We have updated our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions. By using this website, you consent to our Terms and Conditions.


Speak to a Rosewood Specialist

Speak to a Rosewood Specialist

What Are the Signs and Causes of Binge Eating Disorder?

signs causes binge eating

Binge eating disorder, recognized officially by the psychiatric community as a mental health disorder upon its addition to the DSM-V in 2013, is the most common form of eating disorder in the United States. When people have binge eating disorder, they feel compelled to have “binge eating episodes” in which they eat a large amount of food in a short period, and cannot control their engagement in the episodes. This loss of control often sparks feelings of shame that can act as triggers for further body image problems and binge eating episodes.

Binge eating disorder affects adults, teens, and adolescents, though it tends to develop most often in the late teens or early 20s. It does affect women slightly more than it does men, but this disparity is less pronounced than in other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa – as much as 45 percent of binge eating disorder cases are in men. Binge eating disorder is unlike other eating disorders in a few other ways that cause it to be misdiagnosed and underreported.

As a result, family, friends, and other loved ones may find it difficult to spot the development of binge eating disorder. For this reason, this guide will help them understand what to look for in seeing if their loved ones have this condition. They will also learn how to get help for their loved ones from eating disorder treatment centers.

Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

The first step in helping a loved one seek treatment for binge eating disorder is knowing how to spot the symptoms of the disorder. Here are several signs that may be associated with binge eating disorder.

  • Food Missing from the Fridge or Pantry: While engaging in binge eating behaviors, individuals eat a large volume of food in a short amount of time. Since this behavior is usually done in secret, the food tends to appear to simply go missing without an explanation.
  • Evidence of Secretive Food Consumption: Despite attempts to conceal binge eating, there are still signs that binge eating episodes have taken place. You might notice lots of dishes in the dishwasher that weren’t there before or food wrappers hidden in the trash.
  • A Need to Control Parts of Their Lives: As binge eating disorder causes an inability to control their binge eating episodes, it can cause people to overcompensate by attempting to remain in full control of every aspect of their lives. This feeling of losing control might lead to overcompensating in other aspects of their life, or conversely, it might cause even minorly stressful situations to feel like emergencies. They may then try to calm those feelings by coping with the disordered binge eating behaviors.
  • Sudden Weight Changes: Binge eating episodes and frequent dieting can result in sudden weight fluctuations. People with this condition are more often overweight than underweight, unlike the common perception of people with eating disorders. They may quickly shift between sizes as they compensate for binge eating sessions by publicly dieting.
  • Emotional Distress: Mood swings are common in people that have binge eating disorder. They may have a hard time regulating their emotions and staying in control of how they feel. Binge eating episodes can alleviate these negative and distressing emotions and are a frequent coping mechanism for them.
  • Publicly Dieting and Discomfort at Group Meals: The disordered behaviors and body image issues common with binge eating disorder may cause people to engage in frequent diets and tell the people around them that they are trying to lose weight. They may even avoid eating in public due to a fear of losing control and the shame that arises with overeating.
  • Social Isolation: As binge eating episodes come to dominate a person’s schedule, they begin to plan around the episodes, sometimes even skipping social engagement to binge eat. They may have a hard time spending time with friends and family as the disordered thoughts and behaviors become a way of life.
  • Nausea and Stomach Pain: Binge eating puts a lot of stress on the stomach. The intense intake of food causes the stomach to stretch out, potentially damaging its sensitive tissues. This causes stomach pain and nausea to develop as the gastric system attempts to keep up.

Any of these signs on their own may not indicate the presence of binge eating disorder, but each of them is an indication that something is wrong. If you notice several of these signs in yourself or a loved one, it could be time to seek out a mental health treatment professional.

Risk Factors of Binge Eating Disorder

Like every mental health disorder, binge eating disorder has no single cause but instead is formed by a series of risk factors that combine to cause the disorder. Below are several potential risk factors.

  • Frequent Dieting Behaviors – Frequent dieting is both a potential cause and sign of binge eating disorder. Many people, influenced by the media and the diet industry, begin to feel their body is imperfect or even “bad,” and frequently engage in fad diets to attain the idealized body they have in mind.

After the development of binge eating disorder, people might also engage in frequent dieting as a way to compensate for the weight put on during binge eating episodes. They may restrict the amount of food they eat in public in preparation for later binge eating episodes, leading to greater urges to binge eat.

  • Genetics –Genetic factors are thought to have a huge impact on health by increasing or decreasing the risk of certain conditions. Gene mapping and validation techniques have allowed researchers to identify a gene that researchers think may help identify people who are genetically at risk for binge eating disorder. The gene, known as CYFIP2, indicates a much higher risk of developing this eating disorder in people who carry it.

Although it may be possible to identify these genes via commercial DNA tests, other facts about the genetic risk of developing an eating disorder show that there is a family tendency toward these behaviors. A high prevalence of eating disorder diagnoses, or even undiagnosed behaviors, can reveal a higher risk for others in the family.

  • Low Self Esteem and Poor Body Image–Feeling negatively about their weight, body size, or shape, and low self-esteem can greatly increase the risk of binge eating disorder. Individuals who are worried about their weight, shape, or any other aspect of their physical selves may feel they have to reduce their weight. However, the urges to binge eat are usually exacerbated by dieting and food restriction, leading to more binge eating episodes.

Low self-esteem is a particularly problematic risk factor as eating disorders can cause people to have a distorted body image. Treatment for body dysmorphia (distorted body image) is often focused on retraining the way people think about their bodies and on helping them regulate negative emotions. The treatment process will need to revolve around eliminating those misleading self-perceptions and replace them with positive ones.

  • Trauma and PTSD – Experiencing trauma or loss can cause PTSD, which is an important causative factor in many eating disorders. When someone goes through a traumatic event such as a death in the family, abuse, or even something as seemingly minor as being in a car crash, the feelings of fear, anxiety, and loss can be hard to overcome.

People who are suffering from PTSD may seek comfort through disordered behaviors – binge eating releases dopamine into the brain, a chemical that raises the mood and causes positive feelings. If the release of dopamine becomes compulsive, then binge eating disorder could develop as the disordered thought patterns and behaviors become a habit.

  • Poor Social Support Network – Having good social support is so important that virtually every modern eating disorder treatment program makes it a priority to help their clients rebuild this network before leaving treatment. This includes the immediate family of the client, certainly, but can include close friends as well. These programs often promote family programming and other activities to help ensure there is plenty of support ready when they leave treatment and return home. Family support and preparedness are key indicators that recovery will be successful in the long term.

Taking Steps to Treat Binge Eating Disorder

As with all mental health conditions, the earlier the disorder can be treated, the better. Family and friends are the first line of defense against the development of eating disorder symptoms. With their closer ties to the induvial, they’ll be able to spot the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder more quickly than any doctor or therapist, provided they know what to look for.

Although family members and friends may be able to identify the signs that binge eating disorder is developing, it’s unlikely that they will be able to dispel the disorder without help. Thankfully, it is always possible to acquire outside help from a binge eating disorder treatment center. Centers like Rosewood focus on helping people build the life skills they need to cope with stress in a healthy manner and combat disordered thoughts and behaviors. Reach out today to get started on binge eating disorder treatment for yourself or a loved one by calling +1 (800) 845-2211.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.
Get help now