Overeating isn’t a disease. Eating an extra helping or two at a holiday dinner, indulging a bit on the weekend, or treating yourself on vacation is perfectly normal. When overeating becomes excessive, though, it can jeopardize your health, especially if it devolves into binging and binge eating disorder.
Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious mental illness and the most common eating disorder in the United States. It affects millions of people, including about 1.25% of adult women and 0.42% of adult men nationwide—that’s about three times as many as anorexia and bulimia nervosa combined. Many more people have periodic episodes of out-of-control consumption. However, to meet the criteria for a binge eating disorder diagnosis, binges must occur frequently—once per week or more for three months.
Despite its prevalence, binge eating disorder is largely misunderstood and shrouded in stigma, making getting help all the more challenging. If you’re concerned you or a loved one might have binge eating disorder, or binging tendencies, read on to learn more about the disorder, overeating signs, and how to cope.
What is Binge Eating?
Feeling out of control is the main thing that distinguishes binge eating from overeating. People who binge consume large quantities of food rapidly within a short time, usually two hours or less, do so secretly and eat until they’re uncomfortably full or even sick to their stomach. During or after a binge, a person might feel an onslaught of negative emotions, including shame and depression.
Binge eating disorder isn’t the same as a food addiction, which isn’t a recognized psychiatric diagnosis. It’s also distinct from other eating disorders, though binging behavior is a significant component of some related illnesses. People with anorexia nervosa, for instance, may binge eat after long periods of extreme food restriction. Many people with orthorexia—obsessive eaters preoccupied with eating specific foods—binge as well. And those with bulimia often binge before purging. Unlike bulimia, though, binge eating disorder doesn’t involve expelling excess calories through vomiting, laxatives, or excessive exercise.
What Happens When You Binge Eat?
What happens when you binge eat depends somewhat on the amount and type of food you consume. But binges typically throw several systems off balance as the body tries to mitigate the effects of excess energy, fat, salt, and sugar. Combined with psychological stressors, this can take quite a toll, causing dramatic fluctuations in hormones and energy, as well as inflammation and discomfort.
Many people binge on carbohydrates, such as sweets and chips, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike. When this happens, the pancreas produces insulin to counteract the extra sugar. This produces a short-lived energy boost, followed by sluggishness and fatigue when blood sugar levels drop again.
Dopamine, a feel-good hormone in the brain, also surges during a binge—but quickly plummets afterward. Research shows that people with binge eating disorder tend to have a more significant neurological response to rewards, like food, than people without the disorder, which may increase their likelihood of compulsive eating. At the same time, people with binge eating disorder eventually need more and more dopamine to experience the same feel-good rush as they did in their initial binge. This usually means eating more food in less time. Over time, this can become a psychological addiction.
Persistent binging can also alter your metabolism and leptin levels, causing the body to store more excess energy as fat. It can affect your circadian rhythms and throw off hunger and fullness cues as well, disrupting sleep and satiety, making it even more challenging to stop.
Common Warning Signs of Binge Eating Disorder
As with other eating disorders, some warning signs of binge eating disorder are more conspicuous than others. That’s because these conditions affect a person’s mental health as much as their physical well-being, and changes in mood or behavior are just as much red flags as changes in appearance.
Many people with a binge eating disorder are overweight or obese, a common sign of overeating. However, the condition affects people of all body types, and not everyone who is overweight has a problematic relationship with food. People with binge eating disorder may also cyclically gain and lose weight, particularly if they’re on a restrictive diet.
After a binge, people often experience symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, headache, and bloating. Even if these symptoms arise during a binge, the person might keep eating, unable to stop. At the same time, individuals who binge tend to feel guilty, ashamed, sad, depressed, or embarrassed. Both emotional and physical effects can linger long after a binge session. Let’s take a closer look at the binge eating disorder warning signs.
Physical Signs of Overeating or BED
- Weight fluctuations
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Fertility problems
Behavioral Warning Signs of Binge Eating Disorder
- Frequently consuming very large quantities of food
- Eating when not physically hungry
- Eating rapidly
- Eating alone or in secret
- Hiding remnants of a binge, like food packages
- Compulsive eating
- Inability to stop eating during the binge
- Hiding food
- Not eating much throughout most of the day
Emotional Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder
- Feeling out of control while eating
- Intense shame, disgust, guilt, embarrassment
- Low self-esteem
- Mental anguish
What Triggers Binge Eating?
Depression, binge eating, and other mental illnesses go hand in hand. About half of people with binge eating disorder also have another psychiatric condition, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or body dysmorphic disorder. These conditions tend to influence each other, creating a vicious cycle. For example, someone with depression might turn to food for comfort, then feel more depressed after a binge. Other emotional triggers of binge eating can include stress, childhood trauma, or boredom.
Environmental triggers, or elements that make you want to eat more, can prompt binges too. For instance, you might be more likely to binge when there are certain types of food around or while at social events, like a party or restaurant. Some situations, such as parties, could include both environmental and emotional triggers.
What is Binge Eating Recovery?
Binge eating isn’t about willpower or self-control.
Treating this complicated condition requires a multifaceted approach, including self-care, compassion, and professional guidance. If you’ve recognized some of the warning signs of a binge eating disorder in yourself or someone you love, we can help.
Our dietitian nutritionists can help you identify your binge triggers and equip you with the tools you need to prevent binges before they begin. More than that, they can help you re-establish a healthy relationship with food to cut the binge cycle and restore your well-being for the long haul.
Frequently Asked Questions
See a Registered Dietitian with Nourish
- Covered by insurance
- Virtual sessions
- Personalized care