How Do You Treat Binge Eating Disorder? Medication, Therapy, And Alternative Treatments

Reviewed by Tanya Harrell, PhD, LPC, NCC

Published 01/07/2021

Treating eating disorders of any kind comes with a unique set of challenges and requirements, and Binge Eating Disorder is no different. Although few are familiar with the ins and outs of Binge Eating Disorder, this is a very real condition affecting as much as 2-3% of the population, 40% of which are men, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. With such a high prevalence, there are numerous treatment options available to address the symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder, and the negative effects BED has on an individual’s life.

Binge Eating Disorder: A Definition

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Binge Eating Disorder is an eating disorder recognized within a larger cluster of disorders used to describe the symptoms of disordered eating, or consuming food in a manner that is detrimental to physical and emotional health. Although the usual suspects of disordered eating, such as Anorexia and Bulimia, involve a lot of restrictions, either limiting food intake, utilizing excessive exercise tactics, or purging food that has already been consumed, Binge Eating Disorder exists on the opposite end of the spectrum. People with Binge Eating Disorder display an uncontrolled and uncontrollable compulsion to go on food-eating binges, typically characterized by large volumes of food, eaten very quickly and without the presence of hunger or a biological need for food during the course of the binge.

Binge Eating Disorder is far more than simple overeating, while overconsumption of food can be linked to a host of issues, ranging from hormonal dysfunction to a breakdown in metabolic activity, Binge Eating Disorder is less about biological dysfunction than it is about mental illness and psychological decline. BED is typically accompanied by a great deal of shame, anxiety, and fear, and people with the disorder may display avoidant behavior (refusing to eat in front of other people, avoiding public places where they may be viewed with food) and symptoms of other mental illness, such as anxiety disorders and depressive disorders.

Identifying Binge Eating Disorder Among Other Symptoms

Binge Eating Disorder is often mistaken for other disorders or issues, due to the many stigmas and assumptions made about eating disorders, who they affect, and how they present. Binge Eating Disorder is frequently mistakenly associated with Bulimia Nervosa, for instance, as both may involve consuming large amounts of food in one sitting; however, Bulimia Nervosa involves compensatory behavior, such as excessive exercise or purging, while Binge Eating Disorder does not utilize compensatory behavior. Bulimia and Anorexia both often have a profound effect on weight, leading people with the disorders to lose copious amounts of weight and suffer issues such as malnourishment, leading to the “typical” body type of someone with an eating disorder.

Although this may be the most common body type associated with eating disorders, slender and emaciated figures are not the only figure that can be seen in someone with an eating disorder; Binge Eating Disorder very often has the opposite effect on someone’s weight and health and can lead to weight gain and health issues associated with overweight and obesity, such as metabolic dysfunction, cardiac issues, and elevated blood pressure. A simple online BED quiz can lend greater insight into the likelihood of disordered eating being an example of bingeing or another type of eating disorder.

Making a distinction between the symptoms of a physical malady and a mental health issue such as BED can be an important part of the diagnosis process; trying to treat a biological condition with psychotherapy is unlikely to turn out well, just as tackling the body’s metabolic processes will not effectively target the root of Binge Eating Disorder. When evaluating a new patient, a mental health practitioner and a medical professional will take a thorough medical and family history, in order to determine whether or not there are any possible explanations for the eating habits associated with Binge Eating Disorder, such as diabetes or an inability to feel satiety.

BED Treatment: Inpatient Treatment Options

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Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder are often best treated in a dedicated eating recovery center because recovery centers have a means of maintaining consistent, constant supervision of overeating habits and exercise regimens. For people who exhibit severe symptoms of any type of eating disorder, including Binge Eating Disorder, inpatient recovery centers might be the best treatment option, affording the most likely chance of healing and recovery.

Inpatient treatment centers can also be helpful because they offer a way to closely observe and supervise the administration of drugs for Binge Eating Disorder. Although Binge Eating Disorder medicine is not considered extremely dangerous or problematic, BED medication may be best offered under close supervision, in order to observe any potential side effects and to evaluate efficacy.

Inpatient treatment may not be required for every instance of BED, but is fairly standard for severe cases of any type of eating disorder, due to the nature of eating disorders and the subject matter they involve. Food cannot be avoided forever—or even temporarily—making the treatment of and recovery from an eating disorder of paramount importance to lead a healthy, productive life. Inpatient recovery can provide a solid framework within which to live, offering people with eating disorders a safe place to explore the roots of their disordered eating, where health and food intake can be closely monitored and evaluated. Inpatient treatment centers often boast a highly trained staff of mental health and medical professionals alike, in order to offer the best coverage for the many issues and repercussions associated with BED.

BED Treatment: Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment can also be extremely effective. In less severe cases of BED, or cases in which budget might be a concern, outpatient treatment can present a useful and effective means of treatment. People with BED can be evaluated and treated by a team of professionals who see their patients once per week (or more, as necessary), carefully monitoring progress and tracking medication for binge eating, in order to help their patients achieve the best possible outcome, while still going about their normal lives and routines.

Outpatient treatment might also be ideal for anyone who cannot take off time from work, school, or other responsibilities to invest all of their time in healing and recovery. This is not to say that inpatient treatment is ideal and outpatient treatment is piecemeal, however; many people with Binge Eating Disorder go on to recover and reduce symptoms without the use of an inpatient treatment facility.

Typical outpatient treatment regimens involve both binge eating medication and psychotherapy. Used in conjunction, these methods can not only reduce the incidence of binge eating episodes but also provide lasting relief from triggers and the root source of disordered eating.

Binge Eating Disorder: Alternative Treatments

As of yet, there have not been any alternative treatment methods with scientific support for the treatment of Binge Eating Disorder. Nevertheless, some alternative interventions have been used in conjunction with standard treatment methods, with anecdotal evidence suggesting some aid in recovery, the most significant of which is stress management through meditation, yoga, and other mindful methodologies. Because many people experience resurgences of mental disorder symptoms in times of great stress or overwhelm, managing stress can be a useful tool in the overall treatment and management of Binge Eating Disorder.

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Although diet and exercise are often considered alternative treatment methods for mental disorders, these alternative treatment methods are avoided as a matter of course in eating disorders—at least in the beginning stages of treatment. While BED may eventually require intervention for weight and corresponding health issues, focusing on weight and food intake can worsen symptoms before treatment has had a chance to limit symptom expression.

Outlook and Recovery

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Eating disorders present a challenging mental disorder to treat and heal from because they involve something that cannot simply be avoided or ignored; treatment for many substance abuse disorders, for instance, involves a complete disconnect from the substance being abused. Food cannot be sworn off or avoided altogether, making treatment quite a challenge, as people in treatment constantly have to face the very thing causing their symptoms day in and day out, while trying to manage their treatment plan and learn how to heal. The “substance,” of sorts involved in eating disorders makes recovery difficult, but not impossible; eating disorders are treatable conditions. With strict adherence to treatment regimens, including stress management, medication for binge eating, and ongoing psychotherapy, people with BED may be able to experience a full recovery from their disorder.

Binge Eating Disorder treatment and recovery will look different for everyone. For some, inpatient treatment is the best course of action, while for others, treatment is best engaged while still going about daily tasks and tending to daily responsibilities. The exact course of treatment will depend on the individual being treated, including their work, family, and educational responsibilities. While inpatient treatment can be ideal in some cases, it is not always necessary to create an effective and lasting plan for recovery, and people who continue to attend to their mental health are in no way disadvantaged by not entering into a treatment facility or dedicated program.

Learning to manage and live with an eating disorder is a journey, not an overnight transformation. Although there will always be setbacks and new triggers to discover and work through, eating disorders are treatable conditions and do not confer a life sentence on those who have been diagnosed.