Most people overeat from time to time, especially during special occasions and holidays. However, for some individuals the pattern of overeating spirals out of control. It is important to know how to distinguish binge eating disorder from occasional overeating or binges.
Most people who have binge eating disorder feel embarrassment about their condition. They often go out of their way to hide their excessive behavior from everyone around them. Stressful situations may cause them to indulge uncontrollably in large amounts of food – often several thousand calories at a time.
Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder
There are many signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder including:
- Eating food in unusually large quantities
- Continuing to eat even though you feel very full
- Consuming food very rapidly
- Feeling that your eating is out of control
- Frequent dieting without achieving any results
- A preference for eating alone
- Feeling unhappy, distressed, embarrassed, and / or ashamed about your eating habits
Causes and Risk Factors Associated with Binge Eating Disorder
While the exact cause of binge eating disorder is not known, experts believe that a number of different factors contribute to it. These may include genetics, biological factors, family history, environmental and sociocultural factors, and psychological factors.
Eating disorders often run in families. This may be due to a genetic predisposition, as well as family dynamics and influences that can trigger and perpetuate the disorder.
Brain chemistry often plays a role in eating disorders. This may include imbalances in certain neurotransmitters that affect mood and appetite.
Psychological factors can trigger and exacerbate eating disorders. Individuals with low self-esteem or compulsive tendencies have a greater risk of developing binge eating disorder as well as other eating disorders.
Environmental factors may include a history or trauma or abuse. The media constantly bombards us with enticing food advertisements. Junk food and fast food are readily available 24 hours a day in large towns and cities, making it easier than ever to succumb to the urge to eat for fun and recreation rather than hunger. Society’s emphasis on thinness can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Food is an easy, acceptable, and legal way to self-medicate negative feelings. For individuals with binge eating disorder, this can become a vicious cycle as many are overweight or obese. They comfort themselves with excessive food leading to weight gain, only to feel guilt, shame, and despair – triggering the need for further comfort.
While there are still questions about the actual cause of binge eating disorder, there are some recognizable risk factors that make it more likely for some people to develop the disorder than others. These may include:
- Gender – While binge eating disorder also affects a significant percentage of men, it occurs more frequently in women.
- Age – Although it is possible for the disorder to occur at any age, it typically starts during late adolescence or early adulthood.
- Family history of the disorder – Individuals who have or have had an immediate family member with binge eating disorder have a greater risk of developing the disorder.
- A history of excessive dieting may contribute to the development of the disorder.
- Impulsive tendencies – Impulsive individuals have a difficult time controlling their urges, which may make them more susceptible to this particular eating disorder.
- Other disorders – Individuals with depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues and other psychiatric disorders can be more vulnerable to developing binge eating disorder.
- Stress – Stress can trigger an eating disorder, especially for individuals who have a difficult time managing their stress.
Complications of Binge Eating Disorder
Eating disorders often lead to a host of psychological and physical problems. For individuals with binge eating disorder these may include:
- Significant weight gain and obesity
- Feelings of guilt, distress, shame, disgust, unhappiness, and embarrassment
- A dangerous pattern of yo-yo dieting or unusually strict dieting, leading to serious health problems such as malnutrition
- Depression with thoughts of suicide
- Digestive problems including gallbladder disease
- High cholesterol from too many fatty foods
- Type 2 diabetes (adult onset)
- High blood pressure
- Chronic headache
- Muscle or joint pain
- Heart disease
Diagnosis and Treatment Options for Binge Eating Disorder
The first decision that must be made by any individual is when to seek treatment. If you or a loved one experiences any symptom of the disorder, see a doctor as soon as possible. It won’t get better and it rarely goes away on its own. Make an appointment with your primary care physician or a mental health provider for an evaluation.
An evaluation usually starts with numerous questions about your family history and what types of symptoms you have been experiencing. Because health issues are often associated with binge eating disorder, a physical exam may also be necessary. Once a diagnosis is made, your doctor can tailor a treatment plan based on your specific needs.
While there are no specific medications used in the treatment of binge eating disorder, several have been found useful for treating associated symptoms. These include antidepressants and Topamax, an anticonvulsant that is used to treat seizures. Topamax has been shown to be effective in helping to control binge eating. When medications are used, it is often in combination with other treatments including psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy may include individual, group, or family sessions. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy for the treatment of binge eating disorder. It focuses on identifying and changing unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs, especially those associated with food and eating, weight, and body image.
Residential treatment programs which combine a variety of treatment modalities are often very effective for those with eating disorders. Equine therapy, in which horses are used as part of the therapeutic process, is often part of many residential programs.
For those individuals who are excessively overweight, a behavioral weight loss program may be recommended once they have been treated for the disorder. Trying to lose weight before completing treatment might result in more binge eating.
Binge eating disorder can be effectively treated. Like all eating disorders, recovery requires a willingness to change and a commitment to recovery.