Binge Eating Disorder

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is episodes of eating an abnormally large amount of food in a short period of time. People with binge eating disorder often feel distress, disgust or guilt about eating binges—but they can’t control the binges. They do not try to offset the binge with compensatory efforts to purge food, such as vomiting or using laxatives (as in bulimia nervosa, another eating disorder).

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States—3.5% of women and 2% of men have it. Women are more likely to have binge eating disorder in young adulthood; men are more likely to binge eat in middle age. About two-thirds of people with binge eating disorder are overweight, but not all overweight or obese people have binge eating disorder.

There is no single cause of binge eating disorder. Several factors, including environmental, genetic, and psychological conditions affect the risk of binge eating disorder. A history of abuse, trauma, or relationship problems increases the risk. People with binge eating disorder often have a mood disorder like depression or anxiety.

They also may have obesity-related health problems, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and gastrointestinal conditions. These conditions can have life-threatening complications. For instance, heart disease increases the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. Anxiety and depression can lead to thoughts of self-harm or suicide. It’s important to seek professional medical care if you or someone close to you has signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder.

Treatment for binge eating can include psychotherapy to address the social and emotional challenges that may drive eating binges; nutritional counseling to encourage and guide healthier eating; and medications to treat mood disorders or underlying chemical and metabolic conditions.

What are the symptoms of binge eating disorder?

People who have binge eating disorder experience episodes where they eat large amounts of food in short periods of time. They feel unable to control these eating binges and they feel guilty, distressed or embarrassed afterwards.

Eating binges:

  • Occur at least once a week for at least three months
  • Happen in a period of two hours or less
  • Involve a lack of control over what and how much is eaten

Binge eating episodes may also involve:

  • Eating without feeling hungry
  • Eating very rapidly
  • Eating to a level of feeling uncomfortably full
  • Purposely eating alone
  • Feeling ashamed, upset, or guilty about eating

People with binge eating disorder might also display these behaviors and habits:

  • Preoccupation or disgust with weight, or a fear of further weight gain
  • Secretive behavior related to eating
  • Unhappiness over body size and weight
  • Dieting or fasting before or after eating binges
  • Missing work, school, and social activities in order to binge eat

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

People with binge eating disorder are more likely to have mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, which can become severe. They are also more at risk for suicide. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any thoughts of hurting yourself or others.

What causes binge eating disorder?

Experts don’t know exactly what causes binge eating disorder. Risk factors for binge eating disorder include:

  • History of relationship problems, especially with close family members
  • History of abuse or trauma
  • History of substance abuse
  • Family history of binge eating disorder, suggesting there is a genetic risk factor

Scientists who study eating disorders are investigating potential causes of binge eating disorders, including differences in certain brain chemicals and abnormal metabolism compared to people who do not have binge or other eating disorders.

How is binge eating disorder treated?

Treatment for binge eating disorder often involves a multidisciplinary approach. Doctors, dietitians or nutritionists, and mental health therapists can all help treat different problems that contribute to binge eating disorder.

Types of treatment include:

  • Talk therapy (psychotherapy). This is a common way to work through underlying problems including stress, trauma, depression and anxiety. Psychotherapy can work individually, in groups, or with family members. Another name for it is cognitive behavioral therapy. You practice replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones to bring about a change in behavior.
  • Nutritional counseling. Treatment may include a special selection of foods to help with weight loss. Nutrition counseling will help establish healthier eating habits.
  • Medications. An antidepressant or anti-anxiety medicine may help if a mood disorder is involved. Appetite suppressants may be an option to help balance any chemical or metabolic problems linked to binge eating.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Binge Eating Disorder. National Eating Disorders Association.
  3. Binge Eating Disorder. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  4. Binge Eating Disorder. TeensHealth from Nemours.
  5. What Is BED? Binge Eating Disorder Association.