Can Dieting Trigger Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder affects about two percent of all people, men and women, adolescents and adults, and every ethnic or sociocultural background. This makes it easily the most common eating disorder in the United States. Unlike other eating disorders, people with this disorder don’t usually struggle with weight loss, but instead, may actually gain weight. This is despite frequent negative body image and attempts to lose weight. Indeed, binge eating disorder is often related to a person’s experiences with dieting and concerns over their weight. Although dieting in a person with no tendencies toward disordered eating won’t cause the disorder, the cycle of extreme hunger and negative body image that can come with dieting can trigger binge eating episodes and eventually the disorder itself.

So, can binge eating disorder be triggered by dieting? Simple answer: yes, it can. Societal pressure (and that of families and even the medical profession) to lose weight can force a person into a cycle of fasting, exercise, and binge eating episodes. These pressures are usually well-intentioned, to be sure. Medical professionals are keen to prevent diseases caused by extra weight or obesity, and family members who mention losing eight are usually concerned about health and happiness, as well. However, with a condition that affects so many people, it is important to understand how these well-meaning suggestions can trigger unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors.

Here, we’ll examine the root causes of binge eating disorder, how it’s treated, and perhaps most importantly, how diet culture and weight-loss programs can trigger this harmful condition.

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

Mental health conditions aren’t like many diseases. You can’t simply point to a bacteria and say, “this causes dysentery.”  There are a variety of factors that influence binge eating disorder’s development. Generally speaking, experts agree that a combination of factors is almost always present. These include:

  • Biological factors

There are some conditions such as Prader-Willi syndrome remove a person’s ability to feel full or satiated. However, these conditions are rare. Binge eating disorder often causes people to eat beyond feeling full, as well. However, another biological factor seems to be genetic, as people whose parents struggled with binge eating or another eating disorder are more likely to develop the disorder themselves.

  • Psychological and psychiatric factors

Eating disorders rarely exist in a vacuum. Binge eating disorder is much more present in people with other mental health disorders, especially anxiety disorders and depression. According to NEDA, 79 percent of people with binge eating disorder also suffer from a co-occurring disorder. This ties into dieting as these disorders often cause negative self-image and low self-esteem, or to feel unattractive, which can cause them to experiment with extreme or fad dieting.

  • Societal factors

This is the factor that most closely aligns with dieting as a cause of BED. People who are criticized for their weight or appearance as children, or are forced into dieting often develop feelings of guilt or shame surrounding food intake. Specifically, their self-image-driven desire to lose weight causes them to feel guilty when they eat “too much” or foods that they think will cause weight gain. This leads to dieting in public while engaging in binge eating episodes in private, which causes further guilt, and so on in a vicious cycle.

The Roles of Self-Image and Body Image In Dieting and Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is closely tied to body image. Not coincidentally, so is the success of the diet industry and weight-loss programs. Most kinds of eating disorders are centered at least in part on a negative body image, which simply means the person doesn’t like what they see when they look in the mirror (although in many cases what they see is distorted by their condition). In all eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, orthorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, a distorted or negative self-image is a causative factor, listed by the DSM-V.

The average age for onset of binge eating disorder is usually in late adolescence or early adulthood (although it’s not unusual for adults in their 30s or later – weight gain is often a natural part of getting older, and body image can be adversely affected by it), but a poor self-image often has roots in childhood. Children who experience criticism or mockery for their weight or body shape can internalize the negative feelings. This can come from family members (again, usually well-intentioned) or peers at school. Physicians telling a child or adolescent to lose weight can also inadvertently trigger a negative self-image. The result of these criticisms can be about their body or guilt over their eating habits. Directing an impressionable person toward considering certain food to be inherently bad can distort a person’s relationships with food and eating.

Avoiding Applying Morality Toward Food and Eating

Eating disorder treatment is in large part about repairing relationships. Relationships with your body, relationships with food and eating, and relationships with social ideas of attractiveness; all these are devastated by binge eating disorder. Central to repairing these relationships is understanding that there is no moral aspect to any food.

Said another way: no food is either “good” or “bad”.

A major link between dieting and binge eating disorder is the feeling of guilt or shame that comes with eating. Many formalized diets strictly limit the kinds of foods and amounts eaten, even assigning some form of demerit or penalty when a person eats those foods. This, in effect, assigns a kind of morality to different foods. It’s not to the level of a “sin,” but ask yourself how many times you’ve heard someone refer to having a piece of cake as “cheating” or saying something like “I’m being so bad!” This kind of attitude exacerbates or even creates guilt or shame about what the person is eating.

As mentioned, people with binge eating disorder are often overweight, and just as often are on a diet. They are also prone to feeling guilty about binge eating, which is why it’s usually done in secret, and attempt to hide it are made. Compounding these feelings of guilt is the fact that quite often the food eaten during a binge eating episode is “junk” food, which the individual considers to be “bad”.

Part of breaking the diet/binge eating cycle is helping the individual restore a healthy, joyful, and morality-free relationship with food and eating. This means eating what you enjoy, eating when you’re hungry, and eating to feel satiated. There is a movement in eating disorder treatment circles known as HAES, or “Healthy At Every Size”. It emphasizes eating for these reasons and not putting too much pressure to match the requirements of a diet or trying to lose weight as long as the person remains healthy. It’s a key factor in modern eating disorder treatment.

Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder and Compulsive Dieting

The good news about binge eating disorder is that it’s a well-known disorder in the mental health profession and it is completely treatable. People with binge eating disorder experience a cycle of negative self-image, which leads to dieting, which leads to binge eating episodes, returning to the feelings of guilt or shame that brought on the negative self-image, to begin with. Treatment centers on breaking this cycle and addressing the underlying causes of binge eating disorder to prevent it from recurring.

Although medical treatment may be applied to the side effects of binge eating disorder such as high blood pressure or diabetes type2, there is no medication designed to treat the disorder itself ( some medications for depression or anxiety might apply, but are not primary courses of action for eating disorders). Full recovery is only possible if the root causes and emotions are addressed using psychological treatment and a continuum of therapeutic techniques. In these situations. Many people in recovery from binge eating disorder have found that the best care comes from staff members that have struggled with body image and dieting themselves. This first-hand experience helps them empathize and lends credibility to the recovery process.

Evidence-Based Treatments

It’s hard to break the cycle of disordered eating without professional help – recovery is not a matter of willpower or determination. Incidentally for family members or friends trying to help, saying something like “just stop binge eating” or “just eat more” is the absolute wrong thing to say to someone with an eating disorder. Professional eating disorder instead uses modern treatment methodologies to holistically aid a person in recovery.

Techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are prime examples of these professional evidence-based treatments. Through several sessions, clients engaging in CBT will identify disordered thoughts and feelings surrounding food and self-perception, and then make a concentrated effort to understand them. They can then begin to replace these distorted and negative thoughts with more realistic, and self-accepting thought patterns. One of these positive attitudes is a “healthy” relationship with food. There are similar offshoots of CBT such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which focuses on the merging of opposing viewpoints (thesis/antithesis) to make a new one (synthesis), and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). Which focuses on treating PTSD and behaviors triggered by it.

Many of the feelings of shame surrounding a person’s body, acquired from parental influence, media, or elsewhere have been so internalized that a person with BED may even feel that food is an enemy of sorts. Breaking this cycle is possible by accepting themselves and their body – not ignoring a medically appropriate weight and nutritional balance but not putting undue pressure on oneself to meet an unrealistic goal of attractiveness.

Find a Treatment Center That Works for Your Situation

Binge eating disorder, being the most common form of eating disorder, has thankfully caused a corresponding growth of available treatment options. There are day treatment, residential, and even virtual treatment programs to be had. The important thing is to find the right one for you. Ask yourself, would you be more comfortable in a new location? Or closer to home? Do you need medical care that would require nurses and physicians? Are the other, co-occurring disorders that need to be treated? Will they take your insurance? D you feel comfortable with the culture at the treatment center?

All these questions should play an important role in choosing an eating disorder treatment program. The most important thing, however, is to take action when you know your eating has become disordered. The cycle can be hard to break. The sooner you get started, the better the chances are for a full recovery. Reach out as soon as you can – binge eating disorder doesn’t have to disrupt your life forever.


With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.