When they hear about eating disorders most people think about emaciated young girls with anorexia.

Most people will also have heard of bulimia, where people regularly overeat and then try to get rid of calories by making themselves sick, using laxatives or over-exercising.

People with both anorexia and bulimia show very high levels of concern about their body and weight and have an intense fear of weight gain.


Though eating disorders are mainly seen in young women, there has been some change in recent years with an increasing number of men reporting eating disorders.

Far fewer people would have heard of binge eating disorder (also known as BED) and yet it is thought to be the most common eating disorder, affecting between 1% and 5% of the general population.

And up to 10% of young women are thought to experience occasional binge episodes.

It is a hidden eating disorder

Binge eating disorder sufferers often have a deep sense of uncontrollability in their eating. They keep their disordered eating secret from loved ones out of a sense of shame, and are careful to eat in a restrained way when with other people or in public.

People with BED may avoid seeking professional help, hoping that the problem will go away on its own or feeling that it’s not a ‘proper’ eating disorder.

So, what is binge eating disorder?

Also known as compulsive overeating, binge eating disorder is characterised by frequent binge episodes but without the extreme weight control strategies seen in people with bulimia.

In the diagnostic manual of psychiatric disorders in the United States (DSM-5) the diagnosis of binge eating is based on repeated episodes of excessive overeating associated with a pronounced sense of loss of control of eating, followed by feelings of guilt or shame.

Bingeing episodes

Episodes occur at least once a week over a three month period and cause distress to the individual. Binge episodes often involve rapid and secretive eating in the absence of physical hunger.

They are most likely to happen when the person is alone and ‘evidence’, such as food wrappers, may be hidden from family and loved ones.

Not all people with binge eating disorder are overweight; some studies suggest that only around 50% of BED patients are overweight. However the disorder can be associated with extreme overweight or obesity.

what is binge eating disorder_3It is thought that over 20% of people being assessed for bariatric (weight loss) surgery have a severe binge eating disorder, and up to two-thirds experience occasional binge episodes.

“I would shop on a Tuesday and have a ‘food party’ with all the food I had bought, almost to the point of being sick but not quite, and still have a full evening meal when my husband got home.” (bariatric patient)

How can I overcome a binge eating disorder?

People with binge eating disorder are more likely to experience depression, stress, anxiety and low self-esteem.

For people who struggle to cope with difficult feelings, such as sadness, anger or feeling alone, binge eating may offer temporary relief, such that during a binge they experience a sense of emotional numbing.

The act of eating may be so mindless that they can barely remember tasting the food afterwards.

This is sometimes described as a problem with ‘emotional regulation’ and support in developing emotional coping skills may help people manage the binge eating, as they no longer seek to “eat their feelings”.

Build assertiveness skills, so you feel more able to manage difficult situations with other people, and challenging perfectionism is also important.

High levels of stress

People with binge eating disorder often experience high levels of upset about their body and this body image distress is maintained by repeated binge episodes.

People feel fearful about weight gain because of episodes of loss of control of their eating, and then skip meals or excessively restrict calorie intake to compensate.

Ongoing attempts to diet in turn increase vulnerability to further binge episodes.

Maintain regular eating habits

It’s important to establish regular eating habits, ideally using a food/mood/hunger diary to monitor food intake and help you identify trigger events for binge episodes.

Binge eating disorder is difficult to tackle alone. It’s important to speak to your doctor about accessing psychological therapy, and share your experience with family and loved ones so they can offer support.

Connect with Expert Jenny Radcliffe

Self-help resources for people suffering from binge eating disorder:

Christopher Fairburn: “Overcoming Binge Eating”

Schmidt & Treasure: “Getting Better Bit(e) by Bit(e): a survival kit for sufferers of bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders”

Kenneth Goss: “A Compassionate Mind Approach to Beat Overeating”

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