Binge eating disorder, or compulsive overeating, is the most common eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, as many as 25 million Americans suffer from compulsive overeating. In comparison, the NEDA estimates 12 million Americans suffer from bulimia and anorexia combined.
Unlike other eating disorders, binge eating affects men almost as often as women. While bulimia and anorexia tend to develop in late adolescence to early adulthood, binge eating disorders usually develop in adults.
Is Bulimia the Same as Binge Eating Disorder?
Bulimia is characterized by periods of binge eating, followed by purging. Compulsive overeating disorders, unlike bulimia, are characterized by periods of binge eating, but not followed by purges. The compulsive need to achieve the “ideal” weight is not an element in binge eating, although compulsive overeaters are painfully aware of their weight and food consumption.
Causes of Compulsive Overeating
An exact cause of binge eating disorders is unknown. Some research suggests that compulsive overeating begins in childhood, if parents use food to comfort a child and relieve stress. The association between food, comfort and stress relief continues into adulthood, resulting in binge eating behavior.
Half of all people suffering from binge eating disorder also suffer from depression. It is unclear whether the depression causes compulsive overeating, or whether people with binge eating disorder are prone to depression.
Possible physical causes of binge eating disorders include problems in the brain’s hypothalamus, which monitors and controls appetite. The hypothalamus could fail to send proper messages about hunger and stomach fullness, causing people with binge eating disorder to overeat. Imbalances in the brain chemical serotonin may also play a role in compulsive overeating (serotonin imbalances can also cause depression, suggesting a reason so many people affected by binge eating also exhibit symptoms of depression).
None of these factors, however, account for all cases of binge eating. Like other eating disorders, compulsive overeating is most likely triggered by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.
Signs of Binge Eating Disorder
People suffering from compulsive overeating are well aware that they consume excessive amounts of food. Shame and embarrassment about compulsive overeating leads people to hide their binge eating form family and friends. Often, compulsive overeaters are very good at hiding their disorder, and often even close family members and friends are unaware of the eating disorder.
Binge eating is characterized by a series of abnormal eating habits. An unusual amount of food is consumed during a binge, and eaten until the person feels uncomfortable. Binge eating causes shame, guilt and embarrassment for people, so food tends to be eaten secretly, alone and quickly.
Emotional and Physical Complications of Compulsive Overeating
Binge eating increases the risk of a number of health problems.
Obesity is a logical consequence of compulsive overeating. Between thirty to ninety percent of obesity cases are thought to be associated with binge eating disorders.
Nutritional deficiencies are common in binge eating cases. Although large amounts of food are consumed, binges are usually on high fat, sugary foods that lack essential nutrients and vitamins.
As noted above, depression occurs in half of binge eating disorders, though it is unclear whether depression is the cause or result of compulsive overeating.
Binge eating disorder also increases the risk of serious health problems including:
- gallbladder disease
- heart disease
- high blood cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- certain cancers.
Esophageal or gastric rupture is a direct consequence of compulsive overeating. The strain of overeating may rupture the esophageal or gastric lining, causing a medical emergency that requires prompt treatment.
Binge Eating Treatment Options
Most people suffering from compulsive overeating have attempted to control their eating disorder by themselves before seeking medical assistance. Between ten to fifteen percent of obese or overweight people who try commercial weight loss programs are thought to suffer from binge eating.
Self-treatment of binge eating disorder may also include fad diets or “extreme” diets, which result in a cycle of yo-yo dieting (losing weight only to regain it when the diet ends). This cycle of weight loss and weight gain can have a negative impact on a compulsive overeater’s self-worth, as apparent success is inevitably followed by failure and a return to binge eating.
Compulsive overeating has not been studied as long as eating disorders such as anorexia, and as a result binge eating treatment is not as effective as might be hoped. Treatment may address obesity concerns; however, without addressing the underlying eating disorder, obesity treatment has limited effectiveness.
Nevertheless, some binge eating treatments are available:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy seeks to change binge eating habits by understanding the reasons for overeating and the emotions that may trigger a binge. Patients learn to track their food consumption and develop alternative ways of managing stress.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy helps those with binge eating disorder to examine their relationships to help identify possible causes of overeating and to resolve interpersonal problems that may contribute to their eating disorder.
- Nutritional therapy allows patients with eating disorders to work closely with a dietician. The dietician devises a healthy eating plan for the patient, and the two work together to follow the plan, change eating habits and monitor the plan’s progress.
- Antidepressants sometimes prove effective in treating compulsive overeating, as depression is often associated with binge eating disorder.
These different treatments appear to have similar rates of success, but most eating disorder specialists would agree that more research and investigation is required to devise more effective binge eating treatment alternatives.