Binge eating is a type of eating disorder which is characterised by eating large quantities of food in a diminutive episode of time. People who binge feel a strong urge to eat and continue to do so, even if they feel full or they are not hungry. In many cases, people plan binges and buy specific types of food to binge on. Most people carry out this act in private, away from other people, and they may lie about what or how they have eaten if asked or confronted by others.
Binge eating is a psychological condition but it can be triggered by physiological impulses, as eating has a series of effects on the body. Binge eating is often associated with another eating disorder, known as bulimia. However, there is a major difference between the two, as people who binge do not vomit (known as purging) after eating unlike those with bulimia. Bulimia involves binge eating and then vomiting, often to try and lose weight. Binge eating is commonly associated with obesity, as eating large amounts of food contributes to weight gain.
What causes binge eating?
There is often no exact cause of binge eating and a combination of factors is likely to contribute. Binge eating, like many other psychological disorders, is often associated with depression and is seen as a way of dealing with unhappiness and anxiety. It is estimated that around 50% of people with a binge eating disorder have depression or have suffered from depression at some point in their lives. Other possible causes include:
- Low self-esteem.
- Lack of confidence.
Often, binge eating provides temporary relief but it is usually followed by feelings of guilt and unhappiness. As a result of this, binge eating is often at the centre of a vicious cycle of emotions and actions.
People who binge tend to have low self-esteem and find it difficult to share their emotions and feelings. They may feel lonely and different to other people and this can prompt them to eat. People who partake in binge eating are also more likely to abuse alcohol.
Symptoms of binge eating
Putting on weight is the main symptom of binge eating and this can increase the risk of obesity. Obesity is linked to a host of health conditions and problems, including an increased risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes.
- High cholesterol; which contributes to heart disease.
- Back pain.
- Decreased fertility.
Bingeing can also cause other physiological effects on the body, including food cravings (usually for sugar), headaches and stomach pain.
Diagnosis of binge eating
You should visit your GP if you think you have symptoms of binge eating. When you see your GP, they will ask you about your symptoms and your eating habits. The questions they ask will determine whether your habits coincide with the usual pattern for binge eating. Your GP will usually look out for the following symptoms:
- Eating faster than usual when bingeing.
- Eating in private.
- Feeling guilty or ashamed after bingeing.
- Eating when you are not hungry.
- Eating even if you already feel full.
If your GP suspects that you have a binge eating disorder, they will refer you to a specialist for further tests and treatment. You may be referred to a psychiatrist or a psychologist and you will probably also see a dietician.
Treating binge eating
There are various treatments available for binge eating disorder and a combination of treatments is usually very effective. Treatments include:
Self-help: the self-help programme is very important and healthcare professionals will help individuals to try and tackle the cycle of emotions and eating.
Therapy: therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy and dialectal behaviour therapy can be useful in helping people understand why they eat. The therapies help patients to identify and address problems or sources of anger, upset or stress, without turning to food. Therapies are also effective for people with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
Medication: a form of medication known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can be used to treat people with binge eating disorder. SSRI’s work by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain, as serotonin is a chemical that helps to lift your mood. SSRI’s are usually used on a short-term basis, as the long-term effects are unknown. Possible side-effects of taking SSRI’s include nausea, blurred vision, dizziness, dry mouth and changes in bowel habits.
If you are overweight as a result of binge eating, you may be advised to try and lose weight with the help of your GP and a dietician. They will draw up a healthy eating plan, which may encourage you to eat healthier foods and adopt healthier eating habits. Dieting is not viewed as an effective treatment method, as it can cause symptoms to become worse and cravings to get more intense. You should always check with your GP if you are planning to change your diet and you are currently receiving treatment for binge eating.
Preventing binge eating
There are certain things you can do to reduce symptoms and prevent cravings, which are often caused by low blood sugar levels. Sticking to a healthy, balanced diet can help to reduce cravings and ease symptoms associated with binge eating. The following steps may help:
- Avoiding foods that are high in sugar.
- Eating small meals on a regular basis, rather than 3 large meals.
- Cutting down alcohol and caffeine intake.
- Keeping a food dairy so that you know what you have eaten and can identify foods that trigger a negative response and make you feel hungry, even when you are not.