Updated: Nov 20
This post was adapted from episode 41: "Am I Bingeing or Am I Overeating?" of the Nourished & Free podcast.
Binge eating disorder is estimated to be more common than both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined. However, many individuals are unsure if what they are experiencing is true binge eating or just overeating. This can be even more tricky if it is only happening occasionally.
So how do we know if we are binge eating, overeating, or if we have binge eating disorder? If you’re searching to answer the question “am I binge eating?”, this post is for you.
What is Binge Eating?
A lot of times we might feel as though we binged, such as when we eat chips directly out of the bag or drive through a fast food restaurant and get a large fry with the burger instead of a small. But these are not actually cases of binge eating.
A true binge is characterized as:
Eating an amount of food, typically within a 2-hour window, that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances (pssst: holidays don’t count because that’s what everyone is doing!)
Feeling a loss of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)
If we really look at this definition, it isn’t the most cut-and-dry explanation for what binge eating looks like. What one person defines as “definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar circumstance” might be different than someone else’s definition. This definition unfortunately leaves a lot of room for questions and exceptions, but it’s the best we have.
A single episode of binge eating is not an eating disorder. However, if there are recurrent episodes of binge eating then we may be looking at a binge eating disorder (BED) diagnosis.
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
According to the DSM-5, the official criteria for a binge eating disorder diagnosis is as follows:
Binge eating (as defined in the section above) needs to be happening at least 1 day a week for 3 months.
Binge eating disorder is not the same as bulimia nervosa which involves compensatory behaviors such as purging, laxative use, or exercise. Those with binge eating disorder do not try to “get rid of” calories eaten.
Those with BED experience a great deal of distress over the binge.
At least 3 of the following points are true:
Eating much more rapidly than normal
Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
The DSM 5 also introduced varying levels of severity:
Mild: 1 to 3 episodes per week
Moderate: 4 to 7 episodes per week
Severe: 8 to 13 episodes per week
Extreme: 14 or more episodes per week
If you don’t fit these criteria exactly but still struggle with some of the things mentioned above, you may not have binge eating disorder but could still be struggling with ‘disordered eating’. Learn more about the difference between eating disorders vs disordered eating.
How are overeating and binge eating different?
Although there is no official definition for overeating, think of it as having a few more bites than was actually needed, leading to feelings of being extra full (maybe even uncomfortable).
Binge eating, on the other hand, is eating definitely more food than someone else would in that same circumstance, in a short period of time (2 hrs or less), and feeling out of control. In most cases with binge eating, someone eats so much they get to a point of physical pain or feeling sick.
Overeating is common, especially if someone is using food to cope with emotions. Overeating here and there is nothing to beat yourself up over. However, if you find it happening frequently (whether it’s a binge or not), you may want to examine that more deeply.
What is the difference between bulimia nervosa vs. binge eating disorder?
The key difference between binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa is that bulimia includes compensatory behaviors, BED does not. Compensatory means that there is an attempt to ‘get rid of’ the calories consumed, whether that is by purging, exercising, fasting, or laxative use.
How common is binge eating disorder?
Binge eating disorder (BED) has a global estimate of about 1.5% of women and 0.3% of men worldwide, but the United States in particular seems to have higher rates with 3.5% of American women and 2% of American men struggling with binge eating disorder. That equates to 11.6 million women and 6.6 million men in America suffering from binge eating disorder.
It’s important to note that there is a very high likelihood these stats are skewed and potentially underreported. Remember that BED is literally characterized by a sense of shame and guilt around the binge episodes, so it’s reasonable to assume that not everyone is opening up about their struggles with binge eating.
Additionally, the research done on Americans to come up with our estimates of 3.5% for women and 2% of men was a study performed on just over 9,000 people, which is a TINY pocket of people compared to our US population of about 332 million, therefore it can’t be generalized.
All that to say, we still don’t fully know just how big of a problem this is.
Interestingly, according to 2 meta analyses from 2023 reviewing 39 studies, we are seeing that about 1.32% of children and adolescents meet criteria for BED and 3.0% for subclinical BED.
Some reports show that BED is likely to begin in late teenage years or early 20s. but it has been reported in both young children and older adults as well.
Am I Binge Eating? 26 Common Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder
Let’s dig into some tell-tale signs of binge eating, and/or binge eating disorder. Remember, these may help you discover a binge eating disorder diagnosis, but are not a substitute for meeting with a healthcare professional and discussing your specific case.
Behavioral Symptoms of Binge Eating
Large amounts of food disappearing, sometimes without memory of eating it
Finding empty containers or wrappers
Saving up calories all day for a binge at night
Eating in secret
Withdrawal from social activities
Driving by a drive-through to large amounts of food alone in the car
Psychological Symptoms of Binge Eating
Distorted body image
Feelings of shame, guilt, and/or embarrassment
Anxiety about food or others seeing your body
Feelings of not being good enough
Feeling disgusted towards oneself
Physical Symptoms of Binge Eating
Fluctuations in weight
Excessive weight gain
Eating until becoming ill
High blood pressure
High cholesterol levels
Coronary artery disease
Gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, bloating, nausea, or acid reflux.
Prediabetes/Type II Diabetes
What are some binge eating disorder risk factors?
As binge eating disorder continues to become more common, we need to evaluate what the potential risk factors are that are contributing to binge eating rates rising. Here are some things that research is showing may increase your chances of binge eating:
A family pattern of disordered eating.
A family pattern of dysfunctional emotional coping.
A personal history of trauma or abuse.
A personal history of food insecurity.
Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder
Substance Abuse Disorder
Body dysmorphic disorder
When to Get Help for Binge Eating
The earlier you can get help with binge eating, the better. Binge eating left untreated may lead to physical conditions such as chronic pain, excessive/unhealthy (for you) weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. Physical issues aside, it can wreak havoc on one’s mental health and quality of life. About 1 in 5 individuals struggling with BED will attempt suicide.
Binge eating may even be impacting the health of your marriage. A study done on over 2,000 married women with binge eating disorder showed that binge eating is comparable to or worse for a marriage than other psychiatric disorders.
Needless to say, binge eating has a massive disruption on both the physical health and mental well-being of many people worldwide. Because it carries very serious implications, it is always best to seek help as soon as you notice symptoms of binge eating disorder - even if the criteria for an official diagnosis is not met (yet).
How is binge eating disorder diagnosed?
Receiving a diagnosis of binge eating disorder isn’t necessary to get help. It could potentially help with insurance coverage, but it is not a requirement to start treatment. If you’d like to receive an official binge eating disorder diagnosis, consider making an appointment with your primary care physician or a psychiatric doctor.
Is there a binge eating disorder test?
There is no blood test that can diagnose binge eating disorder. There are many binge eating quizzes and questionnaires to help uncover signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, but they are not a substitute for receiving a diagnosis by a trained professional.
Tips for Recovering from Binge Eating
Binge eating is a biopsychosocial condition. It involves many aspects of a human: their biology, psychology, and sociology. To try and ‘fix’ binge eating with a quick fix is ultimately a disservice and a waste of time.
To truly heal and recover from binge eating disorder, one must take an all-inclusive approach. The gold standard treatment for recovery from binge eating disorder is working with a therapist + dietitian + psychiatrist (as needed) + medical doctor (as needed).
A mental health therapist can assist in sorting through any emotions or trauma that is contributing to the binge eating. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is even assigned as Grade A treatment for binge eating disorder. There is some evidence showing that self-guided CBT has some really promising results as well as interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
A psychiatrist may be a necessary provider regarding your treatment team for binge eating disorder. In some cases, the use of antidepressants or other psychiatric medications can help to reduce psychological barriers for full recovery from binge eating disorder. This is not the case for everyone, so it is only as needed.
Having a medical doctor check on the general status of your health may be a necessary step during binge eating disorder recovery. If you are concerned about the status of your health as a result of binge eating, consider visiting your primary care physician for a medical exam. This is also an ‘as needed’ type of support for binge eating disorder.
Diet and Nutrition
Working with an eating disorder-trained Registered Dietitian is critical for binge eating disorder. One of the goals of binge eating recovery is to normalize eating patterns and increase psychological well-being. You simply cannot do this with confidence without a dietitian.
For example, typically when someone is experiencing guilt or shame around their food choices, the way they eat, and how their body looks, this can actually be a trigger to drive them deeper into binge eating as they try to find relief from those feelings.
For this reason, fostering a positive relationship with food is often critical in binge eating disorder recovery. A binge-eating dietitian will help you with reframing thoughts around food, correcting inaccurate beliefs around nutrition, and addressing body image distress so that you no longer have the need to binge.
Working with a dietitian on mindful and/or intuitive eating practices can also help to increase awareness about eating patterns and slow down when it comes to eating. Additionally, binge eating may oftentimes be the result of restricted eating or dieting.
Some research suggests that the risk of binge eating increases as dieting increases. Therefore, it’s critical to have a dietitian help you find an eating pattern that works for you and is not setting you up for failure.
There is a lot more research needing to be done on binge eating and binge eating disorder, but I hope this has helped you to understand some of the key modalities and ways that we can start to overcome this increasingly pressing issue.
Get Help With Binge Eating
As mentioned in this article, working with a binge-eating dietitian, such as myself, is a part of the gold-standard process for overcoming binge eating disorder. My signature program, Nourished & Free, has helped countless women overcome binge eating disorder in less than 4 months (examples: Breanna’s story or Christen’s story).
If you’re ready to take the next step and be free from binge eating and food guilt once and for all, learn more about my program here.
Listen to the podcast episode accompanying this discussion on binge eating disorder ⬇️