Do you struggle with binge eating? Learn about the symptoms of compulsive overeating and what you can do to stop it.

What is binge eating disorder?

All of us eat too much from time to time. But if you regularly overeat while feeling out of control and powerless to stop, you may be suffering from binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is a common eating disorder where you frequently eat large amounts of food while feeling powerless to stop and extremely distressed during or after eating. You may eat to the point of discomfort, then be plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, or depression afterwards, beat yourself up for your lack of self-control, or worry about what compulsive eating will do to your body.

Binge eating disorder typically begins in late adolescence or early adulthood, often after a major diet. During a binge, you may eat even when you’re not hungry and continue eating long after you’re full. You may also binge so fast you barely register what you’re eating or tasting. Unlike bulimia, however, there are no regular attempts to “make up” for the binges through vomiting, fasting, or over-exercising.

You may find that binge eating is comforting for a brief moment, helping to ease unpleasant emotions or feelings of stress, depression, or anxiety. But then reality sets back in and you’re flooded with feelings of regret and self-loathing. Binge eating often leads to weight gain and obesity, which only reinforces compulsive eating. The worse you feel about yourself and your appearance, the more you use food to cope. It becomes a vicious cycle: eating to feel better, feeling even worse, and then turning back to food for relief. As powerless as you may feel about your eating disorder, it’s important to know that binge eating disorder is treatable. You can learn to break the binge eating cycle, better manage your emotions, develop a healthier relationship with food, and regain control over your eating and your health.

Signs and symptoms

If you have binge eating disorder, you may feel embarrassed and ashamed about your eating habits, and try to hide your symptoms by eating in secret.

Behavioral symptoms of binge eating and compulsive overeating

-Inability to stop eating or control what you’re eating
-Rapidly eating large amounts of food
-Eating even when you’re full
-Hiding or stockpiling food to eat later in secret
-Eating normally around others, but gorging when you’re alone
-Eating continuously throughout the day, with no planned mealtimes

Emotional symptoms

-Feeling stress or tension that is only relieved by eating
-Embarrassment over how much you’re eating
-Feeling numb while bingeing—like you’re not really there or you’re on auto-pilot.
-Never feeling satisfied, no matter how much you eat
-Feeling guilty, disgusted, or depressed after overeating
-Desperation to control weight and eating habits

Causes and effects

Generally, it takes a combination of things to develop binge eating disorder—including your genes, emotions, and experience.

Social and cultural risk factors. Social pressure to be thin can add to the you feel and fuel your emotional eating. Some parents unwittingly set the stage for binge eating by using food to comfort, dismiss, or reward their children. Children who are exposed to frequent critical comments about their bodies and weight are also vulnerable, as are those who have been sexually abused in childhood.

Psychological risk factors. Depression and binge eating are strongly linked. Many binge eaters are either depressed or have been before; others may have trouble with impulse control and managing and expressing their feelings. Low self-esteem, loneliness, and body dissatisfaction may also contribute to binge eating.

Biological risk factors. Biological abnormalities can contribute to binge eating. For example, the hypothalamus (the part of your brain that controls appetite) may not be sending correct messages about hunger and fullness. Researchers have also found a genetic mutation that appears to cause food addiction. Finally, there is evidence that low levels of the brain chemical serotonin play a role in compulsive eating.