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Binge eating disorder affects adults, teens, and adolescents, though it tends to develop most often in the late teens or early 20s. Across all groups, this condition arises more often than any other eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Although it’s not as well-known as these other eating disorders, BED is almost as dangerous and often requires specialized eating disorder treatment to heal.

Risk Factors of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder, like other mental health conditions, is not caused by one single factor, but rather a combination of several. These might include:

Negative Body Image

A decreased sense of self-worth can greatly increase the risk of binge eating disorder in adults, teens, and children. Individuals who are worried about their weight, shape, or any other aspect of their physical selves may feel pressured to make a change. Without the ability to cope in a healthy manner, these individuals may turn to disordered thoughts and behaviors.

Low self-esteem is a particularly problematic risk factor as eating disorders can cause people to have a distorted body image. This serves to fuel their condition, making it difficult to reach out for help in starting eating disorder treatment. The treatment process will need to revolve around eliminating those misleading self-perceptions and replacing them with positive ones.


Certain gene patterns are thought to be influential in the development of BED. Researchers at Boston University have been able to identify a gene that may predict whether a person is likely to feel urges to overeat or eat beyond a sense of satiety. When people have this gene, called CYFIP2, it’s not a guarantee they will develop BED, but it statistically points to an increased chance of the disorder appearing.

Trauma and PTSD

Binge eating episodes, especially those where fatty or sugary food is eaten in bulk, cause dopamine to be released. Dopamine, which is the brain chemical that affects mood, satisfaction, and pleasure, can lift the mood when released. In many cases of BED, the negative emotions caused by past trauma or PTSD lead a person to look for ways to alleviate the stress. Binge eating episodes, releasing dopamine, serve as a coping mechanism, and may lead to a cycle of PTSD and overeating.

Frequent Dieting Behaviors

Frequent dieting is both a potential cause and a sign of binge eating disorder. Engaging in regular dieting behaviors also points to dissatisfaction with body size and shape, contributing to the risks.After the development of binge eating disorder, people may engage in frequent dieting behaviors as a way to compensate for overeating. They may restrict their daily food intake heavily until they have a chance to binge. This vicious cycle can make it very difficult to break away from disordered behaviors and illustrate the need for the individual to acquire help at binge eating disorder treatment centers.

Behavioral and Physical Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

Getting started on eating disorder treatment early is the best way to attain a full recovery. Family and friends should keep an eye out for these indications that their loved one has a disorder and seek out options for treatment quickly if they see any:

  • Intense Focus on Food: As disordered thought patterns arise, people with binge eating disorder may feel overwhelmed by thoughts about food. Their intense focus on food may make it difficult to talk about much of anything else. They may obsess about when and what they will eat in an attempt to control the distressing sensations they feel.
  • Food Gone Missing: While engaging in binge eating behaviors, individuals tend to consume a large volume of food in one sitting. Parents or other family members should be on the lookout for large amounts of food suddenly going missing, or lots of wrappers in the trash.
  • Perfectionism and Feeling Loss of Control: As binge eating disorder causes an inability to control food intake, people with the disorder tend to display perfectionism and a need to control other aspects of their lives.When things get out of control, it may result in an attempt to calm those feelings by binge eating, fueling the repetitive cycle of negative emotions followed by disordered behaviors.
  • Avoiding Public Meal Settings:Frequent engagement in fad or crash diets associated with binge eating disorder may cause people to avoid eating meals with their family and friends. They may even avoid eating in public due to a fear of losing control and the shame that arises with overeating.
  • Frequent Talk About Body Image Concerns: People with eating disorders often feel preoccupied with their body image and size. They may frequently make negative comments about their appearance in a serious or joking manner as a way to vent and gain support. They may start to pull away and isolate, however, as the binge eating disorder symptoms worsen.

Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder

As binge eating disorder has come to greater prominence in recent years, its treatment has become more specialized. Although many treatment methodologies for binge eating disorder are similar to those used for other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, there are often subtle changes in their specifics. One major difference is that weight-restore programs which are often used when an individual is deemed medically underweight are often unnecessary or counterproductive for an individual with binge eating disorder, Instead, a HAES (healthy at every size) approach that foregrounds the individual’s health over a specific weigh figure is recommended.

HAES and the idea of treating behaviors and emotions rather than attempting to force ideas about weight are important factors in addressing a common issue in the eating disorder recovery field. Because the stereotypical image of a person with an eating disorder is that of a person who does not eat and has become underweight, a person with binge eating disorder may feel overlooked or ostracized in a treatment setting. Modern treatment methodologies thus focus on mindfulness, restoring the individual’s relationship with eating, and behavioral modifications as standard curricula rather than putting the spotlight on gaining or losing weight.

Psychological treatments for binge eating disorder most often include Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as their bedrock. This method involves gradually, through talk therapy sessions, helping an individual understand how emotions affect thinking, which in turn affects behavior. Becoming more mindful of emotions and thought help the individual experience them without acting on them. These sessions extend into replacing disordered behaviors with more healthful ones, resulting (hopefully) in long-term recovery.

Offshoots of CBT such as DBT (used for cases involving mood disorders or extreme emotions like depression or borderline personality disorder) or CPT (used specifically to treat PTSD and help people process trauma) are also often used in treating binge eating disorder. Depending on the specific triggers and root causes of an individual’s disorder, they can be useful additions to their recovery toolbox.  A successful recovery plan is usually one that takes an individual’s background into account and is designed specifically for that person.

Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder Is Available

Although binge eating disorder has been added to the disorders listed in the DSM more recently than other eating disorders, it is the most common form of eating disorder in the United States. Accordingly, treatment has become widespread and specialized. If you or a loved one is struggling with binge eating disorder, don’t despair – treatment is both available and effective. For the best outcomes, don’t hesitate – recovery is a long process and the sooner you get started, the better. Reach out today and reclaim your recovered self.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.