Binge Eating Disorder – Understanding the Most Common Eating Disorder

When most people think of eating disorders, they think of anorexia nervosa, with its distinctive self-starvation, or bulimia nervosa, with its characteristic purging behaviors. And yet the most common type of eating disorder in the United States is binge eating disorder. 

Binge eating disorder is a repetitive behavioral disorder that exhibits a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Some symptoms of BED don’t appear to be more than overeating at first, and people with the disorder normally deny there is a problem – even to themselves. That’s why for people who might be concerned about themselves or a loved one developing BED, the first step in identifying possible symptoms of binge eating disorder is understanding what the disorder actually is.

All Right – What Is BED?

Binge eating disorder is a behavioral health disorder in which a person will consume a large amount of food in a short period. Binge eating disorder is much more than overeating on at a Super Bowl party or eating seconds or an unnecessary dessert. People with binge eating disorder often feel a loss of control about their binge eating behaviors. During these instances, they might feel like they cannot stop themselves from eating, even when they aren’t hungry. As time goes on,frequent binge eating can lead to a variety of related health conditions, as well as profound psychological and emotional consequences. While binge eating disorder can get progressively worse, there are many available treatment options. 

Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

As every personality is different, so is every case of binge eating disorder. Despite the uniqueness of each case, there are certain physical and behavioral symptoms present in most cases, though the mental and emotional symptoms may be a lot more difficult to determine. It is also important to remember even if some of the following symptoms don’t appear, a diagnosis of BED can still be made.

Physical Symptoms 

The most obvious signs of binge eating disorder are the physical ones, especially of the disorder has been present for a longer period. These symptoms are mostly a result of overeating of unhealthy foods over time. Some of the physical symptoms that can be found with binge eating disorder include:

  • Changes in weight–It’s common for people with BED to become overweight, although there can be periods (especially when they are dieting, another common action for BED patients) where they suddenly lose weight. 
  • Overeating–Frequent and repetitive overeating or binging episodes are the defining characteristics of binge eating disorder. These instances involve rapid eating and eating past the point of being full. In most cases, the binge eating episodes are conducted in secret, so you may want to look for hoarded food or excessive food wrappers as a sign of this symptom. 
  • Eating to the point of illness–Eating past the point of satiety, even to the point that they feel sick, is common in BED sufferers. Don’t be confused with bulimia nervosa at this point – BED patients, don’t force themselves to vomit.  
  • High blood pressure–The foods eating during a binging episode are often “junk foods,” highly processed and high in fats and sodium. This can lead in the long run to hypertension, which is exacerbated by high sodium intake. Hypertension can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
  • High cholesterol levels–Also related to the types of food normally consumed during a binge eating episode, cholesterol levels are often higher when someone is overweight.If the foods eaten during a binge eating episode are high in trans or saturated fat, there is a risk of clogged arteries. 
  • Heat disease – High cholesterol and high blood pressure can indices hardened and blocked arteries, which puts great strain on the heart, including arrhythmia and cardiac infarctions (heart attacks) If these complications are present, they should be immediately addressed to prevent further heart-related issues.
  • Pain in the joints–When a person’s weight goes far beyond the ideal size for their body frame and type, it can become more difficult for the body to support itself. This can result in achy bones and joints, which tend to reduce a person’s ability to exercise, increasing weight gain in a vicious cycle.
  • Gastrointestinal problems – Eating too much food, or large amounts of food that are processed, or high in fat, can lead to stomach and intestinal issues such as constipation, diarrhea, or hemorrhaging.
  • Adult-onset diabetes–Long-term intake of high-sugar foods, as well as being overweight for long periods, can interfere with proper insulin creation and induce type II diabetes. Diabetes can result in the need for insulin and can lead to a host of medical issues including nerve pain and numbness. 
  • Sleep apnea – When the soft tissues at the back of a person’s throat collapse,it results in a condition called sleep apnea. When this occurs,normally while a person is at rest, breathing is interrupted or even stopped.Excess weight, especially around the neck is normally the cause of this condition. 

Emotional and Mental Symptoms

Emotional and mental symptoms are often carefully hidden by people with BED, making them more difficult to observe. They most often become apparent after psychological treatment has already begun, though these symptoms may be obvious to someone who is a close confidant. They’re normally among the main root causes of BED (as it is with most behavioral health disorders). Some of the emotional symptoms that can come along with binge eating disorder are:

  • Depression–Depression is a common co-occurring disorder with BED, and the two disorders can influence and amplify each other.  Depression is also associated with “comfort eating,” which can become full-blown binge eating episodes. 
  • Distorted body image –Many people with BED also engage in frequent or fad diets because of dissatisfaction with their body and weight. This denial of regular eating can increase episodes of binge eating, especially in private. 
  • Feelings of guilt and shame– People with BED often feel guilty and shameful about their binge eating episodes as well as their weight. Since the binge eating episodes are usually done in private, these feelings might be entirely internalized, and may not come to light until therapy has begun.
  • Anxiety – Since BED sufferers are often publicly dieting (and privately binging), there may be anxiety associated with meals and food. Family gatherings, holidays, or parties where food is a main part of the celebration can lead to stress and even panic attacks.

Behavioral Symptoms

The behavioral symptoms of binge eating disorder are the ones that friends and family are most likely to notice, and may provide inroads to start a discussion of a potential problem.The majority of behavior symptoms revolve around hiding, hoarding, and eating food.Some common behavioral symptoms of BED to watch out for include:

  • Food disappearing from the fridge or pantry–If on a regular occurrence the family’s shared food mysteriously disappears, especially snacks or junk foods, it’s a sign that someone is binging. While binge eating can occur with any food type, it’s more likely to be fatty or sugary foods than “healthier” options. 
  • Hiding food–The privacy afforded by an individual’s own room allows for easier binge eating episodes, and so most BED sufferers will hide food there. This can include under the bed, in drawers or closets, or another spot that’s unlikely to be searched. 
  • Large quantities of empty containers or wrappers–The wrappers and packaging for snack foods following a binge-eating episode are another source of shame.Instead of putting them in the communal trash cans, the individual might hide them in a drawer or some other private spot until they can dispose of them secretly.
  • Hoarding food – Binge eating disorder patients often plan for the next episode which they know is coming. To make it easier to binge when they want, it’s not unusual for them to stockpile their favorite junk foods.  This is more than buying a package of cookies – it’s a troubling symptom when it becomes an amount more like a case.
  • Making excuses for missing meals – Since many people with binge eating disorder wish to eat in private they may tend to make a variety of excuses to avoid family mealtimes. This can include the need to study or to meet up with friends. If skipping meals becomes routine, it may be cause for concern.
  • Fasting or dieting–Again relating to the common body dissatisfaction that comes along with BED, patients will often tell friends and family they’re on a strict diet or are fasting to lose some weight. This is, of course, offset by binge eating episodes.  However, if a loved one frequently goes on crash diets but doesn’t seem to lose weight, it may bear our further investigation.
  • Eating alone instead of with others – With binge eating disorder, hiding eating is a common behavior. This can include taking meals in their room or even avoiding social situations where food will be involved. 
  • Social withdrawal–Because BED often comes with a feeling of losing control of their eating, many people with binge eating disorder won’t attend get-togethers and social situations where eating is prominently involved. 
  • Obsessive tendencies–The binge eating episodes sufferers partake in are similar in some ways to those from obsessive-compulsive disorder, in that they are repeated actions the patient is powerless to stop. While they are separate disorders, many of the same types of compulsive actions can be seen on both. In this sense, it’s not surprising that BED and OCD are often co-occurring disorders.

Is It Time for You or Your Loved One to Seek Out Treatment?

Since many of the symptoms of binge eating disorder aren’t easily apparent or are being hidden and denied by the person in question, it’s worth taking the time to reach out for more professional assessments even if only a few of these symptoms are noticeable. Certainly, many Americans are overweight, and almost everyone overeats from time to time, especially on celebratory occasions.However, persistent occasions of losing control over food consumption should be considered a bright red flag that there may be a problem, along with weight gain and secretiveness about their eating. If observed, it is important to keep an eye out for other symptoms.After consulting a doctor or psychologist about the symptoms, it might be possible to make a full diagnosis.