Binge Eating Disorder: Treatment Options To Overcome Disordered Eating

Reviewed by Tanya Harrell, PhD, LPC, NCC

Published 01/07/2021

Eating Disorders are mental health disorders wherein an individual has developed an unhealthy and potentially dangerous relationship with food, consumption, and their own body. Binge Eating Disorder is no different; BED is an eating disorder that can have long-lasting and deleterious effects on an individual’s health. Binge Eating Disorder requires treatment much in the same way as any other mental disorder, and the importance of treatment cannot be overstated. But first, a definition: what is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge Eating Disorder: a Definition and Symptoms

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Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is an eating disorder characterized by periods of binge eating, without compensatory behaviors such as purging and exercising excessively. Despite the lack of compensatory behaviors associated with BED, the condition is still regarded as a dangerous one, because it has substantial ill health effects on individuals struggling with the disorder. In order to qualify for a diagnosis of BED, an individual must, for at least three months, possess behaviors such as:

  • Excessive eating. Excessive eating in a binge eating disorder means eating any quantity of food that violates a typical eating pattern and causes pain or discomfort in the midst of the episode. Eating several cookies compulsively after a meal may signal an unhealthy relationship with food, but it would not qualify as binge eating; instead, eating an entire box of cookies, or an entire batch of cookies, following the consumption of an entire pizza could suggest binge eating.
  • Engaging in excessive eating in small bursts or episodes. Continually overeating is not the same as binge eating, though it may be an issue in its own right. To qualify as a binge, an episode must include an intense and overwhelming urge to consume food at a rate and volume that is neither satisfying nor comfortable.
  • Experiencing shame or regret following an episode. Someone with BED will experience feelings of guilt, shame, regret, or disgust on the heels of a binge.
  • Feeling as though control has been lost. Someone with BED will not feel as though they are intentionally or willfully choosing to overeat; instead, they will likely feel out of control and will eat despite feeling discomfort or fear.
  • Binge eating despite not feeling hungry. Binges are not triggered by physical hunger, or a biological need to consume nutrients; instead, binge eating is typically triggered by psychological or emotional distress, and binge serves as an unhealthy method of coping.
  • Constantly eating alone. People with BED typically do not want to eat in the presence of others, whether they are binge eating or eating a typical meal. Binge eating will be done in solitude, and those closest to an individual with BED may notice large amounts of food going missing in a short period of time.

Binge Eating Disorder is a serious eating disorder and mental health condition that can have severe and lasting negative impacts on an individual’s health and well being. Online tests can help identify the likelihood of an individual suffering from Binge Eating Disorder, whether those tests are taken by the person with the symptoms, or someone close to them.

Binge Eating Versus Other Eating Disorders

Binge Eating Disorder is often mistaken for other eating disorders, including Bulimia Nervosa, a condition in which an individual binge eats, followed by compensatory behavior, such as excessive exercise or purging. Binge Eating Disorder might not initially seem like an eating disorder, because the thought of an eating disorder often conjures a very specific body type and background, which may not fit into the same body type and background of someone with Binge Eating Disorder. As with all eating disorders, however, Binge Eating Disorder typically carries with it an unhealthy relationship to one’s body, an unhealthy relationship with food, and a desire to be in control of something—even if it is disordered eating patterns and habits.

Risk Factors for Binge Eating Disorder

The risk factors for Binge Eating Disorder are diverse and varied but can include a family history of eating disorders, a personal or family history of other mental disorders, and a history of dieting or another type of restrictive eating. Although not all dieters will go on to develop an eating disorder, people who are highly dissatisfied with their appearance and turn to restrictive or in some way highly controlling behaviors toward food may be more likely to develop an eating disorder.

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Individuals who have been bullied or teased about their weight are also far more likely to develop eating disorders, even if those eating disorders actually contribute to a higher weight. Families who place a lot of emphasis on appearance may also have children who are more likely to have an eating disorder.

Perhaps the most significant contributing risk factor for any eating disorder—Binge Eating Disorder included—is the presence of an intense focus on physical appearance, weight, and self-worth. A heavy focus on these areas can contribute to the development of eating disorders, as they concentrate a great deal of focus and effort on food, weight, and how to manage expectations and worth through those means.

Best Binge Eating Disorder Treatment Options

Binge Eating Disorder is a treatable disorder. While it may seem to be a primarily biological issue, due to the over-consumption of food, this is why binge eating and overeating are distinctive behaviors, and should not be confused; overeating could indicate the presence of a biological concern, such as impaired metabolic or hormone function. Binge eating, however, is not derived from biological changes but is instead related to mental health—a difference that severely impacts the manner in which BED is treated.

The standard first line of treatment for BED is psychotherapy—Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to be specific. In this particular therapy modality, patients are taught how to identify unhealthy thought patterns and corresponding behaviors and replace those patterns and behaviors with ones that will better support health. As part of CBT therapy, patients are typically taught to recognize triggers, and how those triggers correspond to binge episodes. For some, the trigger in question may seem benign, such as a visit to a family member, and may not have been as easily recognizable without the aid of a therapist. While other forms of psychotherapy may be used for BED treatment, the best therapy for binge eating is still considered CBT.

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Eating disorders frequently come along with co-morbid conditions, such as depression and anxiety, and treatment may focus on all of these conditions at once through the use of specific medications. Anti-depressants, for instance, have successfully been used to treat both co-morbid depression and Binge Eating Disorders, just as SSRIs have been useful in simultaneously treating anxiety and BED. Another type of medication, originally developed for ADHD, has been approved for use in treating BED. This medication is called lisdexamfetaminedimesylate, and although it is a promising new treatment method, it may not yet be considered as a front-line treatment modality. BED medications are not uniform across the board and will be tailored to fit the individual and their own unique co-morbidities and treatment needs.

Dangers of Untreated Binge Eating Disorders

The dangers of eating disorders often touch on malnourishment and other dangers associated with purging food or starving oneself. While these dangers do not apply to binge eating as a disorder, binge eating possesses its own dangers, and can still present a very real and very serious hazard to an individual’s health. Untreated BED can lead to increased weight gain and corresponding health issues. Untreated BED can also lead to the onset of additional mental health conditions, including (but not limited to) anxiety and mood disorders.

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Binge Eating Disorder can also be dangerous when left untreated because of the medical implications of binge eating; continually consuming large numbers of calories can have a deleterious effect on health, but the medical issues that arise from continually bingeing cannot be treated without first getting the symptoms of BED under control. Focusing on medical health before symptoms of BED have been successfully treated could result in a resurgence of symptoms, or could reinforce the idea that weight and appearance are of primary importance.

Binge Eating Disorder: Treatment and Options

Not everyone with binge eating disorder will be able to identify based on their physical form, nor will everyone who appears to struggle with excessive food consumption demonstrate symptoms of binge eating disorder. This is because binge eating is not merely overeating; it is a persistent pattern of eating that involves the intake of excessive amounts of food in short bursts. Although many people are eager to find a binge eating disorder cure, the question of how to treat binge eating disorder is one not involving a “cure,” but one involving a series of treatment methods to successfully work through the root of the disorder, and develop healthy coping mechanisms for flare-ups of symptoms and times of stress.

Securing help for binge eating typically involves a mix of pharmaceutical medication and psychotherapy. The combination of the two is typically the most effective way to treat BED, as it comes at the issue from two angles: managing physical triggers for binge eating, and identifying the psychological or emotional triggers that jump-start a binge eating episode. Tackling both of these issues from the outset can greatly improve the likelihood of successfully treating the symptoms of BED, and can help patients and their families and loved ones navigate the nuanced nature of treating an eating disorder.