Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating

Binge eating: Why do you binge and how to break free?

November 16, 2023

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Reading Time: 
reading time
binge eating
Contents
Contents

Key Points

  • If you struggle with binge eating, you are not alone
  • Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the US
  • Reasons for binging are biological, psychological, social, and genetic, not a “lack of self-control”
  • The right knowledge and support can help you break free from binge eating


“Why don’t you just stop eating?”, “You don’t have any willpower," or “Don’t you care about your health?”

If you struggle with binge eating, you already know that comments like the ones above are not helpful (to say the least). To cope, you may find it easier to binge in secret, making you feel alone. 

Sometimes you may think you’re the “broken” one while others are “normal.” Know that this is far from the truth. Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States, more than anorexia and bulimia combined, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

BED does not discriminate. While people with BED are 3 to 6 times more likely to be obese, many others who struggle with BED fall in a healthy BMI range (body-mass index). People battling BED can be of any age, sex, race, and socioeconomic level.

Let’s explore what binge eating disorder is, the reasons for the binge eating cycle, and how to stop.

What is binge eating disorder (BED)?

According to NEDA, binge eating disorder (BED) involves:

  • Eating more than the usual amount of food in a specific window of time
  • Experiencing a lack of control over eating during this period

During episodes of binging, people may eat faster than they usually do, eat until they feel too full, eat large quantities even when they are not hungry, eat alone, and feel shame, embarrassment, or disgust related to their eating.

You may have a binge eating disorder if your binges are not accompanied by purging or other compensatory behavior. 

Please note that one way to reduce associated guilt is to plan to be different the next day or at a later date.

Why do you binge eat?

Rita Faycurry, RD, board-certified dietitian and experienced eating disorder nutritionist, explains, “There are many reasons why people binge. While the exact cause is unknown, certain biological, psychological, social, and genetic factors may increase your risk of binge eating. Because the problem is complex, there is no one-size-fits-all type solution.”

If you want to understand why you binge and how you can stop, Fay can help you find an eating disorder specialist near you, covered by your insurance.

Here are some of the common biological and emotional risk factors for binge eating.

Biological reasons for binging

Dysfunction in the reward center of the brain

Medical scans of people with eating disorders show that there is an issue with regulating dopamine and serotonin. 

Dopamine is a chemical associated with cravings, and serotonin is a chemical linked to happiness and satisfaction. 90% of serotonin is made in our stomach and intestines, so if there is an issue with gut health, it could affect satisfaction levels.


Issues with ghrelin, the ‘appetite’ hormone

Our brain and gut are closely related. When we’re hungry, the hormone ghrelin activates the brain’s appetite center. This triggers the brain to release dopamine, the chemical that makes us crave food.

When ghrelin does not work as it should, this could trigger more dopamine to be released, making us eat more. It could also lead to insulin resistance, another risk factor for binge eating.


Bacterial imbalance in the gut

According to Rita Faycurry, RD, “There are trillions of bacteria in our gut, collectively known as the gut microbiome. Some of these bacteria influence what we eat and, yes, what we crave! One animal study shows that mice with a gut imbalance (caused by antibiotics) ate 50% more sugar than mice with normal gut bacteria. Studies on humans are necessary, but this animal study hints at a link between gut bacteria and binge eating.”


Insulin resistance

Overeating can lead to insulin resistance in the brain. Brain insulin resistance can lead to high blood sugar levels and inflammation in the body, which, in turn, leads to more insulin resistance—a vicious cycle. 

What’s worse is that high insulin spikes can lead to low blood sugar levels, which ramp up cravings for carbohydrates and may trigger binges.


PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)

Females with PCOS, a hormonal disorder, may be at a higher risk of binge eating because of issues with insulin dysfunction and metabolic disease. Also, hormonal imbalances can lead to weight gain, bloating, and other changes in the body. 

These changes can trigger mental health issues caused by negative self-esteem and dissatisfaction with the changing body.


Sex

While all sexes are vulnerable to developing BED, females are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders. This is true even in rats! A study showed that female rats are more likely to binge eat compared to male rats. This means that biology may play a strong role in eating disorders.

Psychological or emotional reasons for binging

Perfectionism

NEDA states that perfectionism is one of the highest risk factors for eating disorders, particularly setting high expectations for yourself. Research shows that people who anticipate that other people will judge them harshly are perfectionists most at risk of binge eating disorder.

Unfortunately, most perfectionists do not like admitting they are not perfect, so it may be harder for them to get help. One hint that you may be a clinical perfectionist with disordered eating is if you follow highly restrictive diets or implement very rigid rules around food.


Receiving an instant ‘food high’

Let’s face it: we’re not binging on broccoli or kale. Most food binges are associated with lots of high-sugar, high-salt, fried, and highly processed foods. Eating these foods makes us feel good; the billion-dollar food industry thrives on fueling this junk food addiction.


Numbing unpleasant emotions

For some, disordered eating can act as a shield against negative emotions like sadness, grief, boredom, distress, helplessness, frustration, anger, fear, and jealousy. When life feels out of control or emotions threaten to overwhelm us, binge eating can help us feel better temporarily.

Food, especially junk food, can fill our stomachs and lead to a feeling of satisfaction. This physical sensation offers temporary relief from emotional pain. Unfortunately, in time, feelings of guilt, shame, or disgust about the binge may rise, making us crave more food.


Coping with mental health conditions

Eating disorders like binge eating disorder are linked to depression, anxiety, and even ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). 

For example, for people with ADHD, it can be harder to control impulses because immediate needs can feel all-consuming. In fact, 1 in 5 women who seek treatment for an eating disorder had multiple signs pointing to ADHD (NEDA).

Other issues may co-exist—research shows that 1 in 4 people with an eating disorder suffer from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

How to stop binge eating?

As you can see, there are many reasons why you binge, but “I don’t have any self-control” is not one of them.

Battling an eating disorder can be incredibly lonely, frustrating, and exhausting. 

Others may not realize the seemingly endless tug-of-war and emotional roller coaster in your head. Well-meaning family and friends may try to help, and their support is necessary. However, without experience, their comments may make you hide your eating disorder even more.

If you feel you’re ready to break free from binge eating, try stacking the odds in your favor. Consider consulting a registered nutritionist and dietitian who specializes in eating disorders.

Fay can help you find an eating disorder dietitian near you, covered by your insurance.




The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Sources

Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.



Does your insurance cover nutrition counseling?
When you see a dietitian through Fay, your insurance is likely to cover the cost. Enter your insurance details to get pricing.
Check my benefits
Anthem svg logo
Blue Cross Blue Shield Logo
United Healthcare logo
Aetna svg logo
Cigna svg logo
Humana logo
Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

Linkedin
Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected, and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.

Linkedin