Understanding and Overcoming Binge Eating Disorder

Food celebrates and unites us, but societal pressures can complicate our relationship with it. This article, featuring insights from Julia Preamplume of Grow Therapy, explores binge eating disorder, its signs, symptoms, and effective treatment options for recovery and support.

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on Jun 10, 2024

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Food isn’t just a daily necessity. Food is also a way of celebrating achievements at work, marking birthdays, and honoring anniversaries. Shared meals bring us together during the holidays, and they help sustain new parents just home from giving birth.

But feeling joy around food isn’t always easy — especially in a culture and media environment that still pressures people to have certain body weights, sizes, and shapes. For this piece, we spoke with mental health professional Julia Preamplume, a licensed clinical social worker at Grow Therapy about the signs, symptoms, and treatment options for those struggling with binge eating disorder.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is an eating disorder that’s characterized by consuming large amounts of food, often to the point of discomfort. A binge often happens in a relatively short period of time. The individual usually feels a loss of control and an inability to stop.

BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Around 2.2% of American adults suffer from binge eating disorder in their lifetime, according to a 2020 report from Harvard’s School of Public Health.

However, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only designated it a full-fledged diagnosis in 2013. The key diagnostic features include:

A Few Words on the DSM-5 Criteria

Diagnostic criteria are important for getting insurance companies to cover the care that people struggling with BED need. But Preamplume emphasizes that the criteria are just text on a page — it doesn’t have the power to invalidate your experience.

“Even if you don’t fit the criteria, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is what you’re actually experiencing,” says Preamplume.

Diagnoses also help to inform treatment modalities that may be effective. But they generally are just labels that can sometimes do more harm than good.

Any kind of disordered eating behavior is valid and worthy of care, because it indicates that there’s a struggle in your relationship with food.

What is Considered Binging?

The DSM-V indicates a binge eating episode is associated with three or more of the following characteristics, as recorded in NEDA’s blog post on BED criteria. These include:

As a reminder, what matters is your experience, not whether you fit the exact diagnostic specifications.

Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

Someone dealing with binge eating disorder may try to hide their behaviors, which can make this illness particularly difficult to spot. To help with identifying BED in yourself or a loved one, the National Eating Disorder Association published a thorough list of possible warning signs and symptoms:

Emotional Signs and Symptoms

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms

Physical Signs and Symptoms

Struggling with an eating disorder?

Talk to a therapist

Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

Eating something that tastes good activates the dopamine in our brains. Whether or not we binge eat, this reward pathway happens for all of us, and it can feel like a physical high.

“Even the act of knowing ‘I’m going to go to this fridge, I’m going to grab this…’ We can just really feel that excitement,” Preamplume says.

When the binge is over, the brain crashes. All that initial excitement turns into disgust. You may feel physically sick and/or emotionally overwhelmed. Some people feel badly about their bodies afterward or ashamed of their behaviors, though these aren’t their fault.

These emotions are painful. The irony is that many people developed an eating disorder in the first place because they struggled with allowing themselves to experience difficult thoughts or feelings. The disordered eating behaviors were originally a way of coping with life.

How is Binge Eating Disorder Different From Other Eating Disorders?

Preamplume highlighted two more defining characteristics of BED:

Binge Eating Disorder vs. Bulimia

Binge eating disorder and bulimia both consist of severe disturbances in eating patterns and weight management. Both also involve some form of binging.

But Preamplume explains that these two conditions tend to have different mindsets. For instance, with BED, binges are consistently accompanied by purging behaviors. “There’s none of that compulsion to expel,” Preamplume says.

Recovery can also look different—although a common misconception is that BED treatment involves losing weight. ED specialist Tamara Pryor, PhD, emphasizes that binge eating disorder recovery is not about weight loss. Instead, her treatment methods involve:

Binge Eating Disorder vs. Overeating

What distinguishes BED from “simple overeating” is feeling out of control during the binge, according to Eating Disorder Hope’s guidance on binge eating disorder. Preamplume paints the picture: “Have you ever eaten where it feels like you have blinders on, where you can’t see anything except food? Maybe a part of you knows this doesn’t feel good, but it feels like you can’t.”

The mental and emotional experience during a binge can also be a clue. Someone experiencing BED typically feels guilt, shame, or distress — not to mention physical discomfort.

Dangers of Binge Eating Disorder

If you’re living with binge eating disorder, you may start experiencing psychological or physical health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic’s guidance on BED. Potential complications related to binge eating include:

Recent studies suggest that binge eating disorder often coexists with other mental health conditions. For example, researchers analyzed a large clinical database of almost 12,000 BED patients, both men and women. They found that, among BED patients:

People with BED may experience medical conditions related to obesity. These include heart disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), joint problems, or type 2 diabetes. However, Eating Recovery Center binge eating disorder page carefully notes that weight stigma has shaped how the medical field has defined health consequences of BED and all eating disorders can impact every organ system in your body, especially:

How to Get Help for Binge Eating Disorder

BED is severe and life-threatening. Thankfully, this condition is also treatable. If you are experiencing any level of binge eating disorder symptoms, know that you are worthy of supportive care and clinical attention. Preamplume explains what you can expect in the treatment of binge eating disorder below.

Opening Up for the First Time Can Be the Hardest Part

Sharing your struggles with binge eating disorder can be scary, especially if you’ve opened up before and someone ignored or invalidated your pain. But remember how much the eating disorder costs you every day, and fight to open up.

“The eating disorder takes away so much of your life. It affects your ability to socialize, it affects your ability to enjoy your own company,” Preamplume says. “It makes it hard to have any contentment in your life as long as you have an eating disorder that’s telling you you’re not enough, no matter what you do.”

Take heart that you can regain your life—and thousands of people already have. Find a trusted loved one, someone that you can feel safe simply telling them, “Hey, I’m really struggling here.”

Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder Requires a Team Approach

Self-help is possible but usually not sufficient to recover from any eating disorder, including BED. A treatment team usually includes a registered dietitian who provides nutritional therapy, a primary care provider who evaluates your physical needs, a mental health professional who focuses on the ED symptoms and helps you build healthier coping skills, and possibly a psychiatrist who prescribes necessary medications.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be helpful in reducing some of the negative self talk and irrational thoughts that can lead to the shame and difficult emotions – which in turn, can make one less likely to turn to binging to cope with those emotions/thoughts.

Overeaters Anonymous is another treatment option; this 12-step program is catered to helping to address unhealthy eating habits.

Some teams may also include a dentist, who can identify and treat issues caused by the disorder. Ideally, all team members specialize in eating disorders, and together they determine the level of care you need based on the disorder’s severity.

Expect to Make Gradual Changes and Progress Over Time

Your treatment team will likely help you focus on smaller steps toward full recovery. “The goal is to help you absolutely stop the behaviors, but it’s probably not going to be ‘cold turkey,’” Preamplume says.

Here’s an example of recovery in practice: Your registered dietitian’s goal is to help you learn to better nourish your body. A small step toward it could be increasing your intake of a certain food group. However, remember that your treatment goals will depend on how your team assesses your particular needs and health status.

Recovering From Binge Eating Disorder Is Possible

Recovery takes work and dedication, but it is 100% possible, especially when you can work with a mental health provider that you trust.

“I think the big thing is learning about being kind with yourself,” says Preamplume. “That’s really what I hope that anyone struggling with an eating disorder can work on now.”

If you’re looking for support, you can search for a therapist that specializes in eating disorders with Grow Therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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