Updated On: July 14, 2023
Binge eating disorder (BED) is prevalent in at least 9% of the worldwide population. It’s the most common eating disorders, and it doesn’t discriminate — BED affects people of every size, age, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, and background.
Binge eating disorder symptoms can manifest both physically and mentally. It’s been linked to depression, stress, anxiety, heart disease, and other conditions. If you or a loved one shows some of the signs or symptoms we’re discussing here, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Signs of Binge Eating Disorder
People with binge eating disorder (BED) compulsively eat large amounts of food in one sitting. Unlike other eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa, most people with BED do not purposely purge (vomit) or over-exercise to compensate for overeating.
Common warning signs of BED include:
- Refusal to eat in front of friends or family
- Eating in the car or garage
- Skipping family meals
- The disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods
- Evidence of empty wrappers or food containers
- Fluctuations in weight, usually weight gain
- Compulsive overeating until uncomfortably full
- Eating large quantities of food when not hungry
- Feelings of guilt after overeating
- Sporadic diets but without evidence of weight loss
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating
However, just because someone occasionally eats a lot at once doesn’t mean they have BED. If you or a loved one show any signs of binge eating disorder above, it might be time to consult with a professional.
“Binge eating disorder is not uncommon. If you’re concerned about yourself or someone you care about, help is available. No one has to struggle with this alone. It’s important to understand that the complexities of binge eating disorder generally do not resolve on their own, as these behaviors are often used as a way to manage difficult thoughts, feelings, or life stressors.”
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH
Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder
Before delving into the symptoms, it’s important to know the triggers first. What causes binge eating disorder? In most cases, people with binge eating disorder also have another mental health condition that needs addressing. Binge eating disorder ranges from the physical symptoms of overeating to the point of discomfort, to the emotional symptoms of shame and guilt, to the behavioral symptoms of wanting to eat alone, avoiding group meals, and hiding evidence of consumption. BED causes many cyclical physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms.
One’s eating behavior can indicate an underlying mental health condition. Binge eating disorder symptoms often include the following behavioral symptoms:
- Withdrawal from social activities: Many people isolate themselves from normal social activities because they fear a potential binge episode when others will be around to witness their behavior.
- Eating alone: It’s very common for people with BED to eat alone to avoid any feelings of shame or embarrassment. They may make excuses to avoid mealtimes, such as the need to study or sleep.
- Stockpiling or hiding food: BED can make people hide food in their bedrooms or closets, so roommates or family members don’t know it exists. Hiding food also makes binge eating in private more accessible.
- Periods of fasting or dieting: If someone suddenly stops consuming food or fasts for an extended period, it can signify guilt or shame from a recent binge. It’s also common for people with BPD to try extreme dieting.
- Creating a routine to allow for binge sessions: Many people who struggle with BED will create a unique schedule that allows for binge eating, most likely when others will not be at home or outside work hours.
- Developing unique food rituals: Someone with a binge eating disorder may create food rituals like only eating a particular food or food group.
- Checking the mirror: People with BED will frequently check how they look in the mirror, only to see perceived flaws.
- Having perfectionistic tendencies: Binge eating disorder can cause people to feel out of control, resulting in them striving for perfection in other aspects of life.
Emotional binge eating disorder symptoms can be the most difficult to overcome. Although these symptoms may be evident to a close family member or friend, emotional symptoms are often uncovered once treatment has begun.
The emotional symptoms associated with binge eating disorder can include:
- Depression: Many people with BED have depression before binge eating begins, but some develop it due to shame and embarrassment surrounding food. According to much research, the comorbidity of BED and depression (as well as other mental health conditions, such as anxiety) is extremely high.
- Anxiety: If you have a binge eating disorder, you’ll likely often have anxiety surrounding food. Holidays, family gatherings, or even dinner with friends can cause anxiety whenever food is central to the celebration.
- Distorted body image: Many people with BED are dissatisfied with their appearance, which can ultimately lead to more binge eating episodes. This cycle is often hard to break without treatment.
- Feelings of guilt or shame: An episode of binge eating is generally followed by feelings of guilt or shame.
- Feelings of low self-esteem: Because people with BED can feel tremendous shame or guilt after a binge eating episode, the embarrassment often leads to low self-esteem.
The physical symptoms of binge eating disorder are often the most apparent to the person afflicted by BED and their friends and family members.
Physical symptoms of BED often include:
- Overeating: Regular episodes of binge eating is the most obvious behavior of BED. These incidents involve eating quickly, often in secret, and past the point of being full.
- Eating until becoming ill: Many people with BED feel such an uncontrollable urge to eat that they consume food to the point of feeling physically sick.
- Gastrointestinal problems: Eating processed or high-fat foods can lead to gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, constipation, or even bleeding. Studies show that regurgitation, heartburn, and dysphagia are all significantly higher in people who binge eat.
- Loss of sexual desire: Research shows that many people (especially women) with binge eating disorders will lose sexual desire due to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, anger, and shame. Loss of desire can also be brought on by increased weight.
- Fluctuations in weight: Many people with BED will be overweight with frequent binging episodes.
- Painful joints: With fluctuations in weight, especially weight gain, the joints are often sore and achy.
- Type II diabetes: Another issue with significant weight fluctuations is the body’s inability to control insulin. The habitual act of binging might lead to Type II diabetes, according to some studies. It should also be noted that research has linked Type I diabetes as a risk factor for developing BED.
- Sleep apnea: Unfortunately, many people with binge eating disorders also have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea happens when there is excess body weight, especially around the neck. With sleep apnea, a person experiences short periods where their breathing is interrupted.
- High blood pressure: Binge eating disorder involves the over-consumption of high sodium and processed food, which can lead to high blood pressure. Extra weight can also contribute to high blood pressure.
- High cholesterol levels: If people consume high-fat foods, especially during a binge episode, cholesterol levels can be likely to increase.
- Coronary disease: With high cholesterol and blood pressure risks, coronary disease is not uncommon in those with binge eating disorder.
“Given that the symptoms are physical, behavioral, and emotional, BED can impact all aspects of life: work, school, relationships, health, social connections, etc. For example, some people cancel plans with friends since they don’t want to go out for a meal together. Being able to address the symptoms with your healthcare provider and a licensed mental health professional can begin the process to unravel the challenges related to binge eating disorder.”
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH
When to Seek Professional Help
Binge eating disorder seriously affects a person’s physical, mental, and behavioral health. The earlier an eating disorder is diagnosed, and someone can access binge eating disorder treatment through therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) and possibly medication, the better the chance for recovery or improved quality of life.
While it might feel embarrassing to reach out for help, treatment can resolve negative eating habits and any underlying mental health conditions contributing to binge eating. Without treatment, getting out of the cycle of binge eating can be very challenging.
While it’s often associated with feelings of shame, remember that if you or your loved one has signs of binge eating disorder, you shouldn’t be embarrassed. This is a real condition with real challenges, and support and understanding will be key in finding coping skills to overcome it. Thankfully help and treatment is available. You can turn to Talkspace for all your online therapy needs.
Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH, is a clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience as a therapist, clinical supervisor, and program director. She works to support quality clinical care at Talkspace. Her work as a clinician and trainer focuses on the mental health impact of body image concerns and eating disorders across the lifespan.