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Binge-eating disorder

Binge-eating disorder is a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food. Almost everyone overeats on occasion, such as having seconds or thirds of a holiday meal. But for some people, overeating crosses the line to binge-eating disorder and it becomes a regular occurrence, usually done in secret.

When you have binge-eating disorder, you may be deeply embarrassed about gorging and vow to stop. But you feel such a compulsion that you can't resist the urges and continue binge eating. If you have binge-eating disorder, treatment can help.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

You may have no obvious physical signs or symptoms when you have binge-eating disorder. You may be overweight or obese, or you may be at a normal weight. However, you likely have numerous behavioral and emotional signs and symptoms, such as:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food
  • Eating even when you're full or not hungry
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until you're uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about your eating
  • Experiencing depression and anxiety
  • Feeling isolated and having difficulty talking about your feelings
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss
  • Losing and gaining weight repeatedly, also called yo-yo dieting

After a binge, you may try to diet or eat normal meals. But restricting your eating may simply lead to more binge eating, creating a vicious cycle.

When to see a doctor

If you have any symptoms of binge-eating disorder, seek medical help as soon as possible. Binge-eating disorder usually doesn't get better by itself, and it may get worse if left untreated.

Talk to your primary care doctor or a mental health provider about your binge-eating symptoms and feelings. If you're reluctant to seek treatment, talk to someone you trust about what you're going through. A friend, loved one, teacher or faith leader can help you take the first steps to successful treatment of binge-eating disorder.

Helping a loved one who has symptoms

A person with binge-eating disorder can become an expert at hiding behavior, making it hard for others to detect the problem. If you have a loved one you think may have symptoms of binge-eating disorder, have an open and honest discussion about your concerns. You can offer encouragement and support and help your loved one find a qualified doctor or mental health provider and make an appointment. You may even offer to go along.

The causes of binge-eating disorder are unknown. But family history, biological factors, long-term dieting and psychological issues increase your risk.

Factors that can increase your risk of developing binge-eating disorder include:

  • Family history and biological factors. You're much more likely to have an eating disorder if your parents or siblings have (or had) an eating disorder. Some people with binge-eating disorder may have inherited genes that make them more susceptible to developing the disorder, or their brain chemicals may have changed.
  • Psychological issues. Most people who have binge-eating disorder are overweight, acutely aware of their appearance, and feel bad about it. When you have binge-eating disorder, you may act impulsively and feel you can't control your behavior. You may have a history of depression or substance abuse. And you may have trouble coping with stress, worry, anger, sadness and boredom.
  • Dieting. Many people with binge-eating disorder have a history of dieting — some have dieted to excess dating back to childhood. Dieting may trigger an urge to binge eat, especially if you have low self-esteem and symptoms of depression.
  • Your age. Although people of any age can have binge-eating disorder, it often begins in the late teens or early 20s.

You may develop psychological and physical problems related to binge eating. Some of these complications arise from being overweight due to frequent bingeing. Other complications may occur because of unhealthy yo-yo eating habits — bingeing followed by harsh dieting. In addition, food consumed during a binge is often high in fat and low in protein and other nutrients, which could lead to health problems.

Complications that may be caused by, or linked with, binge-eating disorder include:

  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Insomnia
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Gallbladder disease and other digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Some types of cancer
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Menstrual problems

Although there's no sure way to prevent binge-eating disorder, if you have symptoms of binge eating, seek professional help. Your primary care doctor or other health care provider can advise you on where to get help.

If you know someone with a binge-eating problem, steer them toward healthier behavior and professional treatment before the situation worsens. Here's how you can help:

  • Cultivate and reinforce a healthy body image in your children no matter what their size or shape.
  • Talk with your pediatrician. Pediatricians may be in a good position to identify early indicators of an eating disorder and help prevent its development.
  • If you notice a relative or friend who seems to have food issues that could lead to or indicate an eating disorder, consider supportively talking to the person about these issues and ask how you can help.
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