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Charlie Carroll (1)

Page clinically reviewed by Charlie Carroll, CBT Therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester in October 2023.

Binge eating disorder (BED) can be a challenging and isolating experience, affecting lots of people throughout the UK.

In this guide, we’ll explore what BED is, the signs and symptoms to look out for, and the treatment options available. From private rehab options to the potential role of medication, we can help you to navigate the journey towards recovery.

What is BED?

Binge eating disorder, also known as ‘compulsive eating disorder’, is a common condition that’s now widely recognised as an eating disorder. BED involves people binge eating on a regular basis. Binge eating is when someone consumes a large amount of food within a single sitting, regardless of whether or not they’re hungry. People with BED often feel as though they’ve lost control during these bingeing episodes, and eat in a frenzied and compulsive manner.

Unlike other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, people with BED don’t show any purging behaviours, such as making themselves sick or exercising excessively. This means that the constant overeating associated with BED can cause obesity and other related complications.

Another difference between BED and other eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, is that binge eating is more commonly associated with depression and an inability to regulate emotions, whereas anorexia and bulimia are more commonly associated with anxiety and an inability to regulate thoughts.

It’s estimated that binge eating disorder affects around 1.5% of the UK population. BED tends to affect both men and women equally, and research suggests that this condition is more common in adults between the ages of 20 and 40. However, it’s important to understand that anyone can develop binge eating disorder, regardless of their age, gender or background. For more information on the prevalence and statistics of binge eating disorder, you can visit our eating disorder statistics page.

Binge eating disorder can have serious physical and emotional consequences. Recognising the seriousness of this condition is a crucial first step towards getting treatment and support.

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Symptoms of binge eating disorder

If you think you might be struggling with BED, the following are all signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Binge eating even when you’re not hungry
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Eating lots of junk food such as crisps and chocolate
  • Chaotic eating habits, for example, not eating all day and then binge eating at night
  • Eating in private because you’re embarrassed about how much you eat. This can make it difficult for other people to spot your binge eating, which can lead to delays in you getting a diagnosis and support
  • Feeling guilty or disgusting after binge eating
  • Lack of fitness and general ill health because of your unhealthy diet
  • Bad skin and hair due to lack of nutrients
  • Mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression
  • Social isolation

Also, without effective treatment and support, binge eating disorder can develop into serious medical complications. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • Morbid obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease

Left untreated, these complications can have a negative impact on your quality of life, and might even reduce your life expectancy.

Why do people binge eat?

People with BED might turn to binge eating as a way of coping with other mental health problems and uncomfortable emotions. However, it’s still possible for binge eating to develop without any clear cause.

Other reasons that people might binge eat include:

  • Low self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Social and cultural pressures to achieve a certain type of 'ideal' body
  • If a family member has experienced an eating disorder
  • Using food to try and alter/numb negative emotional states such as anxiety, depression, stress, anger and feelings of emotional ‘emptiness’
  • Stressful or traumatic events, such as abuse or bereavement
  • As a result of a strict diet that excluded certain food groups, and involved calorie control or skipping meals
Emily's eating disorder story

Here, Emily talks about how she overcame her eating disorder with the help and support available at Life Works, one of the UK's best rehabiliation facilties.

Treatment for binge eating disorder

The good news is that if you’re dealing with BED, you don’t have to go through it all by yourself. Specialist support is available to help you regain control over your eating habits, overcome any underlying causes, and take steps towards recovery.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment for binge eating disorder

If your binge eating disorder is severe and is having a destructive impact on your daily life, you might benefit from inpatient eating disorder treatment. This is when you stay at a specialist treatment centre on a residential basis, to receive intensive support. Inpatient treatment for BED will include round-the-clock support, structured meal plans, comprehensive therapy and a supportive environment.

Outpatient treatment may be suitable for you if you have a milder form of BED. This might take the form of day care, where you attend a treatment centre for a number of full or half days per week, to receive eating disorder therapy. Or it might include you attending therapy for weekly sessions. Either way, outpatient treatment doesn’t involve you staying in hospital, meaning you can still participate in your normal daily activities and routines, while getting the ongoing support you need.

Talking therapy for binge eating disorder

Talking therapy is one of the most effective treatment methods for eating disorders like BED. All three talking therapies listed below can be used in inpatient and outpatient settings, depending on your individual needs and how severe your binge eating disorder is.

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - is one of the most effective therapies for BED. It helps you to modify unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to your binge eating, replacing them with positive alternatives
  • Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) - is another therapeutic approach that can be beneficial for BED. It focuses on developing mindfulness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills. These can help you to manage the emotional aspects of binge eating
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT) - addresses the interpersonal issues that might be contributing to your BED. It can help you to improve your relationships and communication skills, which can reduce any emotional triggers for your binge eating

Medication for binge eating disorder

In some cases, mental health professionals might prescribe medication to you to help manage your BED. One medication in particular that can be useful when it comes to binge eating disorder is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) known as sertraline.

While medication isn’t the first line of treatment when it comes to binge eating disorder, it can be useful in a number of different ways. These include:

  • Regulating serotonin levels – SSRIs, including sertraline, work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood regulation and appetite control. Some research – like this study in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience - shows that people with BED have lower than average levels of serotonin. This imbalance might be a contributing factor leading to binge eating, and an SSRI could help to restore the balance
  • Emotional regulation – BED is often associated with emotional triggers and SSRIs can help to improve emotional regulation. By stabilising mood and reducing any anxiety or depression symptoms that commonly co-occur with an eating disorder, SSRIs can help you to manage the emotional distress you might feel during your episodes of binge eating
  • Reducing obsessive thoughts – for some people with BED, obsessive thoughts about food might contribute to their bingeing episodes. SSRIs can reduce these obsessive thoughts, making it easier for you to resist the urge to binge
  • Improved impulse control – linked to the above, SSRIs can help to improve impulse control. This can make it less likely that you’ll act on your binge urges. This can be helpful when it comes to breaking the cycle of binge eating

It’s important to understand that SSRIs aren’t a standalone treatment for BED, and are usually used alongside other methods. All treatment decisions should be made in consultation with a trained healthcare professional. They’ll be able to assess your individual needs and tailor your treatment accordingly.

Self-help and support groups for binge eating disorder

As well as the eating disorder treatment approaches listed above, self-help and support groups can also be invaluable resources for people navigating BED. These groups provide a safe and understanding space for you to share your experiences, challenges and successes with people who are going through similar struggles.

Peer support can help you gain a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation, which are often associated with BED. In these groups, you’ll be able to exchange coping strategies, gain insights into managing your triggers, and find encouragement to continue your road to recovery.

Whether they take place in-person or online, self-help and support groups offer a collaborative and empathetic environment where you can draw strength from other people.

Examples of self-help and support groups include:

  • Overeaters anonymous (OA): OA is a worldwide organisation that follows a 12-Step programme, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). These groups provide a supportive environment where you can openly discuss your struggles with binge eating, share your experiences and work on recovery. OA meetings can be found both in-person and online
  • Eating Disorder Hope: this is an online platform that offers lots of resources and information on a range of eating disorders, including BED. It also provides a forum where you can connect with other people who are going through similar challenges, so you can share your stories and coping strategies
  • Momentum: the Momentum programme, offered by the eating disorder charity, Beat, is a useful self-help resource for people dealing with BED. It provides practical tools and support for managing BED. These include online modules, worksheets and guidance on understanding and challenging binge eating behaviours. The programme will also help you to address emotional triggers and promote a healthier relationship with food

How Priory can help with binge eating disorder

At Priory, we offer specialist rehab for binge eating. When it comes to treating binge eating disorder, our comprehensive approach includes:

  • Therapy
  • Nutritional counselling
  • Practical exposure work
  • Body image workshops
  • Medical support

We can offer inpatient, day care or outpatient programmes and will make sure that all treatment is tailored to your individual needs. We also offer online resources and information so you can educate yourself about binge eating disorder and the treatment options available. In addition, we offer private binge eating treatment for children and young people as part of our dedicated private CAMHS.

If you or someone you know is struggling with binge eating disorder, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. There are a wide range of treatments, support networks and dedicated resources available to help you overcome your BED. The most crucial first step is to reach out for help.  

Why do people binge eat?
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Can binge eating cause diabetes?
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Is binge eating the same as food addiction?
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Who is most likely to binge eat?
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What if I'm in crisis?
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