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The Facts About Binge Eating Disorder

Here's what you need to know about one of the most misunderstood types of eating disorders.

A pair of hands hold a knife and fork over several different foods.
Illustration by: John Muñoz

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious condition that can lead to severe emotional and physical health problems when left untreated. Understanding BED can help individuals better recognize signs and symptoms of the disorder, the risks and complications that come along with it, and how to treat and prevent it altogether.

Overview and demographics

An overwhelming compulsion to consume abnormally large amounts of food, sometimes at a rapid rate in a short period of time, is the hallmark symptom of binge eating disorder.

Many people overeat every now and then, but individuals with BED regularly binge eat. Importantly, those who suffer from binge eating disorder feel that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain control over their eating habits.

Though binge eating disorder became a formal diagnosis relatively recently, in 2013, it is by no means uncommon. Estimates indicate that BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States, with more than 5.5 percent of Americans suffering from it at some point in their lives. That's more than three times the combined number of people suffering from bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, eating disorders that have a much higher profile.

Symptoms of binge eating disorder

Not everyone with BED experiences the same symptoms, but people who suffer from the disorder typically experience some combination of the following common signs and symptoms:

  • Binge eating episodes that involve the rapid consumption of excessive amounts of food in a short period of time
  • Compulsive urges to overeat
  • Depression and anxiety related to eating habits
  • Eating despite already being full
  • Eating in secret
  • Feeling intense shame and embarrassment after binge eating
  • Feeling unable to control eating habits
  • Frequent attempts at dieting
  • Low self-esteem
  • Physical discomfort immediately after binge eating

Binge eating disorder ranges in severity based on how often an individual experiences binge eating episodes.


Binge eating disorder occurs among women more commonly than it does among men, though anyone can develop the disorder, according to Mayo Clinic. The disorder can affect individuals at any age, but it typically first develops in the late teens or early 20s.

Experts have not yet identified the specific causes of BED, but it is believed that some combination of genetics, biological factors and other behavioral and psychological issues play a part.

The following factors are known to put an individual at greater risk for developing binge eating disorder:

  • Dieting history. Some individuals with BED report that strict diets and calorie restriction during the day often leads to greater urges to binge eat in the evening.
  • Family history. If you have a parent or sibling who has experienced an eating disorder, you're at greater risk for developing one yourself.
  • Psychological issues. Low self-esteem and other mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, put an individual at higher risk of developing an eating disorder.


When left untreated, BED can lead to a host of social and health complications. Binge eating disorder sufferers may isolate themselves socially, have a poor quality of life, and have trouble fitting in at work and in social situations.

Binge eating disorder has also been connected to health problems such as the following:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Joint problems
  • Sleep apnea
  • Type 2 diabetes

Though they are not caused by binge eating disorder, psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and substance use disorder have been linked to BED, according to Mayo Clinic.

Effects on sexual health

Good self-esteem, trust, and physical and emotional health are essential elements to maintaining a thriving and healthy sex life. But maintaining emotional and physical intimacy can be difficult for people with BED, as sufferers often deal with issues such as poor self-esteem, shame and negative body image.

It's also common for them to concurrently suffer from depression and anxiety, the treatment for which can sometimes lead to problems with sexual dysfunction for both men and women.

For people with BED who binge eat frequently, a poor diet can lead to problems with erectile dysfunction (ED) and libido.

How to prevent binge eating disorder

While there's no surefire way to prevent binge eating disorder, there is help available for people who struggle with it. If you have symptoms of BED, reach out to a medical or mental health professional right away.

Treatment typically involves some form of psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Therapy can help individuals identify the root causes of their relationship to food and develop healthy ways to cope with negative feelings and environmental factors, and anything else that may trigger binge eating episodes.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication to help with the symptoms of binge eating disorder.

How to help someone with binge eating disorder

When you know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, it's natural to want to help them. But to better support someone with BED, it's important to be aware of a few approaches that may seem helpful but could actually cause more harm in the long run.

First of all, be sure not to recommend diets or exercise for the purpose of weight loss. Many people with binge eating disorder have a history of frequent dieting and calorie restriction, which can often serve as a trigger for binge eating.

It's also helpful to remember that binge eating disorder is a complex psychological condition that requires professional help to truly treat. So while you can't give someone with BED tips or advice about their habits that will magically cure them, you can lovingly and nonjudgmentally encourage them to seek the professional help they need and steer them toward resources that can help them get started.

The next step to supporting someone with binge eating disorder is to make sure you have educated yourself on the disorder before approaching them about it. Understanding the nuances of eating disorders and how to support someone suffering from them can help ensure that you are part of the solution for them rather than making the problem more difficult, no matter how heartfelt your help may be.


If you or a loved one are struggling with binge eating disorder, don't hesitate to seek help from a medical or mental health professional. You can contact the helpline of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to get support, resources and treatment options for yourself or a loved one by calling or sending a text to 800-931-2237.


How do you fix binge eating? 

Binge eating disorder is typically treated with some form of psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Depending on the situation, your doctor may also recommend medication to help mitigate the symptoms of BED.

What causes urges to binge eat?

Experts have not yet identified the specific causes of binge eating disorder, but it is believed that some combination of genetics, biological factors and other behavioral and psychological issues play a part. Factors such as stress, environmental factors and emotional issues can sometimes act as a trigger for binge eating episodes.

How do you detox after binge eating?

If you struggle with binge eating disorder, reach out to a professional for help. Avoid dieting or engaging in any extreme measures to compensate for binge eating episodes, as restrictive food intake commonly serves as a trigger for binge eating episodes for many people. Contact the helpline of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) if you need support, resources and advice about treatment options. Call or send a text to 800-931-2237.