What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating?
When does eating for comfort turn into something more harmful and out of control? What’s the difference between a binge and habitual bingeing? Could what you are experiencing be disordered eating? And, if so, what are the signs and symptoms of binge eating?
If you struggle with binge eating, you’re certainly not alone.
In fact, binge eating is the most common eating disorder on Earth (even more common than anorexia or bulimia). But just because you binge or have experienced emotional eating doesn’t mean you have a disorder.
Sometimes, when we feel sad or stressed, we turn to food for comfort. It happens to the best of us. So it can be hard to realise and diagnose when a one-off activity has turned into a harmful habit that can take hold of many areas of our lives.
We tend to hide the signs of emotional eating and binge eating from others – and even ourselves. So it’s very normal for many people who struggle with binge eating to go undiagnosed and/or not get the help and support they need to find food freedom.
We may internalise our body issues, eat shamefully in secret, or try every diet fad we can find for a quick and easy answer to our woes.
We only see the number on a scale or in the tag of our clothing, thinking that’s the issue. So we commit ourselves to yet another diet in the hopes of a transformation.
But if you have a pattern of binge eating, then diets are certainly not the answer.
In fact, they’ll likely only trigger or worsen the symptoms of binge eating.
Let’s talk more about what the signs and symptoms of binge eating are, and what your options are for moving forward – so you can better understand your relationship with food and move forward with confidence.
What is binge eating disorder?
Everyone’s body is unique, and so is their relationship to food. But sometimes that relationship can be an unhealthy one.
If you frequently consume large amounts of food in short periods of time and feel unable to stop yourself – even when you’re full – you might be bingeing. And, if this occurs at least once a week for three months, it may be diagnosed as binge eating disorder. But an official diagnosis and treatment plan for any eating disorder can only come from a registered doctor.
Binge eating disorder is an official eating disorder that affects 2% of people worldwide (both men and women) and typically starts in your late teens or early twenties, although it can occur at any age. It sees no gender, body shape, age, or socio-economic condition.
People with binge eating disorder generally do not throw up like those who suffer from bulimia. They may heavily restrict their calorie intake, take laxatives, or exercise excessively to try and “undo” a bingeing episode, or they may do nothing after.
For many people who find themselves bingeing regularly, these episodes come with an intense feeling of embarrassment about eating habits. You may even feel disgusted at yourself. Unfortunately, these feelings of shame can lead you to eat more.
This can force you into a vicious cycle that feels completely out of your control.
If regular bingeing becomes a habit and goes untreated for a long period of time, you could be putting yourself at a greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, fertility issues, irritable bowel syndrome, and a whole load slew of other unsavoury health problems.
So, if you think you might be binge eating – or might have binge eating disorder – it is important to seek help. The good news is, with the right mindset and professional help, treatment is absolutely possible.
But what if you aren’t sure? What are all the binge eating symptoms, and what makes binge eating different from emotional eating?
Is there a difference between binge eating and emotional eating?
Many people often ask me: “What is emotional eating?”
And that is usually followed up with questions about whether bingeing and emotional eating are the same.
Emotional eating is different from binge eating and binge eating can be different from binge eating disorder, although they often exist along the same continuum.
Essentially, emotional eating is using food as a coping mechanism to feel better – or feel even better. You might eat food when you are stressed, or sad, or to celebrate! You may have formed a habit of reaching for a bowl of greasy snacks while binge-watching Netflix after work, whether or not you are experiencing real hunger. Or, you might regularly finish all the food on your plate, regardless of how much food was on it and, again, your real hunger/fullness levels.
When these above scenarios happen, you are eating because of your emotions and habitual triggers, not because you are actually hungry.
Put simply: you manage your mood with food.
Everyone has an emotional eating episode now and again, but if they have started to consume your life, and become the only way you can cope with your feelings – you may have slid into binge eating territory.
Now, technically a binge could be overstuffing yourself during the holidays or eating a tub of ice cream after a breakup.
But that is not necessarily disordered eating.
To be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, you must have a bingeing episode at least once a week for a period of three months or longer. And you must be diagnosed by a licensed doctor.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the severity level of binge eating disorder is diagnosed as follows:
- Mild: 1-3 binge eating episodes per week
- Moderate: 4-7 binge eating episodes per week
- Severe: 8-13 binge eating episodes per week
- Extreme: 14 or more binge eating episodes per week
Emotional eating and even the occasional binge is completely normal. It is something we all go through. But there may come a point where the food you are eating no longer feels or tastes good.
It’s important to sit back and take stock of how much you are eating, how often you are using food as a coping strategy, and if eating is your sole coping mechanism for difficult emotions.
Binge eating can be very disruptive to your health, social life, and mental wellbeing. It’s not uncommon for it to cause strong feelings of shame and even depression that make it hard to get through your day-to-day activities.
But what causes someone to binge eat? What turns people to food in the first place, or creates the downslide from emotional eating to chronic binge eating?
What are the causes of binge eating?
Eating disorders are not about food alone.
We usually start them as a way of dealing with deeper emotional issues, like trauma, anxiety or depression.
While the exact causes of binge eating disorder will differ from person to person, psychological issues, long-term dieting, genetics and other biological factors can have an impact on whether you turn to binge eating for comfort.
If your parents or sibling have (or had) an eating disorder, you’re much more likely to develop one yourself. Unfortunately, you may not always know.
Those of us with eating disorders are often extremely sneaky about hiding them – even from ourselves.
Nonetheless, some genes can increase your risk of developing an eating disorder.
People with binge eating disorder might have an increased sensitivity to dopamine, the chemical in our brains that gives us feelings of pleasure. This can cause a heightened response to food, and make self-control more difficult.
Binge eating is also more common in women than it is in men, although it can affect people of any gender.
Almost half of the people who binge eat are obese, and 25-50% of patients seeking weight loss surgery meet the criteria for binge eating disorder. These weight problems can be both a cause and a result of binge eating.
If you have a history of dieting and restricting your calories, it can trigger you to go on a binge. It’s much better to form a healthy relationship with your food and with your body image.
Most people who have binge eating disorder feel negatively about themselves in some way. It could be that they have no confidence in social situations, are never happy with what they see in the mirror or just don’t feel accomplished in life.
There could also be some trauma going on internally dealing with traumatic accidents, death, separation or abuse can cause someone to binge eat as a coping mechanism.
It could be anxiety, depression, PTSD, drug addiction or even a debilitating phobia! Many emotional triggers can lead someone to become a binge eater.
It could even be as simple as boredom – and a nearby bag of crisps.
With so many possible causes, it’s understandable to see why binge eating is a common food disorder. But what are the signs and symptoms of binge eating?
Let’s help you catch binge eating symptoms so you can help yourself – or your loved one – form a positive body image and intuitive eating habits.
What are the signs and symptoms of binge eating?
The signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder could look different from one person to the next. But, here are some common binge eating symptoms I’ve experienced during my binge eating disorder, or have seen in those who come to me seeking food freedom.
1. Eating unusually large amounts of food
If you binge, you go hard – binge eating is a combination of both speed and intensity.
One of the biggest signs and symptoms of binge eating is eating a much larger amount of food – in a short amount of time – for example 2 hours – than most others would.
Also the intensity of how you eat is a huge sign. Do you eat with force? Do you eat like nothing could stop you or get in your way? Do you fixate solely on the food alone even if you are eating with others?
Some evidence of this behaviour could be empty containers or wrappers indicating the consumption of food in great quantities.
2. Feeling out of control of your eating habits
Binge eating is not the same as simply indulging in a tasty treat. Haven’t we all eaten more chocolates than we thought wise at one point or another?
Binge eating disorder is a serious condition. One of the signs and symptoms of binge eating is feeling a complete loss of control over your eating habits.
You might eat so fast that you don’t even taste your food – or are not aware of what you are eating. You might eat when you are not hungry, or even when you are uncomfortably full!
Some people even describe their binges as a trance-like state. They are completely out of control of their actions. If you’ve ever felt like that, it could be one of the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder.
3. Having a negative self-image
Many people who begin binge eating do so because they are unhappy in their own bodies.
If you are dissatisfied with the shape and size of your body and are constantly looking for flaws in the mirror, it could be one of the signs and symptoms of binge eating.
Preoccupied with your body weight, feeling like you are never good enough and feelings of shame, sadness and worthlessness can all trigger a binge eating habit.
4. Feeling guilty or depressed about eating
Do you have a fear of eating in public? Perhaps you eat normally with friends, but gorge on food at home. Maybe you choose to eat in your car, in your office or in your bedroom where no one can see you.
These could be signs and symptoms of binge eating. That’s because most people who binge feel a sense of deep shame and guilt over their eating habits.
It’s a horrible cycle. Your anxiety, stress and unhappiness can only be relieved by eating, and your eating only makes you more unhappy.
Because of this shame over binge eating, many binge eaters hide away when they eat. And, if they feel the need to eat frequently, that might mean they start to shy away from social events and gatherings altogether.
If you find that you are withdrawing from society do you can eat in secret, it is absolutely one of the signs and symptoms of binge eating.
5. Abnormal eating behaviours
Binge eating disorder is not only about the quantity of food consumed, but the intensity in which it is eaten is also a huge factor. It is just as likely to be able how and when that food is consumed.
If you are prone to bingeing, you might skip meals or eat small portions at meal times, only to give in and binge late at night. Or, you might eat all throughout the day with no set meal times at all.
6. Frequently dieting
Do you snatch up every diet fad you can – hoping it will help you lose weight? How about cutting out entire food groups from your diet? Do you try strict “no sugar” “no carb” or “no dairy” diets?
Any of the above could be signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder.
Unfortunately, these diets rarely work, and we return to bingeing yet again.
Binge. Repent. Repeat.
If you have noticeable fluctuations in your weight it could be one of the signs and symptoms of binge eating or an unhealthy relationship with food.
7. Having physical health issues
Numerous health issues have been linked to binge eating. This include but are not limited to:
- Hypertension (low blood pressure)
- Heart disease
- Sleep apnea
- Gallbladder disease
- Muscle and joint pain
- Type 2 diabetes
- High cholesterol
- Breathing problems
- Stomach cramps
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Trouble focusing
If you are experiencing one or more of these things, they could be signs and symptoms of binge eating.
We can beat the binge!
If those signs and symptoms of binge eating looked all too familiar to you, there is good news. Both binge eating disorder and regular emotional eating is absolutely treatable.
Binge eating help can come in different forms, cognitive behavioural therapy otherwise known as CBT, psychotherapy and other experienced therapies.
No matter the route you choose, it’s important to talk to a medical health professional to ensure that your path to health is the proper one. After speaking to your doctor, joining a food freedom (aka: intuitive eating) programme that’s coupled with therapies designed to get to the root of your eating behaviours could provide just the right support to help transform the way you think about food.
If you are too scared to reach out to a professional, try speaking to a friend or loved one as the first step towards wellness.
It is never too late to transform your relationship to food – and fall in love with your body again.