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Understanding Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating is not a topic that often comes up in casual conversation, although it affects nearly 3 million people in the United States every year. Data shows binge eating impacts more people than all other eating disorders combined. But much of this struggle goes on behind closed doors. Health experts say understanding binge eating and other eating disorders is one way to shine a light on an issue few people are talking about. By opening communication about this disorder, those in need can get support and treatment to improve their quality of life and overall health.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. It has been an official diagnosis in the medical community for nearly a decade. Symptoms typically begin to surface when someone is in their late teens or early 20s. BED is most common in women in early adulthood and most common in men when they reach midlife. Despite its pervasiveness, BED can often be confused with other eating disorders.

Binge eating vs. emotional eating

People who occasionally have a bad day and comfort themselves with their favorite drive-thru meal or a pint of ice cream likely are exhibiting signs of emotional eating, not BED. Those who snack when they are stressed, sad, angry – or even when bored – all likely fall under the umbrella of emotional eating. In times of anxiety or stress, the hormone cortisol is released. This hormone triggers cravings for salty, sugary and fatty foods, and emotional eating may be a response.

In contrast, binge eating disorder is characterized as eating large quantities of food in one sitting. Here are some other common traits of BED:

  • A preference to eat alone so others cannot see how much food is consumed
  • Experiencing episodes of uncontrolled eating more than once a week
  • Feeling a lack of control over how much food is consumed
  • Feeling guilt and shame after eating
  • Feeling unable to stop eating

It is estimated that binge eating disorder affects 3.5% of women, 2% of men and 1.6% of all adolescents. It touches all races and income levels. Health officials believe millions more people may have BED but have not yet been diagnosed because they don’t feel comfortable talking about the issue with their health care providers. 

Cultural pressures and family history

There are factors that may be red flags for developing BED. Research has shown that family history and cultural and societal pressures can be contributing factors. Important things to note:

  • Binge eating disorder can run in families, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A genetic component was identified in 2016, with researchers pinpointing a specific gene linked to binge eating.
  • Childhood trauma, including hurtful comments targeting a person’s weight, body appearance or eating habits, have been tied to the likelihood of developing BED. 
  • Eating disorders like BED most commonly occur in industrialized countries where there is a cultural or societal importance placed on thinness.  

How to get help

People who suspect they have undiagnosed BED should talk to their health care provider. Medical professionals have information that can help those with BED and put them on a path to treatment. 

The National Eating Disorders Association offers a helpline, an online chat function and a 24/7 crisis line for those who need support or emergency help.

  • Online chat: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
  • Call: (800) 931-2237 Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET and Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET
  • Text: (800) 931-2237 Monday to Thursday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET and Friday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. ET
  • Crisis text line: For help immediately, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer

Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan based in Detroit. Passionate about the science of nutrition and behavior, Shanthi has experience working in clinical nutrition, public health and teaching in the university setting. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, exploring the outdoors, working on art and spending time with family. See more at AHealthierMichigan.org.

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