Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating

What causes binge eating disorder? How does it start?

June 17, 2024

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Contents

Key Points

  • Binge eating is eating a large amount of food in a short period while experiencing a loss of control.
  • Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders in the United States.
  • There are many causes of binge eating disorder, including genetics, emotional factors, mental health conditions, and social conditioning.

Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health issue and one of the most common eating disorders in the United States. It affects people of all sizes and sexes, though it is more prevalent among females.

What is binge eating?

Binge eating is when you consume a lot of food quickly and feel like you can't control it. If this happens often, like at least once a week for three months, it might be a sign of binge eating disorder.

During a binge, people often feel a loss of control, like they can't stop eating, even if they want to. This act of compulsive eating gives an immediate sense of relief or comfort but is usually followed by guilt, shame, sadness, or frustration.

Symptoms of binge eating disorder

According to DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder are:

  • Recurrent binge eating episodes which is eating a large amount of food in a short period.
  • A lack of control over what and how much food is being eaten.
  • The binges occur once per week for 3 months, at minimum.
  • The binges are not followed by purging behaviors like in bulimia nervosa.

Binge eating behaviors

Binge eating episodes usually have 3 or more of the following behaviors:

  • Eating rapidly
  • Eating until you are too full and experience discomfort
  • Eating when you are not hungry
  • Eating alone because of shame or embarrassment about how much you eat
  • Strong distress, disgust, shame, or guilt following a binge.

Registered Dietitian Rita Faycurry RD says, “People with binge eating disorder often try to diet or cut back on food drastically, hoping to regain control. But this can backfire, making them more likely to binge again, creating a cycle known as the binge-restrict cycle.”

Health risks from binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder isn't just about overeating; it can seriously impact your health.

People with this disorder face higher risks of type 2 diabetes, weight gain, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even certain cancers. But it's not just your physical health at stake—binge eating is also tied to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

What causes binge eating disorder?

There isn’t a single cause for binge eating disorder; it's influenced by a mix of factors. Your genes, biology, societal pressures, and mental health issues all play a role.

Genetics

If you have a family history of eating disorders, you have a 41% to 57% higher risk of developing binge eating disorder. In fact, researchers even identified a gene called CYFIP2 associated with binge eating.

Emotional eating

Emotional eating can spiral into binge eating due to chemicals called dopamine and serotonin.

When you're stressed, sad, bored, frustrated, or experiencing other negative emotions, you might reach for your comfort foods—those salty, high-fat, sugary, ultra-processed treats.

Craving these foods triggers the release of dopamine, the brain's motivation chemical, which urges you to seek out foods that make you feel good. As you eat, your body releases serotonin, the satisfaction hormone, which temporarily makes you feel better.

However, the quick hit of dopamine creates a cycle where you increasingly seek out those foods to maintain that feel-good sensation. Over time, this cycle can lead to binge eating, as you find yourself eating more and more to chase that initial dopamine rush and eventual serotonin satisfaction.

Mental health

Binge eating disorder is linked to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

  • People with binge eating disorder are almost 5 times more likely to attempt suicide.
  • According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), one in five women who receive treatment for binge eating disorder have ADHD as well.
  • Eating disorders are closely linked to trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), including from childhood trauma like abuse, assault, and neglect. One in four individuals who binge eat also suffer from PTSD.

Social factors

Bullying, body shaming, dieting and food restrictions, along with feelings of stress and shame, can all trigger the urge to binge eat. Low self esteem, poor self-image, and low confidence related to the body can lead to binge eating as a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety.

How to get binge eating treatment?

Dealing with an eating disorder can be incredibly isolating and draining. People around you might not grasp the constant mental battle, and even supportive friends and family can unintentionally make you conceal your disorder further.

If you're ready to seek help for binge eating, consider consulting with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in eating disorders.

Fay can connect you to a Registered 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.


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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.

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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.

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