What Is Binge Eating Disorder? | Eating Disorders Victoria
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Binge eating disorder

Home ~ Eating disorders A-Z ~ Binge eating disorder

This page talks about binge eating disorder and provides information on warning signs, the physical effects, and treatment and recovery options.

What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a mental illness characterised by regular episodes of binge eating. Binge eating involves eating an excessive amount of food, which may take place in a rapid space of time, or may be more of an extended grazing. These episodes can feel chaotic, uncontrollable and highly distressing.

During a binge eating episode, a person may not be hungry, but may continue to eat past the point of feeling comfortably full. It is common for people to binge eat alone or in secret, and experience intense feelings of guilt, shame, disgust and low mood after a binge.

BED is a serious mental illness which affects more people than any other eating disorder. In fact, research suggests equal percentages of males and females experience binge eating disorder.

How is a binge different to overeating?

Overeating is part of being human – we can overeat naturally in social settings (e.g., Christmas lunch) or alone (e.g., a night in with Netflix and takeaway). By choice or accident, overeating is when someone eats past the point of comfortably full. We may overeat because food is present, because the food we are eating is pleasurable, when bored or distracted, or because it soothes or comforts us (e.g., when feeling sad, overwhelmed or after a tough day).

A binge is different from overeating and is far more pervasive. It is the intense drive to overeat which is experienced again and again over time, accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt and feeling out of control. Binge eating is highly distressing and can affect a person’s ability to engage fully in aspects of life (e.g., work or school, recreational activities, socialising and relationships).

Similarities with bulimia nervosa

Binge eating disorder is similar to — but not the same — as bulimia nervosa. Where people experiencing bulimia nervosa will engage in compensatory activities after a binge eating episode (such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, over-exercising and/or the misuse of laxatives, enemas or diuretics), Binge Eating Disorder is characterised by an absence of compensatory activities, despite experiencing similar feelings of intense guilt, shame and self-hatred after a binge episode.

Like people with bulimia nervosa, there may be a strong desire to “make up” for the binge by being “good”, “healthy” or punishing oneself. This can lead to restrictive eating by engaging in long term dieting and sporadic fasts after a binge.

Did you know?

Binge eating disorder is the most common of all eating disorders. It is estimated that it affects 47% of Australians with an eating disorder.

Warning signs of binge eating disorder

Some of the more common signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder are:

  • An overwhelming sense of lack of control regarding eating behaviour
  • Eating more rapidly than normal
  • Chaotic, unpredictable eating patterns
  • Feeling out of control around food
  • Periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating, often to the point of feeling uncomfortably full
  • Compulsively eating whatever food is available, regardless of how enjoyable it is
  • Eating when not physically hungry
  • Eating excessive amounts of “off limits” foods
  • Concern about weight gain following a binge eating episode
  • Excessive money spent on food
  • Feeling high, numb or dissociated during a binge eating episode
  • Feeling desperate to break the cycle of binge eating
  • Repeated episodes of binge eating, which often results in feelings of shame or guilt
  • Eating in secret
  • Avoiding social situations, particularly those involving food
  • Eating ‘normal’ quantities in social settings, and bingeing when alone
  • Low self-esteem and embarrassment over physical appearance
  • Feeling extremely distressed, upset and anxious during and after a binge episode
  • Fear of the disapproval of others
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts
  • Overly sensitive to references about weight or appearance
  • Guilt, self-disgust, self-hatred
  • Depression and/or anxiety

Lived Experience perspective:

“I would always eat in my room or late at night when I knew no one would see me and hide wrappers and rubbish in my room. I was so ashamed of what people would say if they saw how much and what I was eating. I felt so much shame that I would buy vegetables and “healthy foods” so people wouldn’t judge me buying foods that I was going to binge on.

I would not feel anything when I was binging but afterwards, I would feel so much shame and disgust. I felt physically so uncomfortable as well as very uncomfortable in my own skin after a binge. To deal with the pain, I would either start the binge again to soothe myself, or use some other form of negative coping strategy.

Culturally, we have assigned concepts of big = bad; thin = good. It confused me into believing that when I was heavier, I was worthless and when I was thinner, I was happier and worthy of attention and love. I strongly believed that depending on how I looked, it would reflect how people treat me and how successful I could be. I had been taught to think this way through my upbringing, schooling, medical professionals and the media. I would go through cycles of months of restriction, then restriction, binging and purging, and finally just binging.

Through recovery, I learned that how I was feeling had nothing to with weight itself or how people perceived me. It was about how I perceived myself.

Prior to recovery, I never had the feeling of satisfaction, I just felt extremely full. I did not have a pattern of eating regular meals and snacks daily, and therefore I never felt hungry or full the way I do now. Now, when I feel hungry, I eat until I notice I feel satisfied.”

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Physical signs and effects of binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder affects the mind and body in a multitude of ways:

  • Brain – preoccupation with food and weight, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, disrupted sleep
  • Mouth – erosion of dental enamel, swollen jaw, bad breath, gum disease, tooth decay
  • Throat/oesophagus – chronic sore throat, indigestion, heartburn, reflux, inflamed or rupture of oesophagus
  • Heart – irregular or slow heartbeat, cardiac arrest, heart failure, low blood pressure, fainting, dizziness
  • Stomach and intestines – ulcers, pain, stomach rupture, bowel problems, constipation, diarrhoea, cramps, bloating
  • Hormones – irregular or absent periods, loss of libido, infertility
  • Kidneys – dehydration
  • Skin – calluses on knuckles, dry skin
  • Muscles – fatigue, cramps caused by electrolyte imbalance, tiredness, lethargy
  • Weight – fluctuating weight or weight gain

Binge eating disorder risk factors

1. Dieting

Dieting more generally increases the risk of binging because of the effect of food restriction on the body (physiological) and the brain (psychological).

On a physiological level, it is normal for a person who has been restricted from nutrients to binge eat because of ongoing physical hunger. It is a protective response beyond our control.

The body cannot interpret what kind of diet a person is on, how long they will be on it or why they are dieting – it only interprets that the body is being restricted of food and is at risk of starvation. This message can trigger a survival response to seek and hold nutrients.

During this survival response, the body’s metabolism slows, fullness signals can be suppressed or difficult to interpret, and a person’s thoughts and attention are directed towards food. People often describe these thoughts and attention towards food as intrusive, or that they can’t stop thinking about food.

This survival response can initiate a drive to overeat, in an attempt to protect the body from further restriction of nutrients. It is common to be drawn towards “off limits” foods like cakes, pizza, pasta, sweets or chips as these offer a rapid refuel of energy.

On a psychological level, it is normal for people who go on rigid diets to “break” the rules at some point. Once the diet has been broken, feelings of failure and self-blame can come in, leading to all or nothing/black and white thinking (e.g., “I have failed. Today is a ride off so I may as well eat what I want today and start again tomorrow”) and binging on all the foods you’ve been avoiding.

For these reasons, eating regular, satisfying meals are important to prevent a physiological and psychological response that can lead to an episode of binge eating.

2. Food insecurity

Intentional dieting is not the only reason that someone may be nutritionally deficient and prone to binge eating. Food insecurity is another reason that may trigger the survival response to seek and hold food.

Some examples may include children in unstable living situations who hoard/hide and binge when food is readily available (e.g. after entering care)

For people who have experienced food insecurity as children or during a period of their life (e.g. homelessness or financial hardship) there is an increased risk of binge eating disorder when food is secure.

3. Unmet needs

Unmet needs can also be a driver for binge eating. These needs may be emotional, psychological, social, professional, spiritual, physical or pleasure. Whatever it is, a binge eating episode can be a sign that your needs are not being met.

Some examples of unmet needs may include:

  • Not being seen or heard by peers or family
  • Working in an unfulfilling role
  • Experiencing depression/anxiety, burnout, boredom, a stressful living situation
  • A sense of a lack of control over future
  • Being socially isolated.

A binge may initially soothe these unmet needs, but may actually exacerbate these needs, by adding feelings of shame, disgust and low self-worth that accompany a binge.

Like all eating disorders, Binge Eating Disorder can have a significant impact on a person’s social life, work/education, and the ability to do the things that give them joy and a sense of purpose.

Did you know?

People who engage in severe dieting are 18 times more likely to engage in binge eating.

Binge Eating Disorder and Living in a Larger Body

Because long-term dieting is associated with Binge Eating Disorder, many people end up being caught in a cycle of losing and regaining weight throughout their lives. This is known as weight cycling and requires a great deal of energy for the body to cope with these continuous changes.

Weight cycling has consequences for physical health, but also has psychological consequences (riding the emotional ups and downs of losing and regaining weight), that are often exacerbated by comments from others (e.g. about changes in physical appearance)

People experiencing Binge Eating Disorder who also live in a larger body often experience additional stigma and size discrimination.

Weight loss is often praised and glorified in society, particularly for people in larger bodies. This may be experienced in family and social settings, within fitness communities, and from health professionals. This increases pressure to engage in dieting, to lose weight, and to maintain weight loss. This pressure, along with engaging in dieting can increase the risk of engaging in binge eating.

Seeking support from professionals (e.g., dietitians, psychologists, fitness professionals) who adopt a weight-inclusive approach to health, such as the Health At Every Size approach, may benefit people in larger bodies with Binge Eating Disorder.

HAES Australia

HAES Australia is a non-profit, member-based association that brings together the highest quality information, training and specialists in Australia for the Health at Every Size® (HAES®) approach.

Learn more

Recovery and treatment

Binge Eating Disorder is a serious mental illness. While everyone’s experience of Binge Eating Disorder is unique and may be experienced differently for each person, everyone deserves access to non-judgmental support and treatment from professionals.

While many people associate eating disorders with weight loss or low body weight, this is not often the case for Binge Eating Disorder – people may experience weight gain or fluctuating weight. This does not mean that you shouldn’t seek treatment — remember, people of all sizes, shapes and appearances can have an eating disorder and treatment will help you to address the underlying reasons that drive or trigger your binge eating, how to prevent future episodes and relate to yourself in a more compassionate way.

Treatment for BED is is designed to help you to address the underlying reasons for binge eating. This might be: stress, poor coping skills, inability to prioritise self, body shame, low self-esteem, and/or the repeated feelings of failure for having dieted and then weight cycled, having promised never to binge eat again, only to succumb due to feeling unable to control the compulsion to binge eat. Evidence-based therapies to consider for the treatment of binge eating disorder include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy for binge eating disorder

  • Interpersonal psychotherapy

  • Dialectical behaviour therapy

  • Lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (LDX), a central nervous system stimulant medication

Your GP is a great place to seek professional support and the journey of recovery. While it may feel embarrassing or uncomfortable to speak to someone, remember that you are more than your eating disorder. Experiencing an eating disorder is not your fault and you deserve support.

Remember that you are not alone. Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder in Australia.

Eating Disorders Victoria has put together a step-by-step guide take if you are concerned that you may be experiencing binge eating disorder. It also covers how to get the most out of seeing a GP, as well as treatment options available in the public and private system in Victoria.

EDV also run a bi-monthly support group, called BEYOND, specifically for people who are wanting support with BED.

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