The American Psychiatric Association defines an eating disorder as a pathological and unhealthy relationship to food. It’s more than just having an unusual eating habit. Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. It’s more prevalent than other types of eating disorders like bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. It’s estimated that globally, about 1.4% of adult women and 0.4% of adult men live with BED.
Binge eating disorder causes an uncontrollable urge to eat a large amount of food, generally in a short amount of time, typically to the point where you’re in extreme discomfort. People with binge eating disorder also frequently have binge eating episodes. Binges can cause you to feel a total loss of control, often followed by intense, distressing periods of shame and guilt. So much so that people with this condition try fad diets sporadically but with no signs of weight loss.
While we don’t fully understand the cause of the condition, we do know that certain risk factors might increase someone’s risk of developing BED. Keep reading to learn more about the causes of binge eating disorder.
What Research Says About Causes of Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder often occurs comorbidly with another mental health condition such as anxiety, panic disorder, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Roughly 74% of people with BED have a co-existing mental health condition. The underlying mental health conditions can be one of the primary psychological causes of binge eating disorder, but why some people with anxiety, depression, or OCD have BED and others do not is unclear.
“The development of binge eating disorder can often be attributed to biological, psychological, and societal factors (or the ‘bio-psycho-social’ model). Eating disorders can be damaging to your physical and mental health, and we know early intervention is important here, so please do not hesitate to seek support from a therapist specializing in eating disorders if you or someone you know is struggling.”Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC
In addition to psychological risk factors, what causes binge eating disorder? Several factors come into play, it seems. Read on to learn more.
Potential Causes of Binge Eating Disorder
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes binge eating disorder, but potential causes might include emotional, social, environmental, biological, and cultural factors.
“Understanding some potential causes and triggers of your eating disorder can be helpful, in part so that you can learn some ways to manage these triggers going forward, if the triggers are unavoidable. In addition to understanding causes and triggers, getting help as early as you can is crucial to your recovery from binge eating disorder. Look for healthcare professionals who have years of training and experience with eating disorders, as a generalist would not be as effective here.”Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC
- History of anxiety: Many people with BED also have a diagnosed anxiety disorder (including generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder).
- Dissatisfaction with body image: While most of us have been unhappy with our body image at times, someone with BED has an idealized appearance goal and a more intense negative body image.
- Perfectionism: Often, people with BED have a form of perfectionism known as self-oriented perfectionism. It involves creating unrealistically high and often unattainable expectations.
- Behavioral inflexibility: Like self-perfectionism, behavioral inflexibility is common with binge eating disorder. People with behavioral inflexibility are generally rule-followers, sometimes to a fault.
- Having an “ideal” appearance goal: A socially-defined “ideal body” can increase the risk of binge eating disorder.
- Teasing or bullying: Bullying has lasting impacts on young people. The harmful effects of teasing people about their weight cannot be understated. Some research suggests that up to 60% of people with BED report that bullying was a significant factor in developing an eating disorder.
- Lack of social circle: Those without a social circle often experience isolation and loneliness. This isolation can lead to feelings of depression, which may lead to binge eating.
- The stigma of weight: Weight stigma is discrimination based on a person’s weight. The detrimental and inaccurate message that thin is the only beautiful is everywhere in the media, and it’s a message that can invariably lead to BED.
- Social media: While there’s a glaring lack of research overall, an integrative review of social media use and binge eating looked at eight studies conducted between 2016 and 2021. The review found that the more someone uses social media, the higher their risk is of overeating or binge eating. More research is needed on the connection between social media and eating disorders across the board; however, it’s evident how social media affects mental health in general.
- History of dieting: Someone who has a history of yo-yo dieting or attempting fad diets may be more at risk of developing BED.
- Type 1 diabetes: Research now has linked insulin-dependent diabetes to the development of eating disorders.
- Having a close relative with a mental health condition: When an immediate family member has a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, others are more likely to develop the same mental health condition. While this is not a certainty for developing an eating disorder, having anxiety or depression has been shown to increase the likelihood of someone getting BED.
- Having a close relative with an eating disorder: Having a parent or sibling with an eating disorder increases a person’s risk of developing one themself.
- Intergenerational trauma: Also known as historical trauma, intergenerational trauma includes cumulative trauma that indigenous groups, Native American populations, or Jewish Holocaust survivors have experienced. While there are few studies connecting eating disorders to historical trauma, there are many similarities and overlapping symptoms.
- Acculturation: People from some ethnic and racial minority groups may have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. This risk can be especially high when the group is affected by technological advances, such as Western TV programming and media access.
- Thin models depicted in the media: While not everyone exposed to unrealistically skinny actors and models will develop an eating disorder, these images can promote body dissatisfaction, potentially leading to BED.
- Influence of coaches or other influential figures: An influential coach who may be preoccupied with weight can negatively impact athletes, perhaps leading to binge eating.
- Parental emphasis on weight or looks: Parents who focus on their child’s appearance or weight can cause feelings of inadequacy, possibly resulting in an eating disorder.
- Parental modeling of eating disorder behavior: If parents model disordered eating, whether binging or fasting, it’s not uncommon for a child to pick up on the negative habits around food.
- Stressful life events: Studies show that women with BED experienced more adverse life events the year before their diagnosis. Often, these events include physical or sexual abuse, life circumstances, stress, or weight-related criticism. The likelihood of diagnosis is associated with the frequency of adverse events.
Risk Factors for Binge Eating Disorder
It’s impossible to determine exactly what causes binge eating disorder, but there are a few risk factors that increase the likelihood of being diagnosed with BED:
- Emotional, sexual, or physical abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Loss or trauma during childhood
- Growing up around family members with eating disorders
- Family history of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder
Not everyone with childhood trauma will develop a binge eating disorder, nor does everyone with BED have family members with eating disorders. However, these risk factors are important to know, especially if you have symptoms of BED. So it’s important to monitor your eating behavior and look out for compulsive overeating, eating a large amount of food in a short time, or a recurring binge episode. This may indicate not just low self esteem but also an underlying mental health condition.
Seeking Professional Help
Some of the glaring binge eating disorder symptoms include eating copious amounts of food quickly and still eating while full. If you or someone you know has symptoms of binge eating disorder, don’t feel alone. While it can be scary and overwhelming, there is a path to healing by seeking binge eating disorder treatment.
The first step is to seek professional help to get a formal diagnosis. If you’re diagnosed with a binge eating disorder, your medical team will work with you to develop a care plan. Therapy and medication for binge eating disorder have been found effective.
There are multiple levels of care, including outpatient, partial hospital, residential, and in-patient. In addition, finding the right type of care is essential. Many types of psychotherapy help with BED, each through different methods. Some proven-effective forms of therapy include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
“When I work with people in recovery from binge eating disorder, we talk about how recovery is possible, and the recovery journey is not always linear. There can be triggers and setbacks, and then triumphs and successes. There is hope, and there are people and programs out there who specialize in eating disorders who want to help you.”Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC
Binge eating disorder is treatable. Don’t wait to get help. You deserve to live a life free from the pain of any type of eating disorder.