What is binge eating disorder?

Sometimes referred to as compulsive overeating, this condition is thought to be the most common eating disorder. It is estimated to affect about 3 percent of all adults in the United States (up to 4 million people). Binge eating is a little more common in women than in men; three women for every two men have it. Occasional overeating is normal, and not all people who overeat have a binge eating disorder. Binge eating is described as:

  • The consumption of large amounts of food in a limited period of time, such as a two-hour time frame
  • Feelings of loss of control and marked distress over eating behavior
  • Eating large amounts of food without being hungry
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Feelings of disgust, depression, and guilt after overeating
  • Eating alone or in secret out of embarrassment at the quantity of food being eaten
  • Behavior that usually occurs at least 1 day a week for at least 3 months.

Binge eating disorder does not involve purging (forced vomiting).

If you think you have binge eating disorder, it is important to know that you are not alone. Most people who have this disorder have tried to control it themselves for years without success. Talk to your healthcare provider about the type of help that may be best for you.

What causes binge eating disorder?

The causes of binge eating disorder are still unknown. It may start as early as childhood or the early teens and may also run in families. Research indicates that up to half of people with this condition suffer from depression. Whether depression is a cause or the effect of binge eating is unclear.

Binge eating may be triggered by emotional feelings or reactions, such as anger, sadness, boredom, or worry. Impulsive behavior (acting quickly without thinking) and certain other emotional problems can be more common in people with binge eating disorder.

It is also unclear if dieting and binge eating are related, though strict dieting may actually make the problem worse. Some research shows that restricting food intake or trying to follow very-low calorie diets may set off a binge. About half of all people with binge eating disorder will binge right before starting a diet.

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