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Binge Eating Disorder

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
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What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

Lots of us find comfort in food. And most people will sometimes eat much more than they normally do on special occasions.

But someone with binge eating disorder has a different relationship with food. They feel like they've lost all control over how much they eat, and they can't stop, even when uncomfortably full. They also binge at least once a week for several months.

For people with binge eating disorder, food may offer feelings of calm or comfort, or stop them from feeling upset. But after a binge, it can have the opposite effect, causing anxiety, guilt, and distress. Many people who binge eat are overweight. But those at a healthy weight can also have a binge eating disorder.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eaters usually are unhappy about their weight and many feel depressed.

Someone who's binge eating also might:

  • eat a lot of food quickly
  • hide food containers or wrappers in their room
  • have big changes in their weight (up or down)
  • skip meals, eat at unusual times (like late at night), and eat alone
  • have a history of eating in response to emotional stress (like family conflict, peer rejection, or school problems)

People who binge might have feelings that are common in many eating disorders, such as depression, anxiety, guilt, or shame. They may avoid school, work, or socializing with friends because they're ashamed of their binge eating problem or changes in their body shape and weight.

When kids or teen binge eat, parents may first suspect a problem when large amounts of food go missing from the pantry or refrigerator.

Binge eating is different from bulimia, another eating disorder. People with bulimia binge eat, but try to make up for overeating by throwing up, using laxatives, or over-exercising to lose weight.

What Causes Binge Eating?

The exact cause of binge eating disorder isn't known. But it's likely due to a combination of things, including genetics, family eating habits, emotions, and eating behavior, like skipping meals. Some people use food as a way to soothe themselves or to cope with difficult feelings.

People with binge eating disorder are more likely to have other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and ADHD.

It's hard to know how many teens may binge eat. Because people often feel guilty or embarrassed about out-of-control eating, many don't talk about it or get help.

How Is Binge Eating Disorder Diagnosed?

If a doctor thinks a child or teen might have a binge eating disorder, they'll ask lots of questions about their medical history and dietary habits. The doctor will also ask about the family history, family eating patterns, and emotional issues.

After an exam, the doctor may order lab tests to check for health problems related to weight gain, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obstructive sleep apnea, and diabetes.

To diagnose binge eating disorder, doctors and mental health professionals look for signs such as:

  • eating more food than most people eat in a set period of time
  • a sense of lack of control over eating
  • binge eating, on average, at least once a week for at least 3 months
  • binge eating associated with:
    • eating faster than most people
    • eating until uncomfortably full
    • eating lots of food when not hungry
    • eating alone or in secret because they're embarrassed about how much they eat
    • feelings of disgust, depression, or guilt

How Is Binge Eating Disorder Treated?

People with binge disorders are best treated by a team that includes a doctor, dietitian, and therapist. Treatment includes nutrition counseling, medical care, and talk therapy (individual, group, and family therapy). The doctor might prescribe medicine to treat mental health concerns linked to binge eating, such as anxiety or depression.

It can be hard for someone who binge eats to reach out for help because they're ashamed of overeating or of being overweight. Many teens don't get treatment for binge eating until they're older. But getting help early makes a person more likely to avoid health problems related to weight gain.

How Can Parents Help?

If your child might have a problem with binge eating, call your doctor for advice. The doctor can recommend mental health professionals who have experience treating eating disorders in kids and teens.

Reassure your child that you're there to help or just to listen. Encourage healthier eating habits by being a good role model in your relationship with food and exercise. Don't use food as a reward.

These tips can help your child decrease binge episodes:

  • Don't skip meals. Set a regular meal and snack schedule. People are more likely to overeat if they get too hungry.
  • Practice mindful eating. Encourage your child to pay attention to what they eat and notice when they feel full. 
  • Identify triggers. Help your child avoid or manage things that trigger binge eating. Healthier ways to manage stress include music, art, dance, writing, or talking to a friend. Yoga, meditation, or taking a couple of deep breaths also can help your child relax.
  • Be active as a family. Regular exercise can feel good and help your child manage weight.

You also can find support and more information online at:

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021