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Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders that can affect teenagers. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult eating disorders to spot and diagnose. As a parent, you need to know the signs of binge eating disorder so you can be on the lookout. Below is some information to help you understand this disorder and identify the symptoms. 

What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder is a serious but treatable eating disorder that most often involves periods of binging, following by periods of shame. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Although it affects people of all ages, it is most likely to begin in the late teens or early 20s. 

This disorder is similar to bulimia in that sufferers often eat large quantities of food at one time. However, unlike people with bulimia nervosa, someone with binge eating disorder will not regularly engage in purging behaviors, such as using laxatives or inducing vomiting. People with binge eating disorder may engage in fasting from time to time in hopes of losing weight or avoiding weight gain related to binge eating episodes.

In the past, binge eating disorder was not recognized in the DSM as a unique disorder and was instead included as a subtype of “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.” However, patients can now be accurately identified as suffering from binge eating disorder and receive a formal, specific diagnosis. This makes it much easier for patients to receive the treatment they need.

Causes and Complications of Binge Eating Disorder

The causes of binge eating disorder are not yet completely understood. However, scientists believe that certain psychological issues and a history of long-term dieting may raise your risk of developing this disorder. It is also likely that genetics plays a role in the development of the disorder.

Some of the specific risk factors for developing binge eating disorder may include:

  • Being a teenager, especially late teens
  • Having low self-esteem and/or a poor body image
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Family history of binge eating disorder or other eating disorders. 

If left untreated, binge eating disorder can lead to serious complications for teens. Many people who have binge eating disorder will also develop related mental health issues related to the condition, including substance use disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder and/or depression. This eating disorder can also lead to physical complications for teens, including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, teens who have binge eating disorder may struggle with social isolation, trouble in their personal life and a poor quality of life overall, especially if the disorder remains untreated for a long time.

Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

Most teens with binge eating disorder follow a cyclical pattern of binging eating and dieting or restriction. During binging episodes, the teen will eat a large quantity of food. The food is usually eaten quickly, and they may eat so much that they feel sick or uncomfortable. Most teens feel like they are not in control of their behavior during the episode. Afterward, the teen will feel guilty, shameful and upset. Teens who suffer from binge eating disorder do not typically purge after they binge.

In order to be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, teens must meet several requirements. Specifically, teens must:

  • Experience recurring episodes of binge eating, during which they eat a large amount of food during a specific time period. The amount of food eaten must be substantially larger than normal, and the teen must also experience a sense of loss of control during the binge. 
  • Experience significant distress because of binging episodes. 
  • Experience binging episodes at least once each week for at least three months. 
  • Experience at least three of the following symptoms during a binge eating episode
    • Eating enough to cause discomfort. 
    • Eating faster than normal. 
    • Eating when not feeling hungry. 
    • Eating alone out of embarrassment. 
    • Feelings of guilt, depression or self-disgust.

There normally won’t be a diagnosis of binge eating disorder if they use purging or other extreme behaviors to eliminate excess calories. In these cases, a different diagnosis, like bulimia nervosa, is more likely.

How to Spot Binge Eating Disorder in Teens

Many of the symptoms of binge eating disorder will be obvious only to the people with the disorder. As a parent or friend, you may not be able to see these symptoms easily. However, you may still be able to recognize the presence of binge eating disorder in a loved one by looking for certain common signs. Some of the behavioral signs of binge eating disorder that may be noticed by others include: 

  • Frequent dieting, especially involving fads. 
  • Hoarding and/or hiding food. 
  • Unreasonable concern with weight, body shape and/or overall appearance.
  • Avoidance of eating in public or around other people. 
  • Odd food rituals, such as not allowing foods to touch. 
  • Evidence of binge episodes, such as a large amount of food disappearing.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Sporadic episodes of fasting.
  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight. 
  • Complaints of stomach pain or other gastrointestinal problems. 
  • Trouble concentrating. 

Unlike teens who suffer from othereating disorders, people with binge eating disorder are unlikely to be underweight. In fact, people who have this disorder are often diagnosed with obesity. It is also important to note that a teen does need to have all or even most of these signs present in order to suffer from binge eating disorder. If you see any evidence that this eating disorder may be present, you need to follow up with the issue as soon as possible. It is always better to be proactive. 

What to Do If You Suspect Binge Eating Disorder

Some of the symptoms of binge eating disorder may occur occasionally when no true disorder is present. For this reason, it is important to approach this issue carefully if you suspect that a teen may be suffering from binge eating disorder. If you are concerned that a teen in your life is struggling with this disorder, follow the steps below. 

1. Pay close attention to their behavior.

If you expect binge eating disorder is an issue, start paying extra attention to the teen’s behavior and make note of what you see. Document any signs of binge eating disorder in case you need to refer to them later. 

2. Talk to the teen about the issue.

When a teen is experiencing the symptoms of any eating disorder, you need to take action. These disorders can cause serious complications if they are not treated properly, and they tend to get worse over time. However, most teens will be sensitive about this issue, as binge eating disorder causes significant distress. 

When approaching a teen about binge eating disorder, don’t be confrontational. Bring up the subject gently, and resist the urge to become argumentative if the teen does not acknowledge the existence of a problem. If the teen refuses to admit a problem exists, make it clear that you are available and willing to help if they change their mind later. 

3. Reach out to professionals.

If a teen is truly suffering from binge eating disorder, professional treatment is the best course of action. If you suspect that a teen may be suffering from binge eating disorder, you need to reach out to professionals for assistance. It’s a good idea to reach out for help even if the teen is not yet willing to admit that they have a problem. 

4. Be patient.

Struggling with an eating disorder is a challenge that is difficult for anyone, but it can be especially traumatic for a teenager. It can be frustrating for loved ones to watch teens struggle, particularly if the teen does not want to get the help they need. However, the best thing you can do for the sake of the teen is to be patient and let them know you will support them during this difficult time. 

Treating Teens with Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is a serious condition that requires professional treatment. Without the right treatment, teens who have this disorder may experience a range of complications that continue to get worse over time. Fortunately, this disorder can be treated effectively. The treatment of binge eating disorder typically involves two separate components: medical care and psychiatric care. 

The goal of medical care for patients with binge eating disorder is to address any physical issues that may have developed because of the condition. For example, if the patient has developed certain complications, such as obesity or type 2 diabetes, medical care will be focused on treating these complications. The goal of psychiatric care is to address the disorder itself, as well as any related mental health issues. Many clients will need both types of care while they are in treatment.

In order to ensure that teens are able to make a complete and long-lasting recovery from binge eating disorder, it is important to choose the right treatment facility. 

Binge Eating Disorder Treatment at Clementine

Clementine is an affiliate of Monte Nido that provides treatment to teens who have binge eating disorders.  We utilize a holistic approach to the treatment of this disorder, which means that we aim to address all aspects of the patient’s health so they can achieve a full, lasting recovery. In addition to treating the teen who has binge eating disorder, our facility also offers supportive services to benefit loved ones. 

Clementine offers a wide range of services to patients, including psychotherapy, group therapy, exposure therapy, and life skills development. Our treatment programs are structured around a system of levels intended to reward patients as they make progress toward recovery. Each level has different goals, activities, and skills to learn. After they have met all the requirements of a given level, they will move on to the next level and gain new freedoms and responsibilities.

Our facility is fully equipped to treat teens who have co-occurring mental health conditions that complicate binge eating disorder. We provide individualized treatment to every patient, structuring programs to meet the unique needs of every teen who enrolls in our program. Before discharging teens from treatment, we evaluate each patient carefully to ensure that they are ready to rejoin society and cope with their eating disorder outside of the facility. We also engage in individualized aftercare planning so every patient will have the resources they need to maintain their recovery and continue a healthy lifestyle. 

Recovering from binge eating disorder is never easy, but teens can make a full recovery with the right support. If you have noticed the signs of binge eating disorder in a teen in your life, seeking professional help as soon as possible is highly recommended. Please contact Clementine today to discuss enrollment in our program or to learn more.


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.