You may have occasionally splurged on a favorite meal, salty snack or delicious dessert, eating more than you planned or until you were a bit too full. However, for some, a frequent loss of control during eating — known as binge eating — may be a sign of a life-threatening illness that can severely affect your mental and physical well-being.
Binge eating disorder (BED) is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, usually accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame and loss of control. People with BED often eat very fast, eat even when not hungry and eat alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment. However, unlike bulimia nervosa — another eating disorder that can include binging — the binge is not followed by purging or compensatory behaviors, such as fasting or excessive exercise.
BED is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. and three times more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia combined. It affects people of all ages, genders and races. In fact, the National Eating Disorder Association estimates close to 40 percent of BED sufferers are male.
There are serious health complications associated with BED. It can lead to obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease and gastrointestinal distress, as well as common psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
“Binge eating disorder and other eating disorders are a form of mental illness,” says Dr. Linda Santangelo, lead clinical psychologist with the Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital Eating Disorders Program. “It is not about a person’s lack of willpower or a sign of weakness. Many people who struggle with BED engage in this behavior as a way of coping with emotional difficulties.”
According to Dr. Santangelo, several factors can increase your risk of developing BED. Triggers for bingeing can include stress, low self-esteem, poor body self-image and boredom.
Genetic factors can also play a role in the development of eating disorders. If your parent or a sibling has or has had an eating disorder, you may have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Dieting or restricting calories during the day may trigger an urge to binge eat, especially if you have low self-esteem and symptoms of depression.
“Many people with binge-eating disorder have a history of dieting — some have dieted to excess dating back to childhood,” she says. “Although many people see dieting as the solution to overeating, it actually places an individual at greater risk to develop the disorder.”
Jennifer Powers, a registered dietitian with the program, encourages a non-diet approach, often referred to as intuitive eating. “Rejecting diet mentality, responding to physical hunger and fullness sensations, eating mindfully and making peace with food is an effective way to address BED and has been associated with improved health,” Powers says.
Dr. Santangelo and Powers stress that BED is treatable. A comprehensive treatment plan, which addresses the psychological as well as the physical components of the disorder, along with services delivered by professionals who specialize in treating eating disorders can result in lasting recovery.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Linda Santangelo about binge eating disorder for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.