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Eating Disorders Explained: Binge Eating

If you’ve ever stuffed yourself to the point of discomfort at dinner or felt ashamed after finishing off a pint of ice cream on a lazy afternoon, you’re not alone. Most of us fall prey to binge eating from time to time.

It’s hard not to. Food is everywhere we turn. It’s the focus of our holidays, celebrations and social events, and ordering a meal at any restaurant almost guarantees you’ll receive a supersized portion.

But for a lot of people, overeating is a regular occurrence. And if you’re eating for reasons other than hunger, it can quickly spiral out of control. When this happens, you might have a binge eating disorder.

We talked to OhioHealth sports medicine dietitian Dawn Holmes, MS, RD, CSSD, and primary care and sports medicine physician Marguerite Weston, MD, to gain a better understanding of binge eating disorder, so you can spot the signs and learn how to overcome it.

What is a binge eating disorder?

People who have a binge eating disorder frequently are unable to control what and how much they eat. This behavior is typically activated by stress or emotional triggers. In most cases, people with this disorder consume a large amount of food in one setting, but that’s not always the case. You can also have the disorder even if you graze throughout the day or have periods where you don’t binge at all. The feeling of being unable to stop is the defining characteristic.

Unlike those with bulimia, people with binge eating disorder do not purge what they eat. But they often share the same feelings of guilt, disgust, shame and embarrassment.

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It’s three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined, and more prevalent than breast cancer, HIV and schizophrenia. It affects men and women nearly equally.

What are the warning signs and symptoms of a binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder shares many symptoms with bulimia, but because those with the disorder do not purge the food they eat, they tend to be overweight. Two-thirds of people who have a binge eating disorder are clinically obese.

Some signs to watch for include:

  • Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, or when you’re not hungry.
  • Feeling out of control when eating.
  • Feeling uncomfortably full after eating.
  • Eating alone, or being uncomfortable eating around others.
  • Stealing and hoarding food.
  • Lots of empty food wrappers or containers.
  • Concerned about body image, weight and size, but can’t stop your behaviors.
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless.
  • Frequent dieting.
  • Disruption of normal eating patterns, like eating at odd times of the day or skipping meals.
  • Fluctuating weight.
  • Feeling guilt or shame after eating.

How does a binge eating disorder affect the body?

Because most people who have this disorder are also clinically obese, they are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, many cancers and stroke.

Eating very large quantities of food in a short amount of time can also cause stomach pain and cramps, as well as gastrointestinal complications like stomach rupture, which can be fatal.

How is a binge eating disorder diagnosed?

You meet the criteria for a binge eating disorder when you feel like you’ve lost control over how you eat at least once a week for three months.

How do you treat a binge eating disorder?

As with all eating disorders, the longer symptoms persist, the harder binge eating disorder is to treat. Early intervention with a multidisciplinary care team is critical.

While people with this disorder are not as medically fragile as those with other types of eating disorders, it’s still beneficial to find a physician who is knowledgeable about eating disorders. This will help them tailor your care to your needs. If you are overweight or obese, they can also address the associated medical complications.

A psychologist will explore the underlying causes of the disorder and provide you with coping techniques to manage your triggers in healthy ways. Fifty percent of people who have a binge eating disorder also have a mood disorder, like anxiety or depression, which may drive them to binge. When these disorders are addressed along with the binge eating disorder, treatment is usually successful.

And finally, a dietitian will develop a structured meal plan that provides appropriate nutrition at the right times of day, so you don’t become too hungry and more prone to binging. You won’t have to think about when, what or how much to eat if you follow the plan. This will also help train your body to recognize signs of true hunger and fullness.

Overcoming any eating disorder is challenging, and relapses are not uncommon. But with proper guidance, you can recover and live a healthy life.

If you or someone you know needs help with an eating disorder, seek medical care from a physician quickly. You can find primary care physicians and psychologists at OhioHealth.com.


Infographic with tips for diverting your energy when feeling like binge eating


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