy, the occasional binge won’t do much if any long term harm to the average (healthy) individual.

A few typical symptoms of someone with binge eating disorder are…

  • Self-conscious when eating around others

People suffering with BED often feel awkward and embarrassed when eating around others. They may appear uncomfortable or avoid eating altogether.

  • Secretly hoarding food 

If you notice that someone has stashes of food around the house, they may be bingeing in secret. It’s not uncommon for someone with BED to hide food in places where you might not expect.

Since they’re typically uncomfortable eating around others, the privacy of their bedroom usually houses a secret stash of some sort.

  • Randomly binging throughout the day

Similar to when you’re feeling stressed at work and want some junk food, people with BED will experience uncontrollable urges to binge at random times during the day.

This could result in unusual eating habits as they might binge throughout the day then have a very small portion of food during meal times.

  • Turning down plans with family or friends that require a meal

Similar to what was previously discussed, people with BED will most likely be self-conscious when eating around others.

Turning down dinner plans or claiming that they’re not hungry while everyone else orders a meal is typical as well.

  • Avoiding certain food groups while frequently dieting

This relates to the unhealthy relationship with food as a whole. If someone is binging on unhealthy food then they decide to diet.

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  • Weight fluctuations

With binging and frequent dieting out of guilt, weight fluctuations are common symptoms related to binge eating disorder

  • They will most likely be very self-conscious about the way they look and obsess over the shape of their body

This is because of the guilt associated with BED. Usually, it’s not that people just don’t care, but they are actually very aware of how their destructive eating habits are.

Being embarrassed of their excess weight is common as is obsessive over the shape of their body.

  • Eating unusually large portions of food in one sitting

The most obvious symptom of binge eating disorder. Eating abnormal amounts of food in one sitting is a common sign.

This will happen more often than not although it may be hard to tell if the individual refuses to eat in front of others at times.

  • Eating when they’re not really hungry

As mentioned, this disorder revolves around the addiction of “happy” chemicals released in the brain when feeding takes place.

People suffering with BED may feel the urge to satisfy that desire even when they are not hungry. Imagine the dread of knowing you’re about to do something to yourself to cause discomfort.

Living with this disorder can often be torturous in that way.

  • They will usually have a low sex drive

Aside from being self-conscious and embarrassed of their body, an individual may also struggle with low sex drive due to physical complications.

When they are constantly bingeing, their body is working hard to digest all the food and junk they’re consuming. They will be uncomfortable, tired and sluggish as a result. 

Binge Eating Disorder Causes

Genetic factors 

Like many disorders, genetic factors often play a role in the cause. Binge eating disorder is no different. Aside from metabolic makeup, neurological makeup can also be a genetic cause.

binge eating disorder

Just as previously mentioned when referring to the increased release of dopamine, when someone builds a neurological tolerance they require more and more of that release.

Neurological tolerance can be passed down from parents by way of developing fewer receptors which result in the addiction-like behavior that is binging.

You can read more about this interesting study in this article as they go more into the scientific reasoning behind binge eating disorder.

Other factors that can be passed down from our parents are disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Often, many disorders are formed from other previously existing disorders. Anxiety could trigger binge eating disorder which could then trigger depression.

Not all cases of BED will have multiple disorders or complications at play. Understanding the links between potential disorders is important for treatment and healing.

Environmental factors

While hereditary factors are usually the cause of binge eating, environmental/external factors may also play a role.

If you’re the only one in your family who is struggling with BED, it may be caused from severe stress, abuse, or unhealthy relationships.

The primary relationship with food in this case, acts as a source of comfort. While stress eating once in a while won’t do much harm over time, it could develop into BED if it’s a continuous thing.

binge eating disorder

Stress and anxiety can easily cause someone to develop this disorder, especially if they have a hard time dealing with their emotions.

Understanding Emotional Health is not only important for your day to day well-being, but it could help prevent the development of disorders such as this.

Health Concerns of Those with BED

Aside from embarrassment and extreme discomfort from binge eating, there are several health concerns that could develop as well.

Diabetes and heart disease are the most well-known as they are often linked to obesity.

In addition, people with binge eating disorder will experience fatigue, shortness of breath and trouble doing any type of physical activity.

binge eating disorder

Since their body is under so much stress, they will usually have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep as well.

All of these concerns together would lead to a rapid decline in quality of life.

Unfortunately, unless the individual gets help, developing disease(s) will either slowly kill them over time. It’s also known that some types of cancers can develop from BED.

This is caused from abnormal cell growth in response to your body’s reaction to dealing with the internal stress of constant overeating.

Aside from health, relationships may also suffer with someone struggling with BED.

This could partly be because they may avoid gatherings but also because they may be ashamed of their disorder and push their loved ones away.

If an individual feels safe, understood and not judged, they will be much more likely to open up about their struggles. 

How Binge Eating Disorder is Treated

Treatment for binge eating disorder can be as straightforward as talking to a therapist.

While it’s not as simple as it sounds, consulting a professional will help you break down your urges and work toward a healthier relationship with food.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is known for being the most successful form/style of therapy used for treating BED.

Online therapy can help with various disorders such as BED that disrupt your life.

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In some cases, medication will be prescribed in addition to therapy depending on your unique situation.

It’s important to understand the mental health factors that usually come into play with someone who is struggling with this disorder.

Depression and anxiety are not uncommon for someone struggling with BED. Talk to your doctor about if an antidepressant can help supplement your therapy.

Sometimes the chemical imbalance responsible for depression can be a huge limiting contributor to treating binge eating.

What Can You Do for Your Suffering Loved One?

It’s important to approach your loved one in an understanding and compassionate way.

They need to know that you’re not judging them and that you’re there to offer support. By educating yourself about the disorder first, you can show them how this is affecting their health in a variety of ways.

If they’re not open to talk to family or friends just yet, perhaps sending them some helpful resources could be an option… 

  • HERE is a link to the National Eating Disorders Association’s support helpline. They have options for online chat, text or phone call. You can also suggest online therapy. 
  • As mentioned earlier, HERE is a link to get started with an online therapist which includes 20% off the first month.

You could also guide them to healthier eating habits. Suggest meal planning together to stay accountable.

It can be a fun way to help your loved one feel supported. Knowing that they’re not alone is so important. Monitoring eating in between meals is crucial as well.

As discussed, people suffering with BED often sneak food and/or binge in between meals.

Working with your loved one on eating habits is a great way to start their healing journey. Keep in mind the uncontrollable urges they experience and start off slow.

Perhaps starting with healthier portions per meal plus snacks would work and adjust small things from there. Keep in mind that everyone experiences this disorder differently.

This is because of underlying thoughts and beliefs they have about themselves.

We’ve discussed how binge eating disorder is typically developed through pre-existing conditions. But what about in cases where no pre-existing conditions exist?

Simply explained, BED can be developed if you start making a habit of binging regularly.

This could be due to a stressful occurrence in your life. A severe loss, demanding work or stressful relationships are just some of the reasons that one could develop BED.

So what about the occasional binge during a cozy movie night at home, during the holidays or other occasions where overeating to the point of discomfort is typical?

You may be wondering if participation in any or all of those would be a “red flag” that you may be susceptible to developing BED.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), if someone regularly partakes in binge eating at least once per week and keeps that up for at least 3 months, they would be at risk for being diagnosed with binge eating disorder.

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Hi, I'm Marissa! I'm passionate about mental and emotional health and want to share what I've learned over the years with others! I've seen first hand how mental health struggles can cause serious issues within relationships, work life, daily productivity, self-worth and more! I truly believe that we owe it to ourselves to bring more awareness to these life changing topics. Start your mental/emotional health journey by learning more today!

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