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Binge-eating disorder (BED)

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Binge-eating disorder (BED) is a mental health disorder.
  • It's when you repeatedly eat very large quantities of food in a short time.
  • Binge-eating disorder can impact you mentally and physically.
  • There are treatments to help you manage and overcome binge-eating disorder.

What is binge-eating disorder?

Binge-eating disorder (BED) is both a type of eating disorder and a mental health disorder.

Binge eating is different from overeating. Overeating is something that most people do sometimes, such as in social settings.

People with binge-eating disorder repeatedly act on an urge to eat large quantities of food in a short period of time, often in private. The foods most often eaten are highly processed foods such as breads, biscuits, chips and sweets.

What causes binge-eating disorder?

There are many possible causes of binge-eating disorder. Like other mental health conditions, binge-eating disorder can arise from childhood abuse or trauma. Some people have no obvious reason for having binge-eating disorder.

Some things may place you at higher risk of developing a binge-eating disorder, such as:

What are the symptoms of binge-eating disorder?

People with binge-eating disorder might feel:

  • out of control when they eat
  • the need to hoard food

They may eat:

  • large amounts of food in a short period of time, often sweet and savoury carbohydrates
  • rapidly
  • in secret
  • when they are not hungry
  • until after they feel full
  • as a way to cope with emotional distress

They might binge eat once or more each week, over a few months. This might evolve to become more frequent, e.g. daily.

People with binge-eating disorder are distressed by their eating behaviour and may feel:

  • ashamed
  • guilty after an eating binge
  • embarrassed by their actions

This can impact their life. They may withdraw from their usual activities and from family and friends.

People with binge-eating disorder can also experience physical symptoms, such as:

Binge-eating disorder is similar to bulimia nervosa. People with these disorders are often concerned about body image and consume large amounts of food.

However, people with binge-eating disorder do not use extreme weight loss measures every time they binge, such as:

  • forced vomiting
  • laxatives
  • excessive exercise

As a result, their weight may fluctuate, or they might be overweight or obese.

When should I see a doctor?

If you think you have binge-eating disorder, it is important to see a doctor. They can refer you to a specialist in eating disorders such as a:

Stigma around mental health and body image can make it difficult to seek help. Remember that you are not alone — binge-eating disorder makes up almost half of all eating disorder cases in Australia.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is binge-eating disorder diagnosed?

To diagnose binge-eating disorder, your doctor will:

  • do a mental health assessment
  • ask about your patterns of eating
  • ask about your thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with eating

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is binge-eating disorder treated?

The best treatment for binge-eating disorder is psychological therapy and dietary guidance.

Psychological therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy aims to:

  • address the underlying cause of your binge-eating disorder
  • help you to manage and overcome your binge-eating disorder

Dietary therapy aims to help you build a healthy, regular eating pattern by:

  • reducing your binge eating
  • challenging your food beliefs
  • developing your confidence in eating

Exercise and managing stress are also both important in your recovery.

You can also talk to your doctor about medication options that may benefit you.

Can binge-eating disorder be prevented?

Eating regular, satisfying meals can help to prevent binge-eating disorder.

Recognising the signs of things that may cause binge-eating disorder can also help prevent it.

Complications of binge-eating disorder

If unmanaged, binge-eating disorder can lead to other problems such as:

Resources and support

If you, or someone you know, thinks they might have binge-eating disorder, contact the following organisations for support, information and counselling:

Lists of mental support services can be found on the healthdirect and Department of Health websites.

You can call Head to Health on 1800 595 212 for advice and to get connected to local mental health services. Check the operating times here.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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