Is It Binge-eating Disorder or Something Else?

Reviewed Nov 9, 2017

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Summary

  • Many people cycle between dieting and overeating or use food to satisfy needs other than hunger.
  • A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose binge-eating disorder.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Kim wakes up after midnight and heads for the kitchen. Although she is not hungry, she eats an entire box of donuts with milk before going back to bed.
  • After a stressful day on the job, Greg stops at a fast-food restaurant for a hamburger, fries, and soda, even though dinner with his family is awaiting him at home.
  • While out to dinner with friends, Jenny cannot resist ordering dessert even though she ate far more than she intended and is very full.

Each of these scenarios contain some aspect of uncontrolled eating, a key feature of binge-eating disorder (BED). But Kim, Greg, and Jenny do not have BED. Other types of disordered eating, as well as emotional eating, can sometimes look like BED. Moreover, binge eating can be a symptom of, and BED can occur along with, other mental disorders like depression. This article provides a brief overview of these topics.

Other eating disorders can look like BED

People with BED eat more than a normal amount of food in a small amount of time, most often in less than two hours. They feel powerless to stop. Out-of-control eating is a main symptom of BED. But binge eating is also a sign of these eating disorders:

  • BED of low frequency and/or limited duration: Some people have all the symptoms of BED, but binge eat less than once a week and/or for less than three months.
  • Bulimia nervosa: Binge eating is a key feature of bulimia nervosa. But, unlike people with BED, people with bulimia make up for overeating by throwing up or exercising.
  • Night eating syndrome: People with this often awake from sleep in the middle of the night and eat, or eat a lot of food after dinner.

Doctors can reliably tell if a person has binge-eating disorder or another eating disorder.

Emotional eating can look like BED

Emotional eating is when people eat for reasons other than to satisfy hunger, such as to cope with stress or sadness, or to relieve boredom. It can lead to mindless binging in people with or without BED.

People who often use food to feed their feelings may consume more calories than their bodies need to maintain a healthy weight, which can lead to weight gain over time. Similarly, people with BED are often overweight. People often feel badly or guilty after emotional eating, just like people with BED feel shame or guilt after binge eating.

Obesity can look like BED

Most people with BED are overweight or obese. But most people who are overweight or obese do not have BED. Notably, people with BED who are overweight or obese are more distressed by their weight and body shape than people who are overweight or obese but do not have BED. People with BED who are overweight or obese are also more likely to have another mental disorder than people who are overweight or obese but do not have BED.

Other mental disorders can look like BED

Some symptoms of BED can be signs of other mental disorders. For example:

  • Like some people with BED, overeating, and weight gain are sometimes seen in people with major depression. But people with major depression who overeat may or may not sense a lack of control of their eating.
  • Binge eating and other eating behaviors can be symptoms of depressive disorders and bipolar disorder. These are not typical though.
  • Binge eating can be a symptom of borderline personality disorder. People with this mental illness act impulsively. Binge eating is one type of impulsive behavior.

Having BED and another mental disorder at the same time

About four in 10 people with BED have another mental disorder at the same time. Some symptoms might overlap. Moreover, seven in 10 people with BED will have another mental disorder at some point in their lifetime. The most common mental disorders seen in people with BED are:

  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders

The relationship between BED and other mental disorders is complex and not well understood.

Final thoughts

Be sure to tell your doctor about any eating behaviors that concern you. Even if you do not have BED or another diagnosable condition, you may benefit from lifestyle counseling.

Resources

Binge Eating Disorder Association
www.bedaonline.com

National Eating Disorders Association
www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
www.anad.org

By Christine Martin
Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. American Psychological Association, 2013; "Why Stress Causes People to Overeat" Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 2012; Smith, Melinda, Segal Jeanne. "Emotional Eating." helpguide.org, 2013.
Reviewed by Rose Marie Sime, MD, VP DABPN, Medical Director, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • Many people cycle between dieting and overeating or use food to satisfy needs other than hunger.
  • A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose binge-eating disorder.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Kim wakes up after midnight and heads for the kitchen. Although she is not hungry, she eats an entire box of donuts with milk before going back to bed.
  • After a stressful day on the job, Greg stops at a fast-food restaurant for a hamburger, fries, and soda, even though dinner with his family is awaiting him at home.
  • While out to dinner with friends, Jenny cannot resist ordering dessert even though she ate far more than she intended and is very full.

Each of these scenarios contain some aspect of uncontrolled eating, a key feature of binge-eating disorder (BED). But Kim, Greg, and Jenny do not have BED. Other types of disordered eating, as well as emotional eating, can sometimes look like BED. Moreover, binge eating can be a symptom of, and BED can occur along with, other mental disorders like depression. This article provides a brief overview of these topics.

Other eating disorders can look like BED

People with BED eat more than a normal amount of food in a small amount of time, most often in less than two hours. They feel powerless to stop. Out-of-control eating is a main symptom of BED. But binge eating is also a sign of these eating disorders:

  • BED of low frequency and/or limited duration: Some people have all the symptoms of BED, but binge eat less than once a week and/or for less than three months.
  • Bulimia nervosa: Binge eating is a key feature of bulimia nervosa. But, unlike people with BED, people with bulimia make up for overeating by throwing up or exercising.
  • Night eating syndrome: People with this often awake from sleep in the middle of the night and eat, or eat a lot of food after dinner.

Doctors can reliably tell if a person has binge-eating disorder or another eating disorder.

Emotional eating can look like BED

Emotional eating is when people eat for reasons other than to satisfy hunger, such as to cope with stress or sadness, or to relieve boredom. It can lead to mindless binging in people with or without BED.

People who often use food to feed their feelings may consume more calories than their bodies need to maintain a healthy weight, which can lead to weight gain over time. Similarly, people with BED are often overweight. People often feel badly or guilty after emotional eating, just like people with BED feel shame or guilt after binge eating.

Obesity can look like BED

Most people with BED are overweight or obese. But most people who are overweight or obese do not have BED. Notably, people with BED who are overweight or obese are more distressed by their weight and body shape than people who are overweight or obese but do not have BED. People with BED who are overweight or obese are also more likely to have another mental disorder than people who are overweight or obese but do not have BED.

Other mental disorders can look like BED

Some symptoms of BED can be signs of other mental disorders. For example:

  • Like some people with BED, overeating, and weight gain are sometimes seen in people with major depression. But people with major depression who overeat may or may not sense a lack of control of their eating.
  • Binge eating and other eating behaviors can be symptoms of depressive disorders and bipolar disorder. These are not typical though.
  • Binge eating can be a symptom of borderline personality disorder. People with this mental illness act impulsively. Binge eating is one type of impulsive behavior.

Having BED and another mental disorder at the same time

About four in 10 people with BED have another mental disorder at the same time. Some symptoms might overlap. Moreover, seven in 10 people with BED will have another mental disorder at some point in their lifetime. The most common mental disorders seen in people with BED are:

  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders

The relationship between BED and other mental disorders is complex and not well understood.

Final thoughts

Be sure to tell your doctor about any eating behaviors that concern you. Even if you do not have BED or another diagnosable condition, you may benefit from lifestyle counseling.

Resources

Binge Eating Disorder Association
www.bedaonline.com

National Eating Disorders Association
www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
www.anad.org

By Christine Martin
Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. American Psychological Association, 2013; "Why Stress Causes People to Overeat" Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 2012; Smith, Melinda, Segal Jeanne. "Emotional Eating." helpguide.org, 2013.
Reviewed by Rose Marie Sime, MD, VP DABPN, Medical Director, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • Many people cycle between dieting and overeating or use food to satisfy needs other than hunger.
  • A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose binge-eating disorder.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Kim wakes up after midnight and heads for the kitchen. Although she is not hungry, she eats an entire box of donuts with milk before going back to bed.
  • After a stressful day on the job, Greg stops at a fast-food restaurant for a hamburger, fries, and soda, even though dinner with his family is awaiting him at home.
  • While out to dinner with friends, Jenny cannot resist ordering dessert even though she ate far more than she intended and is very full.

Each of these scenarios contain some aspect of uncontrolled eating, a key feature of binge-eating disorder (BED). But Kim, Greg, and Jenny do not have BED. Other types of disordered eating, as well as emotional eating, can sometimes look like BED. Moreover, binge eating can be a symptom of, and BED can occur along with, other mental disorders like depression. This article provides a brief overview of these topics.

Other eating disorders can look like BED

People with BED eat more than a normal amount of food in a small amount of time, most often in less than two hours. They feel powerless to stop. Out-of-control eating is a main symptom of BED. But binge eating is also a sign of these eating disorders:

  • BED of low frequency and/or limited duration: Some people have all the symptoms of BED, but binge eat less than once a week and/or for less than three months.
  • Bulimia nervosa: Binge eating is a key feature of bulimia nervosa. But, unlike people with BED, people with bulimia make up for overeating by throwing up or exercising.
  • Night eating syndrome: People with this often awake from sleep in the middle of the night and eat, or eat a lot of food after dinner.

Doctors can reliably tell if a person has binge-eating disorder or another eating disorder.

Emotional eating can look like BED

Emotional eating is when people eat for reasons other than to satisfy hunger, such as to cope with stress or sadness, or to relieve boredom. It can lead to mindless binging in people with or without BED.

People who often use food to feed their feelings may consume more calories than their bodies need to maintain a healthy weight, which can lead to weight gain over time. Similarly, people with BED are often overweight. People often feel badly or guilty after emotional eating, just like people with BED feel shame or guilt after binge eating.

Obesity can look like BED

Most people with BED are overweight or obese. But most people who are overweight or obese do not have BED. Notably, people with BED who are overweight or obese are more distressed by their weight and body shape than people who are overweight or obese but do not have BED. People with BED who are overweight or obese are also more likely to have another mental disorder than people who are overweight or obese but do not have BED.

Other mental disorders can look like BED

Some symptoms of BED can be signs of other mental disorders. For example:

  • Like some people with BED, overeating, and weight gain are sometimes seen in people with major depression. But people with major depression who overeat may or may not sense a lack of control of their eating.
  • Binge eating and other eating behaviors can be symptoms of depressive disorders and bipolar disorder. These are not typical though.
  • Binge eating can be a symptom of borderline personality disorder. People with this mental illness act impulsively. Binge eating is one type of impulsive behavior.

Having BED and another mental disorder at the same time

About four in 10 people with BED have another mental disorder at the same time. Some symptoms might overlap. Moreover, seven in 10 people with BED will have another mental disorder at some point in their lifetime. The most common mental disorders seen in people with BED are:

  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders

The relationship between BED and other mental disorders is complex and not well understood.

Final thoughts

Be sure to tell your doctor about any eating behaviors that concern you. Even if you do not have BED or another diagnosable condition, you may benefit from lifestyle counseling.

Resources

Binge Eating Disorder Association
www.bedaonline.com

National Eating Disorders Association
www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
www.anad.org

By Christine Martin
Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. American Psychological Association, 2013; "Why Stress Causes People to Overeat" Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 2012; Smith, Melinda, Segal Jeanne. "Emotional Eating." helpguide.org, 2013.
Reviewed by Rose Marie Sime, MD, VP DABPN, Medical Director, Beacon Health Options

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical or health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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