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Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders first recognized binge eating disorder as a distinct eating disorder diagnosis separate from OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder, formerly EDNOS) in its fifth edition. According to the DSM-5 (2013, American Psychiatric Association), binge eating disorder is characterized by:

  • Recurrent episodes of eating amounts of food much larger than what most people would eat within a discrete period of time (e.g., any two-hour period) in similar circumstances
  • Binge eating episodes that include three or more of the following behaviors:
    • Eating much more rapidly than normal
    • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
    • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
    • Eating alone because of embarrassment or shame about food consumption
    • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
  • Marked distress with binge eating behaviors
  • Binge eating at least once a week for three months
  • Binge eating behavior that is not associated with the regular use of compensatory behavior like in individuals with bulimia nervosa

Binge Eating and Similarities to Substance Abuse

Compulsive overeaters or those with binge eating disorder think about food constantly and regularly eat past the point of being full. They plan meals obsessively and will often eat in secret. Binge eating disorder may not lead to obesity, although many compulsive overeaters are overweight. However, some compulsive overeaters will maintain a normal or average weight.

In some cases of binge eating disorder, a person may consume 5,000 calories or more. Many report feeling “high” after this massive intake of food. Research, such as a 2010 study published in Nature Neuroscience, indicates that binge eating may impact the release of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates pleasant feelings. Repetitive binge eating can throw off the reward center in the brain and potentially mimic effects of drug abuse where a person needs more and more of the substance (in this case food) in order to get the same effect or “high.”

Warning Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is a serious condition with very real health consequences such as heart disease, diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), liver problems and high blood pressure and cholesterol. Warning signs of binge eating disorder are not as outwardly obvious as anorexia and bulimia because binges are typically done in private. There may be no obvious signs of the disorder (like purge sores on hands and swollen cheeks in bulimics or emaciation in anorexics), and body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate or obese. Those concerned that a loved one may be suffering from binge eating disorder should look for some of the following indications:

  • Eating very rapidly or seemingly uncontrollably
  • Eating alone
  • Obsessing about the next meal, even just after a large meal
  • Rapid fluctuations in weight
  • Trying out several different diets and weight-loss tactics
  • Eating compulsively in reaction to stress or difficult feelings