Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious mental illness where people eat very large quantities of food without feeling like they’re in control of what they’re doing. It can affect anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or background, and evidence suggests it is more common than other eating disorders.
People with binge eating disorder eat large quantities of food over a short period of time (called binge eating). Unlike people with bulimia, they don’t usually follow this by getting rid of the food through, for example, vomiting, though sometimes they might fast between binges. BED is not about choosing to eat large portions, nor are people who suffer from it just “overindulging” – far from being enjoyable, binges are very distressing, often involving a much larger amount of food than someone would want to eat. People may find it difficult to stop during a binge even if they want to. Some people with binge eating disorder have described feeling disconnected from what they’re doing during a binge, or even struggling to remember what they’ve eaten afterwards.
Characteristics of a binge eating episode can include eating much faster than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry, eating alone through embarrassment at the amount being eaten, and feelings of disgust, shame or guilt during or after the binge. Someone who experiences at least one of these distressing binge eating episode a week for at least three months is likely to be diagnosed with binge eating disorder.
Binges may be planned like a ritual and can involve the person buying "special" binge foods, or they may be more spontaneous. People may go to extreme lengths to access food – for example, eating food that has been thrown away or that doesn't belong to them. Binge eating usually takes place in private, though the person may eat regular meals outside their binges. People with binge eating disorder may also restrict their diet or put in certain rules around food – this can also lead to them binge eating due to hunger and feelings of deprivation. People often have feelings of guilt and disgust at their lack of control during and after binge eating, which can reinforce that cycle of negative emotions, restriction and binge eating again.
There are lots of things that can make someone feel the urge to binge eat. This could include difficult or overwhelming feelings, for example, feeling low, bored, angry, upset, or anxious. People may also binge eat when they are feeling happy or excited too. Sometimes binge eating episodes may also be more habitual or planned, rather than driven by a sudden urge, and this can also be due to a number of reasons, such as to numb emotions, to manage uncomfortable feelings or due to the opportunity arising if someone is alone.
There are many ways that binge eating disorder can impact a person's life. Often (though not always) binge eating disorder can cause weight gain, and in terms of physical health, it is associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. People may also find that their mood is impacted; binge eating disorder is linked to low self-esteem and lack of confidence, depression and anxiety. As with other eating disorders, it’s likely to be changes in behaviour and feelings that those around them notice first, before any physical symptoms become noticeable.
While binge eating disorder can affect anyone, the condition tends to be more common in adults than in younger people, often starting in someone’s 20s or older. It may develop from or into another eating disorder.
A potential effect of binge eating disorder is that the person will become overweight or obese. Obesity is linked to serious physical health risks, and can affect multiple areas of an individual’s life. It is important to keep in mind that the diagnosis of binge eating disorder is not limited to overweight individuals; it is possible to suffer from binge eating disorder and be within the healthy weight range.
Although not an eating disorder, Beat are passionate about ensuring that the complexity of obesity is understood. Beat have addressed campaigns aimed at weight loss and language used in relation to obesity in our campaign: Public Health, Not Public Shaming.
Signs of binge eating disorder vary but if someone’s symptoms don’t exactly match everything a doctor checks for to diagnose binge eating disorder – for example, if someone doesn’t binge eat as often as may be expected – they might be diagnosed with OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder). This is as serious as any other eating disorder and it’s important that people suffering with it get treatment as quickly as possible to have the best chance of a full recovery.
It is normal for us all to find comfort in food and there’s no need to worry if it doesn’t happen very often and it’s done without feeling out of control, distressed or guilty. The distinction in binge eating disorder is the frequency, nature of and emotional aspect to the binges. Emotional overeating is considered an eating behaviour and not an eating disorder. However, if you feel that food is becoming your primary way of coping with your feelings then it is important to reach out for help.
On the next page are some more signs of binge eating disorder, but someone doesn’t have to have all of them to be suffering. It’s not always obvious that someone has an eating disorder – remember, they are mental illnesses. If you’re worried about yourself or someone you know, even if only some of the signs on this page are present, you should still seek help immediately. The first step is usually to make an appointment with the GP.
If someone is developing binge eating disorder, often changes in behaviour are noticeable before changes to physical appearance. Signs include:
Binge eating disorder is a mental illness, and you might notice changes in the way you or someone you know feels before physical symptoms become obvious. Psychological signs include:
There are several physical consequences associated with binge eating disorder:
Like any eating disorder, binge eating disorder can have long-term physical effects, some of which may be permanent. These include:
Most seriously, binge eating disorder may be fatal if not treated in time. However, many of the effects of binge eating disorder are reversible or can be prevented from worsening, and eating disorders are treatable, with full recovery possible.
It’s like a switch is turned on in your mind and the only thing you can do is eat until you physically cannot anymore. It’s terrifying because it’s like the real you is still in your head but has no power over what you are doing and you’ve suddenly become something else.
...My life was dominated by eating and food. I had to plan my entire day around when I could control my eating; I would cancel plans and avoid plans which involved food. I was miserable and getting weaker from not eating properly.
It wasn’t something I could talk about or share with friends, because I was scared people thought I just had a lack of willpower. The shame and guilt were a vicious cycle and worsened my mental health and the value I put on my body. The low self-esteem and confidence led me to isolate more from family and friends. I could never explain how distressing bingeing was and how it occupied my mind all the time. People would get frustrated that I wasn’t ‘talking’ about my problems, but it wasn’t that I didn’t want to – I just didn’t know how to describe this overwhelming feeling.
If you’re worried that you or someone you know is suffering from binge eating disorder, it’s important to get treatment as early as possible to ensure the best chance of recovery.
If you have been struggling with binge eating during the Covid-19 pandemic, you are not alone.
10 helpful things to say to someone with an eating disorder as knowing what to say to someone can be tricky.
Some would be shocked and consider it a waste of NHS money if I told you I spent some sessions just sobbing or in angry silence, but that was what I needed.