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Binge eating - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Binge eating is an eating disorder where a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis.

People who binge eat consume very large quantities of food over a short period of time and they often eat even when they are not hungry. Binges are often planned and can involve the person buying "special" binge foods.

Episodes of binge eating often alternate with periods where the person severely cuts down on the amount of food they eat, which can make the problem worse.

Binge eating usually takes place in private, with the person feeling that they have no control over their eating. They will often have feelings of guilt or disgust after binge eating. These feelings highlight underlying psychological issues, such as:

  • low self-esteem and lack of confidence
  • depression - feelings of extreme sadness that last for a long time
  • anxiety - a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can range from mild to severe

These feelings can be made worse over time while the person is still binge eating.

Read more information about the causes of binge eating.

Who is affected by binge eating?

Anyone can be affected by binge eating. Unlike anorexia, where more women than men are affected, binge eating affects men and women equally. The condition tends to be more common in older adults than in younger people.

Binge eating and bulimia

People who binge eat and those with bulimia (another type of eating disorder) often eat until they are uncomfortably full. People with bulimia then purge (flush out) the food they have eaten by making themselves vomit or by taking laxatives (medicine to help empty the bowels).

Unlike those with bulimia, people who binge eat do not purge themselves to control their weight, and are more likely to try to limit weight gain by having periods of eating very little. However, this often leads to more binge eating and sometimes weight gain, which can lead to obesity (see below).

Binge eating and obesity

Binge eating is often associated with obesity, where someone is very overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over. Obesity is a serious health problem that can lead to a number of serious chronic (long-term) health conditions, such as:

Being obese can also shorten your life expectancy. For example, the life expectancy of obese adults who are over the age of 40 can be shortened by six or seven years. 

Read more about the symptoms of binge eating for details of other health conditions related to obesity.

Seeing your GP

Visit your GP if you think that you have a binge eating problem. They will be able to diagnose the condition and refer you to a specialist, such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist. In some cases, you may also be referred to a dietitian.

In diagnosing binge eating, your GP will ask you about your eating habits and look for three or more of the following signs:

  • you eat much faster than normal during a binge
  • you eat until you feel uncomfortably full
  • you eat a large amount of food when you are not hungry
  • you eat alone or secretly due to being embarrassed about the amount of food you are consuming
  • you have feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating

People who regularly eat this way are likely to be diagnosed with a binge eating disorder.

Treating binge eating

Binge eating is a treatable condition and a number of different treatment options are available. For example, treatments include:

If you are overweight, a healthcare professional may draw up a weight loss plan once any psychological issues have been dealt with. This is to help you lose weight in a safe and effective way.

People can recover from binge eating if they can understand the psychological issues causing their condition, adopt regular eating patterns and receive realistic advice about food.

Read more about how binge eating is treated.

Medical Review: November 14, 2012
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