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The Current Thinking Behind Binge Eating And Mental Health

A recent study shows that binge eating is on the rise and is fast becoming the most common eating disorder across the age groups, affecting the mental health of many.

An increasingly common issue

At this time of year, when the nights are long, and the weather is cold, we generally spend more time indoors. With the reduced impetus to get outdoors and enjoy spending time in fine weather, we tend to hibernate away until the first glimpses of spring appear.

Add to this onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder for many, and it is easy to see how the perfect storm is created whereby binge eating can quickly become habitual.

As recently reported by The Conversation, binge eating disorder (BED) is quickly becoming perhaps the most common eating disorder of them all. According to a study reported in  Current Opinion in Psychiatry, the condition is thought to affect between 0.6-2.3% of people worldwide.

It’s estimated that BED may occur up to two to three times more frequently than anorexia nervosa. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that cases of BED are increasing year-on-year. But despite how common it is, many people still aren’t aware the condition even exists or could recognize the symptoms.

In fact, it is suspected by The Mayo Clinic in the United States that many people with BED don’t even realize that they have it, meaning they don’t receive a diagnosis until their 30s or 40s.

Given the various health issues and overall harm that can result from unrecognized or untreated BED, it is vital to increase awareness of BED so that those affected can seek help when needed rather than suffer alone for years.

Feeling a loss of control

Specific criteria set BED apart from other periods of overeating and sporadic periods of emotional eating. In particular is a sense of feeling out of control when eating or if your eating habits are interfering with your daily life and routine. Other signs of BED can be –

  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full;
  • Eating large amounts of food, even when not hungry;
  • Eating more quickly than usual; or
  • Feelings of disgust, low mood, or guilt after eating.

But do not fear, as it is often possible to identify BED before it escalates to serious problems developing. It’s essential to catch BED early, as the condition can lead to various health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Other mental health issues are also common with BED, with up to 70% of sufferers reporting mood disorders such as depression or anxiety. In fact, around 25% of those with BED have attempted suicide. The condition can also majorly impact a person’s daily life, with people reporting lower employment rates or poorer performance at school.

A highly treatable condition

Given that BED can largely go unrecognized, those affected suffer needlessly as it is a condition that is highly treatable. Most affected will be recommended psychological treatments, such as cognitive behavior therapy, which can help those affected to understand the factors that trigger their binge eating. CBT can also help them to learn healthier eating habits and coping mechanisms.

Meanwhile, psychological treatments can be highly effective in helping people stop binge eating and improve the symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.

The use of medication such as antidepressants has also been found to help reduce binge eating. However, as with any medicinal product, these can carry the risk of side effects such as headaches, insomnia, nausea, and fatigue). Medicinal remedies have also been found to be less effective than psychological therapy, such as CBT.

Another crucial element of dealing with and recovering from an eating disorder is learning to change your relationship with food. Avoiding a sense of shame, prioritizing certain fixed times to eat, and planning your meals can all help with this.

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Recognizing binge eating

It is recognized that there can be many factors at play when it comes to BED and that symptoms are usually triggered by negative thoughts, events, or emotions. This can be as simple as feelings of boredom, sadness, or anxiety. There might, of course, be other physical feelings, such as just being hungry.

People with binge-eating disorder may also find it more challenging to regulate their emotions  – a situation that can lead to vicious cycles of low moods and result in binge eating.

Some tell-tale signs that you might be experiencing the early onset of BED can include changes in eating behavior, such as buying extra food or eating even when you are not hungry. Additionally, spending a lot of time thinking about food can be another sign of BED.

It should be pointed out, though, that binge eating is generally not an enjoyable experience, and often, people with BED feel scared, ashamed, or guilty about their symptoms. As a result, such feelings make it even harder for those suffering from BED to open up and talk about their feelings and experiences.

Seeking help

If you think you may have a problem with binge eating, you should try to speak with your GP as soon as possible so they can refer you to a specialist. Although this might feel daunting, you can ease this process by planning and preparing what you will share with your medical professional in advance.

Consider what you might say, what your particular concerns are, and what questions you might ask. You may even want to take someone with you for support.

If you know someone who might have a problem with binge eating, it can be helpful to have an honest, non-judgemental conversation with them about your concerns. Consider trying to have a non-confrontational discussion with them, understand why they might be struggling and encourage them to seek further professional support.

Work yet to do

Although progress is being made in the whole area of eating disorders and BED, the condition remains an often overlooked and undertreated illness. Barriers exist for both patients and professionals, and it has been suggested that binge-eating disorder is often overlooked or even downplayed in the media.

However, misrepresenting the condition and discussing it less than other issues can make it more difficult for those affected to come forward or seek help. Increasing awareness of BED will undoubtedly help those affected by encouraging them to seek treatment and also by reducing the general stigma around the condition.


If you have been affected by the contents of this article, please see our Get Help pages for further support.


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