National Eating Disorders Association

Unpacking the Term “Binge Eating Disorder”

Chelsea Kronengold, MA, Program Associate

Binge eating disorder (BED), the most common eating disorder no one talks about, affects 1- 5% of the general population. Despite the fact that more people are struggling with BED than with anorexia and bulimia combined, it is widely stigmatized, misunderstood, and overlooked. 

Even the name—binge eating disorder—can inspire eye rolls from people who aren’t familiar with the devastating effects of BED. To get to the heart of this loaded term, we’ll walk you through it, one word at a time. 

Binge – Nowadays, the word binge is loosely thrown around with comments like, “I can’t wait to binge-watch that popular TV show later.” However, in the eating disorder world, we know that binging is not a flippant word used to describe the act of relaxing and watching Netflix for hours on end; it is a word that is associated with anger, guilt, shame, and disgust. When the term binge is followed by eating, it often means isolation and a lack of control. While binge eating is also characteristic of bulimia nervosa, BED differs because there is no compensatory behavior (e.g., purging) after a binge episode.  

Eating – Binge eating disorder is characterized by consuming large quantities of food in a short period of time. Most people overeat every now and then; however, with BED, binge eating episodes and behaviors typically occur in private (e.g., eating alone and hiding/hoarding food) and when the individual is not physically hungry. Although the emphasis tends to be on one’s relationship with food, BED is driven by feelings rather than hunger. In other words, food is used as a means to cope with the underlying emotions that the individual is trying to soothe or suppress. 

Disorder – Binge eating disorder is just that: a disorder. It is a mental illness that stems from a variety of genetic, biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors. BED is often associated with serious physical and psychological consequences like heart disease, depression, anxiety, and obesity. While two-thirds of individuals with BED are overweight or obese, it can affect people of any weight or size. Likewise, it is important to note that not all obese folks struggle with BED. 

Social stigma and misconceptions of BED can interfere with a timely diagnosis and suitable treatment. Many individuals who recognize their struggle often fear that they are not “sick enough” or falsely believe that their eating concerns are not as serious as others; however, BED is a real and complex condition that merits effective treatment from an eating disorder specialist. 

It is important to note that recovery from binge eating disorder does not necessarily involve losing weight; it is a timely process that comprises of rebuilding one’s relationship with food and finding healthier alternatives for fueling feelings. The good news is that recovery from binge eating disorder is possible with the right help and support, and NEDA is here to connect people with the information and treatment options they deserve.