What is a Binge-Eating Disorder?

A binge-eating disorder is an eating disorder that involves recurrent episodes of binge eating when an individual eats abnormally large quantities of food in a short period of time. Unlike in other eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, this is not followed by compensatory purging measures to reduce caloric intake.

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Risk factors

While the exact causes of a binge-eating disorder are not known, there are several risk factors that are associated with a heightened risk for the condition. These include:

  • Family history of eating disorders
  • Medical history of depression or anxiety
  • Low-self esteem
  • History of strict dieting patterns
  • Abnormal levels of hunger/satiety hormones
  • Abnormal neurotransmitter levels
  • History of emotional or sexual abuse
  • Highly stressful or emotional situations

In most cases, individuals with binge-eating disorders have several of these risk factors when they present with symptoms of the condition.


A binge-eating episode involves the consumption of an abnormal quantity of food in a short time frame, during which the individual often feels a lack of awareness or control about what they are eating. For example, they may eat 3,000-5,000 calories of food within 1-2 hours.

Each binge-eating episode is usually followed by feelings of shame or disgust about their eating habits, and they may try to hide the evidence from family or friends. They do not make any efforts to reduce the calorie intake by purging.

Instead, there are often reinforcements of strict dieting and increased obsession with body weight and shape. This can then lead to increased cravings for certain foods and a repeat in the binge-eating cycle.

A First-Person Account of Binge Eating Disorder | WebMD

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a binge-eating disorder can be separated into three main categories that include behavioral, emotional, and physical signs and symptoms.

Behavioral signs and symptoms refer to the way in which affected individuals interact with food. Individuals with a binge-eating disorder will typically consume large quantities of food in a short timeframe, even if they are already full, with the inability to stop. Often, they try to hide unhealthy eating habits from others and eat alone for this reason.

Emotional signs and symptoms refer to the relationship affected individuals have with food. This may include depression, anxiety, shame or embarrassment about eating behavior, and desperation to regain control over weight and eating habits.

Physical effects of this condition are tied to eating habits but can vary greatly between patients. Some patients have a normal body weight, whereas others may become overweight or obese, which can pose the risk of additional health conditions. In particular, obesity can increase the risk of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, and sleep apnea.


According to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for the binge-eating disorder include recurrent binge-eating episodes that occur at least once a week for more than three months. By definition, a binge-eating episode involves the eating of a large quantity of food within a discrete-time period or feeling a lack of control during the episode.

Typically, a binge-eating episode will be accompanied by:

  • Eating more rapidly
  • Feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating while alone
  • Eating without feeling hungry
  • Feeling ashamed or disgusted after the episode

Individuals with a binge-eating disorder also feel distressed about their eating habits and binge eating. However, they do not purge following episodes to reduce calorie intake, which is instead indicative of bulimia nervosa.

Treatment and support

It is important for individuals that are affected by the binge-eating disorder to have adequate support throughout the recovery process to help them manage struggles in a healthier manner. Family and friends can play an essential role, in addition to eating disorder support groups where patients can discuss struggles with others who are facing similar issues.

Psychotherapy is the primary treatment for a binge-eating disorder, in addition to a healthy diet plan. There are various different types of therapy that may be used to identify underlying psychological causes for unhealthy eating habits and introduce coping mechanisms. In some cases, pharmacotherapy with antidepressants may be indicated, although it remains unclear if the benefits outweigh the risks and side effects.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 24, 2021

Yolanda Smith

Written by

Yolanda Smith

Yolanda graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of South Australia and has experience working in both Australia and Italy. She is passionate about how medicine, diet and lifestyle affect our health and enjoys helping people understand this. In her spare time she loves to explore the world and learn about new cultures and languages.


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