Believe it or not, binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Though it is not always given the same attention as illnesses like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, this is a very harmful disease that can wreak long-term havoc on one’s life.
You are not alone in this fight. Let’s talk about binge eating disorder, the long-term consequences, and the options for treatment.
What Is Binge Eating Disorder?
Chances are good that you have heard of eating disorders before. The term might conjure images of obsessive food intake restriction and thinness. However, the idea that this is the face of every eating disorder is a fallacy.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is an abnormal eating pattern in which an individual consumes a large amount of food in a relatively short period. Typically, a binge lasts between one and two hours, but in that time, the person will consume a lot of food.
Binge eating differs from bulimia in that the person suffering from binge eating disorder does not purge after their binge eating episodes. In this way, binge eating is akin to substance abuse.
Everyone overeats from time to time, but people who frequently binge eat have an abnormal eating pattern that takes it to an extreme. Many eating disorder specialists define BED as a behavior that occurs at least twice a week for three months or longer and negatively impacts the person’s relationships, mental health, and daily life.
In other words, if you occasionally eat the whole burger and all the fries and feel all the guilt afterward, you’re probably fine (although there’s nothing to feel guilty about). True BED follows a pattern that is hard to break.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines BED as a psychiatric disorder. Mental health providers widely use the DSM-5 to help determine care guidelines for patients. Binge eating is a mental health condition.
Some symptoms of BED include:
- Eating abnormally large amounts of food in one sitting
- Eating much faster than normal
- Feeling out of control and unable to stop eating, even if you may want to
- Eating secretly, hiding food containers, and disguising how much you eat
- Being ashamed, guilty, or embarrassed about the amount of food you eat
- After a binge, promising never to binge again, but being unable to keep such a promise
- Hoarding food or hiding it
Some medical experts believe that binge eating is a subtype of bulimia, characterized by binge eating followed by calorie purging via vomiting, laxatives, or other means.
However, the effects of binge eating disorder and the consequences of bulimia are quite different. We will explore the many mental and physical health ailments that can arise from long-term BED.
What Are the Negative Health Consequences of Long-Term Binge Eating Disorder?
Overeating will likely give you a bloated stomach and a solid amount of discomfort. Everyone experiences this from time to time. However, if you have BED, your eating habits may cause serious health complications that could last a lifetime. The effects of binge eating are far-reaching.
1. Excessive Weight Gain
We’ll start with the most obvious consequence of overeating: weight gain. What may start as a little extra weight can quickly snowball and turn into full-blown obesity.
Eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time is not healthy, and these eating behaviors are damaging.
The loss of control that people feel when they are on a binge can cause health problems that go far beyond a few extra pounds. Obesity can lead to:
- Sleep Apnea
- Type 2 Diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Heart Disease
It’s important to remember that weight gain, though common in BED, does not always occur. It is not unusual for an individual to spend a lot of their time restricting and dieting, only to go on wild food binges a few times a week.
2. Depression, Anxiety, and Other Mood Disorders
Let’s face it. It’s 2022. It seems that most of us experience some anxiety, depression, or a lovely cocktail of the two. However, mood disorders are especially common in those with eating disorders.
Many people associate food with comfort or use food as a reward. But eating too much when you’re not even hungry might mean that you are trying to mask your emotions and cover them up with food. If you are having binging episodes, you might also be feeling:
- Guilty or ashamed
- Sad all the time
- Tired and lethargic
- Apathetic about things you once loved
3. Heart Disease
As we mentioned, being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing heart disease. This complication merits its own category. Obesity can make it significantly more difficult for your heart to get blood to the lungs and the rest of the body.
In addition, having excess fat raises your risk of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. Heart disease can be a sneaky little gremlin, so pay attention to the warning signs:
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Feeling dizzy or “off”
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations or a quickened heartbeat
It’s also important to note that in women, a heart attack can often feel like indigestion, uneasiness, and an impending sense of doom. Medical professionals are just starting to focus more on heart disease in women, and it’s about time!
4. Type 2 Diabetes
Those with BED are much more likely to develop type 2 diabetes over time. Sadly, diabetes is a lifelong illness requiring management and treatment. The combination of binge eating and diabetes can be a potentially deadly one.
One especially scary thing about type 2 diabetes is that many people do not realize they have it for some time. Here are some symptoms to look out for:
- Frequent urination
- Excessive hunger or thirst
- Feeling tired all the time
- Numbness or “pins and needles” in extremities
- Blurred vision
If you’re worried that you may develop diabetes due to binge eating, talk to your doctor and check your blood sugar. Also, work to develop healthy eating habits, drink more water, and perhaps consider medication.
5. Lowered Self-Esteem and Damaged Relationships
Lowered self-esteem isn’t technically a health complication, but it is a huge problem. Those with low self-esteem or negative body image are much more likely to develop BED than those with a healthy sense of self-esteem.
Add in the guilt, shame, and impulsivity associated with binge eating, and things can only go downhill.
A factor people often don’t think about when it comes to binge eating is the effect that all the secrecy and lies can have on relationships. Hiding so much from your loved ones can affect you so deeply that it’s hard to understand unless you’re going through it.
How Can I Get Help for an Eating Disorder?
Though eating disorders like BED can often feel overwhelming and isolating, it is possible to overcome them. The first step is being officially diagnosed by a medical professional. Your doctor may also want to run other tests to check cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.
Once you are diagnosed by a professional, you have some options. The main goal of treatment is to reduce the number of eating binges as you work toward healthier habits. The physical health needs of those with BED are often quite different from those with restrictive eating disorders, so the treatment also differs.
- Talk Therapy: also known as psychotherapy, talk therapy is often the first step toward overcoming an eating disorder. A commonly used type is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which can help cope with feelings that make you want to binge.
- Medication: Since BED is so entwined with feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing, sometimes anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants can help in eating disorder treatment. In addition, there may be other medications that your healthcare provider may prescribe that can help curb the binges.
- Weight Loss Programs: Though not always appropriate for everyone, many who suffer from BED are also obese and can benefit greatly from weight loss programs. It’s important to talk to a doctor first and be aware that behavioral weight loss programs are not usually recommended until a person’s binging habits are relatively under control.
If you’re unsure how to get started, confiding in a friend, family member, or other loved one is a good place to begin. Consider checking out a support group — you can often find one by asking your doctor or looking online.
Long-term binge eating can be extremely damaging to your health. The health risks can range from obesity, depression, and gastrointestinal issues to heart disease and diabetes.
Luckily, there are treatment options available. Get the support you need, and know that you can do it.