Binge eating disorder is a common but often misunderstood condition. Understanding its causes can help break the stigma.
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says it may be 3 times more common than anorexia and bulimia put together.
Despite how common it is, it remains misunderstood and highly stigmatized. Many people are reluctant to seek treatment due to shame and stigma that surround the condition.
This is why understanding what causes binge eating disorder is so important. When we understand why it happens, we can help reduce stigma and encourage people to get support.
Although binge eating disorder isn’t a new condition, it’s the most recent eating disorder added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Didorders (DSM-5).
“Binge eating, by definition, is the consumption of an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time, accompanied by loss of control,” says Angela Karras, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City who specializes in eating disorders.
“The definition of ‘large amount of food’ will vary from person to person,” she adds.
While doing this once or twice isn’t harmful, it can become a disorder when it happens frequently and has negative effects on your mental or physical health.
“To be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, a person must have episodes of binge eating at least once a week for 3 months,” Karras says.
This condition often begins in the late teens or early 20s, but it can affect anyone — children and older adults, too.
Want to learn more? You can read about the signs and symptoms here.
Binge eating disorder is caused by a complex mix of biological, environmental, and psychological factors.
It’s the interactions between these factors that can raise your chances of developing the condition.
We’re all unique, though, so the combo of risk factors will vary from person to person.
Family and childhood experiences
Binge eating disorder tends to run in families. There are several possible reasons for this, including:
- biological or genetic similarities between family members
- your family’s attitudes toward food and body image
- stressful homelife
What you hear in childhood can influence your relationship with food.
Hearing critical comments about your weight, body shape, or eating habits growing up can lead to disordered eating habits later in life — especially if these comments come from people close to you.
“We know that weight-based teasing is a frequent and common factor in people who eventually develop binge eating disorder,” says Elizabeth Wassenaar, psychiatrist and medical director of the Eating Recovery Center.
Encouraging dieting or weight loss in children may also lead to eating disorders. This can be especially harmful to people who may already have a higher chance of developing an eating disorder.
“How our parents model eating, self-care, and their views of weight in general matters,” says Karen Koenig, an eating psychologist, licensed psychotherapist, and therapist who recovered from an eating disorder herself.
“For example, my father overate, so I thought it was OK to do so. He also made me finish all the food on my plate,” she adds. “My mother had strict eating rules which seemed unfair, so I broke them to assert myself and my needs.”
Society and culture
Many social and cultural factors play a role in eating disorders.
Diet culture, pressures to look a certain way, and endless ads that encourage unrealistic body expectations can impact our relationship with food and our bodies.
“One of the major social forces that causes binge eating is weight loss dieting and food restriction,” says Koenig.
“Our bodies are hardwired to want food when we go beneath a certain nutritional intake level,” she says. “We also seek food when we feel deprived of it emotionally, or when we feel deprived of pleasure in general.”
Because of this, expectations to diet, restrict certain food groups, or change the size and shape of our bodies can lead to feeling a loss of control when eating.
Society’s focus on “thinness” also
Wassanaar says that “the cultural idealization of thinness can, in and of itself, be a trigger for people with vulnerability for disordered eating and contribute to eating disorder behaviors.”
Finally, there are socioeconomic factors, too.
“Some people grew up with just enough or not enough food due to their family’s low income,” Koenig says. “So these people binge eat because they’re conditioned to see food and eat it when it’s available.”
For many people, binge eating disorder can be related to other aspects of mental health and conditions.
In a national survey done in 2006,
These mental health conditions included:
- anxiety disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- major depressive disorder
- bipolar disorder
- impulse control disorders
- substance use disorders
- other eating disorders
A 2016 study found similar results. Those with binge eating disorder also had higher rates of other eating disorders and mental health conditions, along with increased risk of suicide.
And further, “A large majority of people who have binge eating disorder have a history of trauma or neglect,” Wassanaar says.
For some people, binge eating has been associated with challenges expressing emotions. This behavior might also be a way to deal with anger, sadness, boredom, or stress.
You may also use binge eating to deal with:
Karras explains that when you feel out of control of your eating, you may also feel shame or guilt. This can lead to feeling like a “failure,” which heightens anxiety — especially in social situations that involve food.
To reduce this anxiety, people might start to withdraw or socialize less. Feeling alone can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a cycle.
Biological risk factors
“There is evidence that binge eating disorder can run in families,” says Karras. So if someone in your family has it,
The condition may also have roots in our brain chemistry and structure.
For example, the hypothalamus is a region of the brain that controls hunger. In binge eating disorder, it may not be sending the correct messages about appetite and fullness.
In addition, Wassanaar says that “people with binge eating disorder have higher inflammatory markers than weight-matched controls, which may give us some information on how their bodies manage stress.”
You often won’t know a person has an eating disorder by looking at them. And it can be difficult to tell if someone has binge eating disorder because they may hide their behavior due to shame or embarrassment.
To receive a diagnosis, a mental health or healthcare professional will often start by asking about your symptoms, how often you have them, and your medical history.
If you start with your primary doctor, they may refer you to a mental health professional or someone that specializes in eating disorders.
A doctor may also order blood, urine, or other screening tests to check for health conditions that can be caused by binge eating disorder.
According to the DSM-5, you must have at least 3 symptoms of binge eating disorder for a diagnosis to occur. These symptoms should typically be present at least once a week for 3 months.
Treatment will look different for everyone. You can work with a healthcare professional or team to decide the best treatments for you.
“Recovery is possible,” says Karras. The goal is to improve your relationship with food, your body, and yourself.
“What we want to learn is how to feel flexible around food by honoring our hunger and full cues,” Karras says.
Emotions and our relationship with food are closely linked. Like other coping mechanisms, binge eating often develops to protect you from something. It has a function.
Finding the root cause of this behavior can help you break the cycle and form a new relationship with food.
Talk therapy can be a really useful tool for binge eating disorder. With a trusted therapist, you can talk through underlying reasons for your condition, including any trauma or mental health conditions that might be affecting how you feel and behave.
At the same time, if it’s helpful for you, a nutritionist who’s informed in binge eating disorder can create a consistent eating plan that supports nutrition and also takes into account your mental well-being.
This means that treatment might involve:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- interpersonal psychotherapy
- other behavior therapies
- treatments for co-occurring conditions, such as antidepressants for depression
Research also suggests that daily coping methods can boost your overall well-being, like practicing mindfulness, getting regular exercise, good sleep hygiene, and finding a support system in person or online.
While binge eating disorder is complex, recovery is absolutely possible.
“Binge eating disorder is highly treatable with over 65% of BED patients able to achieve long-term abstinence from bingeing with the proper treatment,” says Wassenaar.
But eating disorders can be lonely if you don’t know anyone else going through them.
It can help to read about other people’s experiences with eating disorders, like at one of these blogs.