Binge Eating Overview: An Overview

Binge eating disorder is an officially recognized eating disorder characterized by frequent, excessive consumption of food. Unlike people who voluntarily overeat on holidays or other limited occasions, people with the condition feel a compulsion to overeat, and continue their behavior even when they become aware of its negative consequences. Because of the level of food consumption involved, binge eating disorder can lead to a variety of serious or potentially fatal illnesses. What’s more, people with the disorder also sometimes have or develop additional mental health problems. Fortunately, doctors and mental health professionals can treat binge eaters through methods that include medications and psychotherapy.

Binge Eating Basics

Binge eating disorder features an extreme level of calorie intake, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus, and people with the condition can consume anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 calories in a single meal or episode. By comparison, the recommended calorie intake for teenagers and adults ranges from roughly 1,600 to 3,000 for an entire day. However, people with the disorder typically don’t want to be overweight and experience a variety of negative emotions, including guilt and self-loathing, in regard to their behavior.

Unlike people who have the eating disorders anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, binge eaters usually don’t engage in behaviors – such as vomiting or excessive exercising – that purge or burn off significant amounts of calories. For this reason, they commonly gain enough weight to classify them as overweight or obese. You can develop binge eating disorder at any age; however, the disorder most commonly appears in teenagers and young adults. Roughly 2 percent of American adults are binge eaters, and the condition is somewhat more common in women than in men.

Binge Eating Causes

No one knows exactly what triggers binge eating disorder. However, the Mayo Clinic reports, researchers have uncovered certain underlying factors that potentially play a role in its onset. They include a family history of eating disorders, genetically inherited chemical imbalances in your brain, current or previous problems with clinical depression, participation in a restrictive diet program, and lack of the coping skills needed to deal with strong or unpleasant emotional states. In addition, people with the disorder often feel estranged from their communities, feel that they lack control in their lives, abuse alcohol or other substances, and make decisions in an impulsive manner.

Signs and Symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include eating disproportionately large amounts of food at any one time, eating well past the point of fullness, feeling unable to control your eating habits, eating large amounts of food rapidly, experiencing repeated episodes of significant weight gain and weight loss, purposefully eating your meals alone and eating when you don’t feel hungry. People with binge eating disorder also commonly attach negative feelings to their eating behaviors (including disgust, guilt, shame and/or depression), experience feelings of social isolation, and avoid talking about their feelings regarding food-related issues. While some binge eaters overeat regularly, others diet for limited periods of time or unsuccessfully attempt to reduce their food intake to normal levels. In addition, some binge eaters develop clinically serious symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mood or personality disorders.

Potential Consequences

The weight gain associated with binge eating disorder can lead to the onset of serious, chronic health problems that include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease and heart disease. Other problems commonly found in binge eaters include headaches, joint dysfunction, insomnia, muscle pain and alterations in the normal menstrual cycle. In addition, people with binge eating disorder have increased chances of developing some forms of cancer.

Available Treatments

Your doctor can treat binge eating disorder with antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), other antidepressant medications called tricyclic antidepressants, or a seizure medication called topiramate (Topomax). None of these drugs were designed to combat binge eating, and no one knows precisely why they produce positive effects. Forms of psychotherapy used to treat the disorder include interpersonal psychotherapy, which focuses on your relationships with other people; cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on improving your self-control in stressful situations; and dialectic behavior therapy, which focuses on both new behavioral skills and your relationships with others. Additional techniques used to treat or diminish the effects of binge eating include medically supervised weight-loss programs and participation in established support groups.

Other steps you can take to deal with binge eating disorder include following your established treatment plan as closely as possible, eating a healthy breakfast each day, avoiding self-directed diets, avoiding stockpiling food in your home, seeking the advice of a registered nutritionist, staying physically active, and doing what you can to maintain your relationships and other social outlets.

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