What It Really Means When You Have A Binge-Eating Disorder

Do you find yourself eating mindlessly when feeling stressed? Are you constantly thinking about food? This behavior may be a sign of binge-eating disorder (BED), a condition that affects millions of people — especially teens and young adults (via Mayo Clinic). Its symptoms are similar to those of bulimia, but without vomiting and other compensatory behaviors, such as the use of laxatives and enemas, explains the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Most people develop this condition around age 25, and about two-thirds continue to struggle with it for longer than a year.

A binge-eating episode involves eating large amounts of food in a short time. Some individuals consume up to 15,000 calories at once even when they're full. You may feel like you have no control over your eating habits and experience guilt, depression, or shame about it, explains the Mayo Clinic. This condition may occur along with bulimia or other eating disorders, but that's not always the case.

Anyone can develop BED, regardless of age, gender, or body weight. Researchers believe that certain groups, such as people with obesity or diabetes, face a higher risk. Genetics, childhood trauma, and bullying based on physical appearance may contribute to binge eating, too, says the NIDDK. 

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741). 

Binge-eating disorder isn't the same as overeating

We all eat more than we need every now and then, which is perfectly normal. However, that's not the same as binge-eating disorder, a mental health problem with severe complications. This condition involves repeated overeating episodes that occur once a week or more often for at least three months, according to the Office on Women's Health. Individuals with BED often hide their behavior and may feel ashamed, disgusted, or sad following a binge-eating episode. Some also struggle with depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders, notes the NIDDK.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this condition is more common in women and girls who diet regularly. Those who engage in this behavior are 12 times more likely to develop BED than those with normal eating patterns, says the Office on Women's Health. Some experts believe that anger, loneliness, anxiety, and other negative emotions may contribute to its onset. For example, many people turn to food in an attempt to overcome stress or sadness.

Another explanation is that palatable foods, such as chocolate and ice cream, increase the release of "feel-good" hormones, which may result in physical dependence, explains a 2009 review published in the journal Appetite. As the researchers note, BED shares similar characteristics with substance abuse and addiction. In some cases, this condition is due to an imbalance in the reward systems of the brain, but it can also result from individual or environmental factors. 

Is it possible to overcome binge-eating?

Binge-eating disorder can have devastating effects on mental and physical health. First of all, it may lead to obesity, a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and other cardiometabolic ailments, warns the NIDDK. Second, eating large amounts of food can wreak havoc on your digestive system, causing all sorts of issues. Over time, this condition may interfere with your daily life, leading to isolation, depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts.

On the positive side, it's possible to stop binge-eating and get your life back on track. It all starts with small lifestyle changes, such as creating a meal schedule and limiting stress. WebMD recommends engaging in regular exercise to lift your mood and overcome negative emotions. Meditation, yoga, mindful eating, and deep breathing may help, too. Also, it's important to identify and avoid your triggers, whether it's boredom, loneliness, or anger. Other strategies, such as going out for a walk or calling a friend, can come in handy when you feel the urge to binge.

Some scientists describe BED as a "non-purging form of bulimia nervosa," a common eating disorder, according to clinical evidence presented in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Psychological intervention, such as cognitive‐analytic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic therapies, can help with both BED and bulimia by changing how you feel about food. Sometimes, these strategies are coupled with nutritional counseling, hypnotherapy, or behavioral weight loss treatments, depending on the patient's needs.