Binge eating disorder: Overview

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What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) occurs when someone has recurring episodes of binge-eating and related psychological distress.

Is binge eating the same as overeating?

No, binge eating is different from overeating.

Overeating is consuming more food than your body needs at a given time, for instance having a second serving of dessert after a full meal because the food is available and very appealing. Most people overeat from time to time. This is entirely normal.

Binge eating is much less common and is marked by psychological distress. A binge-eating episode involves:

  • eating an amount of food that is larger than what most people would eat in the same situation
  • feeling out of control regarding what and how much is eaten and when to stop.

Although binge eating can occur with a number of different medical conditions, BED is a particular mental health condition that involves psychological distress associated with binge episodes. Many individuals with BED may have struggled with dieting before their binge episodes began.

Someone who has binge eating disorder does not compensate for the binges, for example by purging or exercising. Compensation is seen in bulimia nervosa.

What causes binge eating disorder?

The exact causes of binge eating disorder are unknown, but a number of factors are thought to contribute.

Social factors

Some studies have shown that social pressures or messages to be thin can contribute to emotional eating.

Psychological factors

Emotional eating, poor self-esteem and body dissatisfaction are all associated with binge eating disorder. It is unclear if these activities or feelings would cause BED, but someone who starts to diet to manage these feelings may be at risk of developing BED.

Teens who struggle with depression or anxiety may also be at increased risk of developing BED.​

Genetics

A family history of eating disorders may make someone more vulnerable to developing binge eating disorder.

Who is affected by binge eating disorder?

Binge eating most commonly starts in a person's late teens or early adulthood. It usually follows a period of extreme dieting or weight loss. 

Psychiatric disorders that are often linked with binge eating disorder include:

  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • anxi​ety
  • substance use disorders.
Key points
  • Binge eating disorder involves repeated episodes of eating a larger than usual amount of food in a limited time and feeling psychological distress as a result. It is not the same as overeating.
  • People who experience binge eating disorder often feel out of control. However, they do not compensate for their binge episodes through purging or excessive exercise.
  • Binge eating disorder is usually caused by social and psychological factors and/or genetics.
  • Binge eating usually starts in late adolescence or early adulthood. Teens with depression or anxiety might be at increased risk of developing BED.

Further information

For more information on binge eating disorder (BED), please see the following pages.

BED: Warning signs and symptoms

Obesity: Medical complications

BED: How to help your child at home

Resources

NEDIC – National Eating Disorder Infor​mation Centre (Canada)

NEDA – National Eating Disorder Association (United States)

American Academy of Pediatrics – ​Eating Disorders in Children ​

B-EAT – Beating Eating Disorders (United Kingdom)

Kelty Eating Disorders​ (Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, BC Children's Hospital)

Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario – Eating Disorders​

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​Se​ena Grewal, MD, MSc, FRCP(C)
Robyn Legge, PhD 
Jessica Watts, RN ​
2/2/2016




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