Everybody overeats from time to time. But, binge eating disorder (BED) is different, though. It is the most common eating disorder in the US and is quite hard to address (1). Luckily, this disorder is treatable. There are several simple tips you can follow to effectively prevent binge eating. The first step though is understanding its symptoms, causes and possible health risks. Read on to know more.
What Is BED and How Would You Know If You Have It?
Characterized by frequent episodes of eating larger amounts of food in a short period of time, BED can be considered as a chronic disease that can last for several years (2). It can affect any age, but it usually starts in the early twenties. Similar to other eating disorders, women are more affected than men (3). It is often accompanied by depression, shame, and lack of control.
To confirm a diagnosis of BED, you must have at least one episode of binge eating per week for a minimum of 3 months and three or more of the following symptoms:
- Eating more often than usual
- Eating large amounts of food even when not hungry
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating alone due to feelings of shame, distress, and embarrassment
- Feeling sicken with oneself
Another significant characteristic is the absence of inappropriate behaviors. Unlike bulimia, BED patients do not over-exercise, throw up, and take laxatives to cover for a binging episode.
Why Are You Binge Eating?
The exact cause of BED is not well established, but several risk factors play a role:
- Genetics: Bed patients are more sensitive to dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure. Evidence also shows that BED is inheritable (4, 5, 6).
- Gender: Women are more commonly affected than men. In the US. 3.6% of women have BED, compared to only 2% of men. Biological factors play a role (6, 7).
- Brain Changes: It is believed that BED patients may have structural changes in the brain that decreases self-control and heightens responses to food (6).
- Body Size: Almost half of BED patients are obese, and 25-50% of patients wanting surgery to lose weight meet the criteria for BED. Weight issues may be both a cause and consequence of BED (5, 7, 8, 9).
- Body Image: BED patients have a very negative body image. Dieting, overeating, and body dissatisfaction contribute to the development of BED (10, 11, 12).
- Emotional Trauma: Traumatizing life events have been found to be associated with BED. These include abuse, vehicular accident, separation, bullying due to weight, and death (13, 14, 15).
- Other Psychological Conditions: Nearly 80% of BED patients have at least 1 other psychological disorder. It could be anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse (8).
What Are the Possible Complications?
BED is associated with several health risks. It can affect you physically, emotionally, and socially. As much as 50% of BED patients are obese. But, because of high-calorie intake, BED can also be considered as an independent risk factor for weight gain (8).
BED patients have a greater risk for type 2 DM, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer (16, 17). Asthma, sleep problems, chronic pain conditions, and irritable bowel syndrome may also occur (2, 3, 18). In women, there is a risk of developing polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fertility problems, and complications during pregnancy (18).
Some patients are having problems functioning properly in social settings. Approximately 13% of people have been classified to have severe dysfunction (2). They also tend to have more ER and hospital visits and worse quality of life (19).
Although these risks are highly significant, there’s also a number of very good treatments and prevention tips for BED.
Treatment Options for BED
Several drugs have been proven to be effective in treating binge eating. These are the cheapest and fastest options available. However, no current medications are as effective as behavioral therapies. Patients are usually given antidepressants, topiramate, and lisdexamfetamine. They can help reduce appetite, compulsions, obsessions, and symptoms of depression (20).
Although promising, long-term effects should still be investigated as there are side effects for drug therapy. Patients often complain of headaches, sleep disturbances, stomach problems, increased blood pressure, and anxiety (20).
Weight Loss Therapy
Behavioral weight loss therapy helps reduce episodes of binge eating by improving one’s self-esteem and body image. The goal is to make healthy lifestyle changes, which includes diet and exercise. Behavioral weight loss therapy is not as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy or Interpersonal psychotherapy. It can only help people achieve short-term and moderate weight loss (21, 22, 23, 24). However, it remains to be a good option for patients who were not successful with other therapies and who are mainly interested in slimming down.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT facilitated by a knowledgeable therapist is considered to be the most effective treatment for BED (21). It focuses on understanding the associations between negative thoughts or feelings and behaviors related to weight, body shape, and eating (20, 21). As soon as the emotions and patterns have been established, techniques can be developed to help change them. Interventions would include setting goals, self-monitoring, establishing regular meal patterns, improving thoughts about self and weight, and promoting healthy weight control habits (21).
Self-help form of CBT is an option. Patients are given manuals to work on their own while doing some meetings with a therapist for guidance. This is cheaper and more accessible. There are websites and mobile apps offering support. Self CBT can be used as an effective alternative to traditional CBT (24, 25).
IPT follows the concept that people use binge eating as a coping mechanism for unresolved personal problems (21). The main goal of this therapy is to identify the specific problem associated with negative eating patterns, acknowledge it and make constructive changes within 12-16 weeks (20, 26).
Sessions can be done one-on-one or in a group with a trained therapist. This is the only other therapy with long-term benefits as effective as CBT (21).
Helpful Tips to Stop Binge Eating
Ditch the Diet
Fad diets are often unhealthy. Studies also show that very restrictive diets can trigger episodes of binge eating. Abstaining from certain foods may result in increased cravings and overeating (27, 28). Instead of cutting out entire food groups and significantly decreasing your calorie intake, make small and gradual healthy changes to your diet.
Eat more whole, unprocessed foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Moderate your consumption of treats instead of excluding them for good.
Do Not Skip Meals
Set a regular eating schedule and stick to it to decrease the frequency of binge eating (29). Skipping meals can lead to cravings. One study showed that eating one large meal per day can increase blood sugar and ghrelin levels to a much greater extent than eating 3 times daily (30).
Mindfulness is a practice that requires an understanding of your body and paying close attention to how you feel. By learning how to recognize that you are no longer feeling hungry, you can prevent overeating. Practicing mindfulness meditation, combined with CBT, can greatly improve eating patterns and self-awareness (31, 32).
Keep Yourself Hydrated
Drinking more water throughout the day can help curb cravings and stop binge eating. Evidence shows that water intake before a meal can lessen hunger, increase the feeling of fullness, and decrease calorie consumption (33, 34).
Yoga uses specific breathing techniques, poses, and meditation to eliminate stress and promote relaxation. Studies show that it can help encourage healthy eating habits too and prevent emotional or stress eating (35, 36). Yoga can also decrease stress hormones like cortisol and prevent binge eating (37, 38). Join a yoga class now or practice at home using online videos!
Eat More Fiber
Fiber can help you feel full longer (39). Increasing your fiber intake can help reduce your appetite and cravings. Evidence shows that supplementing with fiber present in vegetables at least twice daily can help decrease hunger, reduce calorie intake, and increase fullness (40). Another study proved that taking 16 grams of prebiotic fiber every single day can increase hormones that influence satiety (41). Take more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes!
Starting your day with a healthy breakfast can help you stay on track and decrease your risk of binge eating later in the day. As mentioned earlier, following a regular eating pattern can help! A high-protein breakfast can reduce ghrelin levels to a greater extent as compared to a high-carb meal (42). Eating protein-rich oatmeal can help in appetite control too! (43). So, combine fiber-rich foods with a good source of protein to stop overeating!
Rest and Sleep
Not only does sleep affect appetite and hunger levels, but deprivation can also cause binge eating too! One study found that BED patients have significantly greater insomnia symptoms (44). Shorter sleep durations were also linked to higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and less leptin, which promotes fullness. Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep to your appetite in check!
Go to the Gym
Studies show that regular exercise can help prevent binge eating, especially when paired with CBT (45, 46). It can also help decrease stress levels and boost mood to prevent emotional eating (47). Walk, run, bike, swim, or play your favorite sports regularly! Staying fit can help you de-stress and avoid binge eating!
Keep a Mood and Food Journal
Journals can be an effective tool to track what you eat and the way you feel. This makes you more responsible by identifying potential triggers and promoting healthier eating behaviors. One study proved that the use of an online self-help program that allows you to keep a food diary led to fewer episodes of binge eating (48). Start writing what you eat and how you feel daily!
Talk to Someone
Seek Professional Help When Needed
If you are still struggling with BED even after trying some of the tips listed above, it is best to ask for professional help. As discussed earlier, treatment options may include medications and behavioral therapies. CBT is considered to be the most effective for long-term goals, but medications can help in reducing the symptoms immediately.
BED has become a common issue that affects millions of people worldwide. It does not only affect your body, but it can also take a major toll on your mental and emotional health.
Luckily, aside from effective treatment options, there are easy modifications in your lifestyle and diet that can help reduce the frequency and severity of binge eating while improving your overall health and wellbeing.