What Is Binge Eating Disorder And How Do You Get Help For It?

(Image credit: Unknown)

Binge eating disorder is believed to affect more people than any other eating disorder in the UK, and can have a severe impact on people’s physical and mental health. One reason it’s so damaging is because people who suffer from it are often secretive about their binges, which means it’s not always easy to spot.

For in-depth advice on how to identify binge eating disorder in yourself and others and what you can do about it, we spoke to Jess Griffiths, who is clinical lead at eating disorder charity Beat.

What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health condition. It’s not obesity or bulimia – it’s a mental health issue in its own right. It only became a recognised mental health condition in 2013, so it’s fairly new in terms of people being able to recognise it.

What are the symptoms?

It’s eating when you’re not hungry, and eating very fast – in typical episodes people will restrict their eating and then eat a lot very quickly. It’s driven by powerful emotions that cause someone to seek relief from those emotions. They eat a lot in a binge, and I guess they would say their anxiety is eased through that coping mechanism.

Is emotional eating a separate condition?

Yes. Emotional eating is very much an eating behaviour, whereas binge eating disorder is a mental health condition.

Do people effectively get addicted to the emotional relief it provides? Is it similar to addiction?

Some of how we talk about it is very similar, though we don’t necessarily call it an addiction. The way it provides that relief feels like it. Then the guilt and shame of the behaviours keeps driving it, so it does feel like it gets into quite an addictive-type cycle.

How can you identify it?

There’s not a lot of training that healthcare professionals have about binge eating disorder, so we would always recommend that you ring the helpline and chat through your symptoms.

So even your GP might not recognise it?

That’s right. We have a leaflet specifically to take to your GP if you do think you have binge eating disorder, just to break down those barriers and explain it to them in case they’re not completely clued up about it.

How many people are affected by this disorder?

Statistics are still a bit woolly because people don’t come forward and ask for support, or even if they do healthcare professionals don’t necessarily recognise the signs and symptoms. We think it’s the most common eating disorder, but we haven’t got accurate research on that.

What factors tend to cause or trigger it?

People who suffer with eating disorders in general tend to find it very difficult to process their emotions. We call them super-feelers. They are often very intuitive people, lovely and caring, but in terms of triggers, it is driven by emotional distress, feelings they can’t cope with, or if they can’t cope with life in general.

You’re more likely to have it if a family member has a history of eating disorders, depression or alcohol or drug abuse. Another important factor is if you’ve been criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight. For people who are vulnerable to binge eating disorder, it quite often starts in their teens and they tend to be more on the higher weight side, and if that’s criticised it can lead someone thinking dieting is the way to get out of it. Once you get into dieting, as well as having those distressing emotions, that perpetuates the issue.

What health problems are linked with binge eating disorder?

There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that people with eating disorders have other underlying mental health issues. For example, 75% of people who have eating disorders have underlying depression. So you can have concurrent mental health conditions, but there are also physical side effects of being overweight, such as type 2 diabetes.

What kind of treatments are used?

There’s a good evidence base on what works for binge eating disorder. Under the NICE guidelines, treatment from a therapist or a specialist service should be provided for people with binge eating disorder. Another treatment is guided self-help. That’s all on the leaflet, because sometimes GPs don’t know that, but you’re certainly entitled to treatment.

Is it something people do recover from, or do you have to manage it?

Recovery looks different for lots of people. The challenge with binge eating disorder is people suffer in silence for years and years, even decades. Those coping mechanisms and behaviours get ingrained. Our stance at Beat is that everyone has the potential to recover and break free from it with the right support, because lots of people do get better from this.

How can you approach a friend if you believe they are affected by binge eating disorder?

An important factor with binge eating disorder is shame. People that are suffering have told us it’s really hard to open up about the behaviours, so we suggest you stick to feelings. Talk about feelings, not the food behaviours, because they will feel a lot of shame around them. Ask them how they are, talk about their feelings, and see if you can get them to open up. We’ve also written a guide to how friends and family can engage in those conversations.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.