Beyond Overeating: How to Easily Spot Key Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

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Imagine you're at a buffet where scrumptious dishes are lined up, tempting you with their mouth-watering looks and aromas.

You promise yourself that you will stick to one serving. But the next thing you know, you've gone back for more and end up feeling uncomfortably full, guilty, and upset with yourself. 

When you go home, you keep going, eating until you feel physically sick. If this happens frequently, it's highly likely you're suffering from Binge Eating Disorder (BED). 

Binge Eating Disorder, a common eating disorder more prevalent than anorexia and bulimia combined, is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food.

It's accompanied by feelings of loss of control during the binge and experiencing shame, distress, and guilt afterward. It's a serious health concern, but with awareness and the right help, it's treatable. 

In this article, I'll guide you to identify the key symptoms of this common, yet frequently overlooked eating disorder, helping you understand what qualifies as ‘binge eating' and what doesn't. 

Understanding Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

Recognizing binge eating disorder symptoms is the first step toward understanding and addressing this condition. Here are some symptoms to watch for:

  • Eating large amounts of food in short periods of time – more than what most people would eat under similar circumstances.
  • Feeling unable to control eating behavior during the episode.
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
  • Experiencing feelings of guilt, shame, or depression after the overeating episodes.

These binge eating episodes often occur in the absence of physical hunger cues.

Also, people in the grips of these binge eating symptoms generally feel a loss of control during these periods of excessive eating, which contributes to feelings of guilt and depression afterward.

If they lack a reliable way to cope with that guilt, shame, and depression, bingeing becomes a way to cope, which leads to a vicious cycle: you bingeing to cope with difficult emotions and then feel bad, which leads to more bingeing.

This exacerbates low self-esteem and creates a vicious cycle of negative self-perception and again, more harmful binge-eating behavior. 

Being aware of these key binge eating disorder symptoms is a fundamental step in creating change.

How is Binge Eating Disorder Different From Overeating?

Have you ever eaten too much at Thanksgiving or a holiday meal? Chances are, you have done so. Yet, Binge Eating Disorder and overeating are two distinct phenomena, although they share some common characteristics.

Overeating is a behavior that everyone engages in from time to time. It's characterized by consuming more food than the body needs for energy.

This could be because of a special occasion like a holiday feast, or excessive hunger due to not eating enough which leads to overeating once we start eating, or simply because the food tastes good. 

While overeating may not happen very often, binge eating happens regularly and is not connected to occasional overindulgences.

One key binge eating disorder symptom is eating when you're not hungry and continuing eating long after you're full.

Another key difference is the emotional aftermath. Overeating may cause some physical discomfort, but it doesn't typically lead to severe emotional distress. On the other hand, people with BED often feel guilt, shame, and distress about their eating behaviors, which can intensify the cycle of binge eating.

One important binge eating disorder symptom is using food as a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions or in stressful situations.

This is not typically the case with overeating. Understanding these differences is crucial for identifying and treating binge eating disorder.

Why is Binge Eating Disorder Often Overlooked?

Unfortunately, binge-eating disorder symptoms often slip under the radar because people believe they lack willpower, or think they are food addicts.

The ‘willpower myth‘ in the context of Binge Eating Disorder (BED) refers to the common misconception that people with this disorder lack the willpower to stop overeating. This is not only inaccurate but also detrimental, as it can lead to blame, guilt, and shame.

Binge Eating Disorder is a diagnosable and treatable condition, not a failure of willpower. It's about using food as a way to cope with difficult emotions. 

Considering it a failure of willpower oversimplifies the complex nature of this condition, preventing understanding and treatment. 

Bingeing is not about control, willpower, or addiction. It's not actually even about food. Binge eating disorder is a negative coping strategy; it's a way of trying to help yourself–to comfort, soothe, relax, energize, distract, numb, symbolically fill a void, and much more. 

Think of it as a “frenemy” as it is a friend in one sense since it helps us cope, but it is an enemy because that relief is short-lived and ultimately hurts our self-esteem and our bodies.

Binge Eating Disorder vs. Food Addiction

Many people suffering with binge eating disorder symptoms mistakenly believe they are food addicts. 

The term ‘food addiction' is often used in popular culture to describe an intense craving or compulsive consumption of certain types of food. 

However, from a scientific and medical perspective, there is no formal recognition of food addiction as a standalone diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the primary resource used by mental health professionals for diagnosis.

The Concept of Food Addiction

The concept of food addiction often points to the cravings for highly palatable foods—rich in sugar, fat, and salt—as evidence of addictive behavior. 

However, craving is not synonymous with addiction. Cravings can be influenced by many factors including hunger, emotional states, and even societal cues.

The notion of food addiction overlooks the psychological and emotional dimensions of eating.

People who believe in food addiction argue that certain foods, particularly those high in sugar, fat, and salt, can trigger addictive responses.

They point out that these foods stimulate the brain's reward system in a similar way to drugs like cocaine or heroin, leading to cravings, loss of control, and compulsive eating behavior.

The Brain's Response to Food vs. Drugs

Yet, any pleasurable activity–listening to music, having sex, dancing, having fun with friends–activates those same areas of the brain. 

Also, the brain's response to food differs from its response to addictive substances. While both food and drugs can stimulate the reward system in our brains, the reaction to food is a natural response necessary for survival, whereas the reaction to drugs is not.

We have minds as well as brains, and ultimately, using our minds to identify emotional triggers, and facilitate new ways to express ourselves and respond to ourselves creates lasting change.

When comfort words replace comfort food, we stop using food to cope.

Binge Eating Disorder Misconceptions

Besides the idea that binge eating disorder is about a lack of willpower or addiction, there are other misconceptions about this condition.

Binge eating disorder is actually the most common eating disorder and it's very much misunderstood.

Misconception 1: Only Overweight People Have BED

One such idea is that people with binge eating are overweight. This is not the case. While it's true that many people with binge eating disorder symptoms are overweight or obese, not everyone is.

People of all shapes, sizes, and weights can struggle with this disorder. It's important to remember that BED is characterized by the behavior of binge eating, not a person's physical appearance.

Misconception 2: BED is Less Serious than Other Eating Disorders

Another mistaken idea is that binge eating disorder is not as serious as other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.

In reality, binge eating disorder symptoms can lead to serious health complications such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, gastrointestinal issues such as acid reflux, constipation, sleep apnea, and other issues.

It can also cause significant psychological distress, including feelings of guilt, shame, and depression.

Misconception 3: BED Only Affects Women

Another common misconception is that binge eating disorder only affects women.

While it's true that women are slightly more likely to develop BED than men, the disorder affects both genders. Men struggle with BED, too, but they may be less likely to seek help due to societal stigma.

Misconception 4: BED Can Be Cured by Diet and Exercise

Many people (including those who struggle with food) believe that the condition can be cured simply by dieting or exercising.

Yet, binge eating disorder is not about food. It's not what you're eating that's the problem, but what's eating “at” you. Focusing on food distracts from the root issues that lead to the behavior.

Decoding Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

One of the primary binge eating disorder symptoms is eating to the point of being uncomfortably full and even to the point of pain. Looking at this from the perspective of the mind-body connection can decode the underlying reasons behind bingeing.

For example, eating to the point of being uncomfortably full may be a physical way to express emotional discomfort.

The Mind-Body Connection

Eating to the point of being in physical pain may be a way of unconsciously converting emotional discomfort or pain to physical discomfort or pain. 

This reflects a complex interplay between mind and body. Our bodies often express what our minds cannot process.

Understanding this symbolic language can be key to unraveling the underlying causes of the disorder and forging a path toward healing. After all, it's easier to get rid of physical pain than emotional pain. 

Eating to Fill an Emotional Void

Imagine the experience of loneliness, which most of us have experienced at one time or another. In our bodies, loneliness can register as a sense of emptiness or longing. This is why another symbolic communication behind binge eating has to do with filling a void.

Eating can be a way of symbolically filling an inner emptiness.  The act of binge eating can temporarily fill this void by providing a sense of comfort and distraction.

However, this relief is short-lived and often followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and further emotional distress, creating a vicious cycle. 

Displacement of Emotions

Those with binge eating disorder symptoms often get angry and frustrated with themselves for bingeing.

Yet, this can be a form of displacement, which involves redirecting emotions from one situation to another.

It is a way for the mind to protect itself from feelings or thoughts that may be too difficult or uncomfortable to confront directly.

For example, someone who is frustrated with their partner, friend, or child, may feel guilty about having those thoughts and instead get frustrated with themselves for what they're eating or what they weigh.

Maddie's Story

Maddie came to see me for help with her lifelong history of binge eating. She attended a family gathering, where she ate “everything in sight” and then continued to binge eat when she got home, to the point of physical pain.

“I just can't control myself around food,” she said. “I tell myself to be good, but it's like something takes over and I can't stop.”

After each binge eating episode she felt guilty and ashamed. Maddie had internalized the belief that her binge eating was a result of a lack of willpower. She believed that if she could just control her food intake, her problems would be solved. However, this belief only perpetuated the cycle of bingeing and shame.

Maddie began to understand that her binge eating was not about food or a lack of control, but rather a way of coping with deep-seated emotional pain.

She described a childhood where her emotional needs were often dismissed or minimized. Food became a way for her to cope with these painful feelings.

Therefore it was not surprising that she often binged after family gatherings, when she felt invisible and discounted.

Her binge eating symptoms revealed that she was comforting herself, filling a void, and turning emotional pain to physical discomfort. 

As Maddie learned to validate her own emotions and needs, her urge to binge diminished. She started to express herself more assertively in her relationships and found that the more she spoke up, her need to turn to food for comfort decreased.

Maddie's journey illustrates how binge eating symptoms are a way of covering up underlying emotional distress.

By addressing these deeper issues and developing healthier coping mechanisms, Maddie broke free from bingeing and developed a more nurturing relationship with herself and with food.

How to Address Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

Once the binge eating disorder symptoms have been recognized, it's important to take action, such as the following:

1. Seek Professional Help

Seek professional help from a licensed mental health professional specializing in binge eating disorder

They are trained to help you understand your eating habits, discover the hidden reasons behind binge eating, manage emotions, and develop healthier eating patterns.

2. Join a Support Group

Support groups can also be beneficial. Connecting with others who are experiencing the same struggles can provide emotional support and practical advice. 

You can find online support in addition to in-person groups. Surround yourself with supportive people who encourage and motivate you in your journey. 

This could be friends and family members in addition to a therapist, or a support group. Having a network of people who believe in you and your ability to heal can make all the difference.

3. Practice Self-Care

Self-care is an essential part of the treatment process. This includes taking care of your body by getting enough sleep and doing regular physical activity. Learn to recognize triggers that may lead to binge episodes, such as emotions, people and situations that upset you.

4. Turn Your Inner Critic Into A Friend

Many people with binge eating disorder have a harsh inner voice that constantly criticizes and judges their eating habits, appearance, and self-worth.

This inner critic often fuels feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem, which can trigger binge eating episodes as a way to cope with these painful emotions.

To break free, start cultivating a kinder, more compassionate inner dialogue. This means recognizing when your inner critic is speaking and consciously choosing to replace those negative thoughts with more supportive and encouraging ones.

For example, instead of berating yourself for a binge episode, you might say to yourself, “I know I struggled today, but I'm doing the best I can. Everyday's a new opportunity to take care of myself and make choices that align with my recovery.”

Practicing self-compassion is key here. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a close friend going through a difficult time.

Acknowledge your struggles, but also celebrate your strengths and progress, no matter how small.

As you can see, Binge Eating Disorder symptoms are deeply rooted in complex emotional factors. 

Whether it's losing control during eating or feeling guilt and shame, being aware of what underlies these symptoms tells us there's much more than meets the eye.

Remember, change is not a linear process. There will be ups and downs, successes and setbacks.

By consistently practicing self-compassion, engaging in self-care, and leaning on your support system, you can gradually transform your inner critic into an ally and develop a more loving, nurturing relationship with yourself.

Celebrate your courage, and trust in your innate ability to heal and thrive.

It is possible to regain a healthy relationship with food and remember that every day that you choose to support yourself is a powerful step towards freedom from binge eating.

Frequently Asked Questions

When it comes to matters of health and wellness, questions often like Binge Eating Disorder (BED) that carry an undeniable stigma and are often misunderstood.

Here, we aim to dispel some of the mystery and doubt that cloud the reality of BED by providing clear answers to frequently asked questions about Binge Eating disorder symptoms and more. 

1. Can Binge Eating Disorder lead to frequent weight fluctuation? 

This is indeed correct. With Binge Eating Disorder, you're likely to experience significant fluctuations in your weight.

This can be due to periods of excessive eating followed by guilt-induced fasting or dieting.While these dieting efforts may sometimes lead to temporary weight losses, they don't establish a healthy relationship with food and can perpetuate the cycle of binge eating.

2. Is Binge Eating Disorder associated with other health issues?

Binge Eating Disorder can contribute to several physical health problems. Excessive overeating may lead to obesity, which in itself contributes to numerous health issues such as heart disease, joint pain, and hypertension.

It's therefore crucial to address BED symptoms to protect your physical health.

3. Are feelings of distress and shame common in Binge Eating Disorder?

Quite so. One of the key symptoms of BED is the intense feelings of distress, shame, and guilt after a binge eating episode.

These emotions can fuel the ongoing cycle of bingeing — creating not just a physical, but also a significant emotional toll.

4. Can Binge Eating Disorder cause periodic fasting?

Yes, individuals with Binge Eating Disorder often engage in periodic fasting or repetitive dieting in an attempt to compensate for or “undo” the binge eating.

Despite these efforts, sustained weight loss is rarely achieved because this doesn't address the underlying emotional triggers of binge eating.

5. Is Binge Eating Disorder confidential? Can I talk about it openly? 

When seeking help for Binge Eating Disorder, whether through a mental health professional or a support group, confidentiality is typically a key component of these services.

However, sharing your experiences with trusted family and friends can also be an important part of recovery. Confronting the problem openly can help reduce the stigma and shame associated with the disorder.

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 The Author



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Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.


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