Food can be soothing. It’s why we sometimes call soups and casseroles “comfort food.” But for some people, eating can also cause distress, especially if they’re unable to maintain control.
Eating an unusually large amount of food and feeling out of control at the same time is called binge eating. If you find yourself doing it regularly, you might have a health condition called binge eating disorder. But there’s no need to suffer in silence. In fact, you can seek help right now.
What is binge eating disorder?
Binge eating is different from overeating, explains Cynthia Bulik, PhD. She’s the founding director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Just about everyone occasionally eats too much. But binge eating is distinct because of how you feel while doing it. You experience a loss of control and may also feel shame. “You feel like you can’t stop eating,” says Bulik. What makes the problem worse is that many people keep their binges a secret. “A typical pattern is eating small amounts of food in public and then binge eating when alone at home,” she says.
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Why binge eating disorder is dangerous
Binge eating is associated with a number of health risks. Having binge eating disorder puts you at a higher risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. But you aren’t alone. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It’s even more prevalent than anorexia or bulimia, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Despite the statistics, most people don’t recognize binge eating disorder as a treatable problem. “So many people suffer from this condition,” says Bulik. Yet even those affected don’t realize it has a name, she adds, “or that it can be treated.”
The causes of binge eating
There’s no single cause, but many patients suffer from other physical and mental health issues at the same time, says Paula D. Atkinson. She’s a licensed social worker in Washington, D.C., who specializes in eating disorders and teaches at George Washington University.
Diet culture also can worsen binge eating. It can make people try to starve themselves, which can fuel hunger and set up the next binge, says Atkinson. And when diets fail, patients feel guilty because they couldn’t simply fix the problem with willpower. “Not everybody who goes on a diet gets an eating disorder,” says Atkinson. “But nobody gets an eating disorder without having been on a diet.”
Binge eating treatment options
If you think you might be suffering from binge eating disorder, the first step is to talk to your doctor. She or he can refer you to a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.
There are a few types of therapy that can help with binge eating disorder. In cases resulting from past trauma, Atkinson says a therapist who specializes in relationships is ideal. But for most people, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will work. (If cost is a concern, check out our guide to affordable therapy.)
CBT focuses on shifting your thoughts and actions around a specific behavior — in this case, eating more than your body needs. Just changing your relationship with food can have a dramatic impact, says Atkinson. “You’re going to get the majority of benefit from starting to trust yourself and your body, and eating regular meals,” she says.
In therapy, Atkinson says her first focus with patients isn’t even about the food. “My goal is peace, freedom and sanity around food,” she says. Atkinson’s patients also often work with a registered dietitian to learn healthy eating strategies that aren’t focused on weight loss.
Medications for binge eating
In addition to therapy, your doctor may recommend medication. Vyvanse® (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate) is the only medication explicitly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat binge eating disorder, and many patients take it alongside therapy. It was first used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which should serve as a reminder that binge eating is a mental health issue, says Atkinson. (Get a coupon for Vyvanse.)
Some doctors also may prescribe Topamax® (topiramate), a medication commonly used to prevent seizures and migraines. It can also help curb the urge to overeat. But if anxiety or depression is the cause of the binging, your doctor may recommend antidepressants.
Above all else, you shouldn’t feel shame or embarrassment about your disorder. And you shouldn’t let it undermine your health. “We want to help people erase that shame,” says Bulik. “Help is available, and it’s effective.”
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Vyvanse fact sheet: Food and Drug Administration
Review of antidepressants and other medications used to treat binge eating disorder: Journal of Experimental Pharmacology (2021). “Binge Eating Disorder: A 5-Year Retrospective Study on Experimental Drugs”