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Binge eating is an eating disorder where a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis.
People who binge eat consume very large quantities of food over a short period of time and they often eat even when they are not hungry. Binges are often planned and can involve the person buying "special binge foods".
Binge eating usually takes place in private with the person feeling that they have no control over their eating. They will often have feelings of guilt or disgust after binge eating. These feelings highlight underlying psychological issues, such as:
Depression and anxiety may be both a cause and an effect of binge eating.
Binge eating is a mental health condition, but it is also triggered by the effect that the binge eating cycle has on the body (see box, below left, for more information about the binge eating cycle).
See Binge eating – Causes for more information.
Who is affected by binge eating?
Anyone can be affected by binge eating. Unlike anorexia where more women than men are affected, binge eating affects men and women equally. The condition tends to be more common in older adults than in younger people.
Binge eating and bulimia
People who binge eat and those with bulimia (another type of eating disorder) often eat until they are uncomfortably full. People with bulimia then purge (flush out) the food they have eaten by making themselves vomit or by taking laxatives (medicine to help empty the bowels).
Unlike those with bulimia, people who binge eat do not purge themselves to control their weight. Therefore, binge eating can cause weight gain, which can lead to obesity (see below), which is where a person has too much body fat for their sex and height).
See the topic about Bulimia for more information about the condition.
Binge eating and obesity
Binge eating is often associated with obesity, where someone is very overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over. Obesity is a serious health problem that can lead to a number of serious chronic (long-term) health conditions such as:
Being obese can also shorten your life expectancy. For example, the life expectancy of obese adults who are over the age of 40 can be shortened by six or seven years.
Binge eating is a treatable condition, and a number of different treatment options are available. For example, treatments include:
See Binge eating – Treatment for more information.
The binge eating cycle
People who binge eat often display a particular pattern of behaviour known as the binge eating cycle. The binge eating cycle (described below) is difficult to break.
The Weight gain is the main symptom of binge eating. Many people with the disorder are already overweight. If you are carrying too much weight you are vulnerable to other health problems that are associated with obesity, including:
See the topic about Obesity for more information.
Other physical symptoms
In addition to the serious health conditions described above, binge eating can also have a number of other physical effects on the body as a result of fluctuating blood sugar levels. These include:
People who binge eat are unable to comprehend why they cannot control their body’s sugar cravings, and become trapped in a cycle of bingeing - guilt - restraint - bingeing.
They blame themselves for their weakness, which reduces their self-esteem even further. As a result, binge eating may cause the following psychological problems:
See Binge eating – Causes for more information about the role that depression, stress and anxiety play in binge eating.^^ Back to top
There is no one cause for binge eating. However, like most eating disorders, it is seen as a way of coping with feelings of unhappiness and depression.
It is estimated that about 50% of people who binge eat have been depressed at some point in their life. However, it is not clear whether depression causes binge eating or whether binge eating causes depression.
See the topic about Depression for more information about the condition.
Stress and anxiety
Stress is another common trigger of eating disorders. Stressful events, such as moving house, job, or school, or the death of a friend or relative, can sometimes cause someone to binge eat.
Eating disorders are a physical display of the difficulties a person may be experiencing in their personal life. Those who binge eat are often ashamed at the volume of food they consume, and may also feel that their lack of control around food mirrors the lack of control they have over their personal lives.
Research has suggested that there are other factors or emotions that may bring on an episode of binge eating, including:
There are also specific behaviours that are more common in people with a binge eating disorder. These include:
Trying to lose weight
The social pressure of trying to achieve a slim body shape may sometimes cause a person to binge eat.People who binge eat may be unable to achieve their desired body shape. This can result in a sense of inadequacy, causing them to overeat and to feel guilty afterwards.
It is not known whether dieting and binge eating are related. However, some people binge eat after:
These are unhealthy methods of trying to lose weight and alter body shape and they increase a person's risk of binge eating.^^ Back to top
If you think that you have a binge eating problem, visit your GP. They will be able to diagnose the condition and refer you to a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or dietitian. See Binge eating – Treatment for more information.
In diagnosing binge eating, your GP will ask you about your eating habits and look for three or more of the following signs:
People who regularly eat in this way are likely to be diagnosed as having a binge eating disorder.^^ Back to top
It is important that you seek medical advice if you feel you have a binge eating disorder. Your GP will assess you, and advise the best course of treatment for you.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends the following treatments for eating disorders:
These are described in more detail below.
A self-help programme is an important part of the treatment process for binge eating. It will look at ways that you can break the binge eating cycle so that you can successfully tackle your binge eating disorder. The programme will be carried out with the support and encouragement of healthcare professionals.
People who binge eat are encouraged to stop relying on the cycle of bingeing and guilt as a way of dealing with their emotional problems.
It is possible to make a full recovery from binge eating by using certain types of psychological therapy such as:
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of medication that can help to reduce binge eating.
SSRIs boost levels of a substance called serotonin. When serotonin is released in the brain, it helps to lift your mood. NICE recommends the use of SSRIs to help reduce binge eating, but the long-term effects of the treatment are unknown.
Known side effects of SSRIs include:
See the topic about andidepressants for more about Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for more information.
Although there are a number of psychological treatments available to treat binge eating, they will have a limited effect on your body weight.
However, underlying psychological issues need to be dealt with first if weight loss is to be successful and long-lasting.
If you are overweight, you should follow a weight-loss plan that is drawn up by a healthcare professional, such as your GP or a dietitian (a food and nutrition specialist). The plan may involve:
See the topic about Diet for more information about maintaining a healthy diet.
Dieting as a means of treating binge eating should be avoided because it may make the problem worse.
If you are overweight or obese, your GP or a dietitian will be able to draw up a weight-loss plan for you to follow.^^ Back to top
It is important to understand the effect of low blood sugar levels on the body, and the food cravings that it causes.
Binge eating can be reduced and prevented if you adopt healthy eating habits and receive realistic advice about food. For example:
Guidance for people affected by eating disorders
The term "eating disorder" covers conditions such as:
These mental health disorders usually develop over time, sometimes over years, and often at a point when life brings fear and insecurity.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance to the NHS about eating disorders. Although the guidance is mainly intended for people with eating disorders, it may also be useful for family members and those who care for people with eating disorders.
The guidance aims to improve the care and treatment provided in the health service and looks at different areas of diagnosis, treatment, care and self-help. The guidance includes:
It also includes information about the support and treatment you can receive if you have:
For further information, you can download the NICE guidelines on eating disorders.^^ Back to top
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