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Binge Eating Warning Signs – and the Treatment Options That Can Help

Often first occurring in the late teens and early twenties, binge eating disorder can wreak havoc on physical and mental health if left undiagnosed. Unfortunately, feelings of guilt, shame, and denial can prevent people from getting a diagnosis and the care they need to become recovered. Loved ones can help, however, by watching for the warning signs and reaching out for help from professionals at eating disorder treatment programs.

As they notice the warning signs, they can also start the conversation with their loved ones, helping them understand the importance of acquiring treatment. To get started, use this guide to see the most common binge eating warning signs and the treatment options that can help.

Behavioral Signs

Binge eating disorder is easiest to see in the behavioral changes that occur as a result of this condition. Common behavioral signs to watch for include:

Frequent Overeating

People with binge eating disorder will frequently overeat — consuming a lot of food in a short period. They will engage in this behavior whether they are hungry or not. These individuals may also eat much faster than normal, seemingly without an ability to control their intake.

Furthermore, they will often eat until they feel way too full, but they do not engage in any compensatory behaviors, such as purging. When purging accompanies binge eating behaviors, bulimia nervosa is the likely cause. Eating disorder treatment professionals can help differentiate between these conditions and help patients move through the appropriate treatment process to become recovered.   

Inability to Control Food Intake

Binge eating disorder causes strong urges and cravings that make it difficult to control food intake. People with this condition may struggle to eat regular meals due to these urges. They may expend a lot of energy trying to control the urge to binge on food rather than eat reasonable portions.

Once they start binging, they may have even less control over their intake of food during that period. Even after growing very full, and feeling sick to their stomach, they may not be able to stop eating. Instead, the binging behaviors tend to continue until the urge subsides or food runs out.

Unwilling to Eat Around Others

As eating behaviors change due to this disorder, many people will go to great lengths to avoid eating around others. They may say they are not hungry or make up other excuses to avoid eating meals with family and friends. This behavior may arise due to feeling unable to control the urge to overeat and fear of embarrassment.

Once people with binge eating disorder start avoid eating around others, they may start to consume food in other areas, such as:

  • Bathroom
  • Garage
  • Shed
  • Personal vehicle

They may also start to decline invitations out with friends, family, and the community if food will be present. These individuals may even skip family parties and other special occasions that are important to them. This can cause feelings of isolation and loneliness, both of which can worsen eating disorder symptoms.  

Missing Food and Hidden Wrappers

When engaging in binging behaviors, people may consume a large number of servings of food in a single sitting. In anticipation of the overwhelming urges to binge eat, they may hoard food in their rooms, vehicles, and other locations. Household members may discover food items coming up missing as a result.  

Since people with binge eating disorder frequently consume a lot in one sitting, they may also find it difficult to throw away the wrappers without someone noticing. These individuals may then hide the wrappers in their belongings and try to throw them away discreetly at a later time. The hidden food wrappers can cause the area to develop a bad odor and even attract pests.  

Frequent Dieting

Frequent dieting is another common binge eating disorder warning sign. People with this eating disorder may feel pressure to diet due to guilt and shame about overeating. If the binge episodes caused weight gain, the pressure to diet may come on even stronger.

These individuals tend to rotate through diets, following the new trends in hopes of losing weight fast. The rotation of diets can mask other symptoms of binge eating disorder, such as weight fluctuations, as they appear to be caused by yo-yo dieting.

Self-Harm

Binge eating disorder often causes mental anguish and stress that quickly becomes overwhelming. Without treatment options for eating disorders, people with this condition may begin to engage in self-harm behaviors. Signs of self-harm include:

  • Injuries without clear, reasonable explanation
  • Frequent injuries
  • Scars
  • Excessively covering up with clothing
  • Isolation
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Impulsivity
  • Depression

Self-harm is a serious complication of binge eating disorder and indicates the need for treatment. If left unaddressed, self-harm and binge eating disorder can both cause lasting mental and physical health effects. Friends and family members can reach out to eating disorder treatment centers for assistance in getting their loved ones the help they need.

Physical Symptoms

Frequent overeating, and the stress that arises as a result, can cause physical symptoms to develop over time. Many people with binge eating disorder will develop the following symptoms within a short time of their eating behaviors changing.

Gastrointestinal Distress

Gastrointestinal distress is one of the most common physical binge eating warning signs. People with this eating disorder may complain of stomachaches and many related symptoms, such as:

  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain

Unpredictable eating patterns impede the gastric system from working as intended, causing all these symptoms and more.

Food intolerances can even arise as the body tries to cope with the changes. While recovering from eating disorder symptoms, people may follow meal schedules and use portion control to reverse the damage done to their gastrointestinal system.

Fatigue

Fatigue commonly occurs as the abnormal eating patterns take their toll. Restricting food until they can eat privately can leave people without essential vitamins and nutrients, for example, quickly causing energy stores to dip down. Binging episode can prove equally detrimental, as the body works overtime to digest all that extra food.

This symptom is particularly problematic because fatigue makes it more difficult to avoid the urge to overeat. People may not have the energy to resist, resulting in an ever-worsening cycle of behavior. By attending eating disorder treatment programs, people will receive ongoing support that can overcome the additional challenges in recovery caused by this trying symptom.  

Weight Fluctuations

Over 2/3 of people with binge eating disorder are overweight due to the high calorie levels consumed during binges. But weight fluctuations are common as people try to control the urges and avoid binge eating behaviors. They may gain and lose weight regularly, causing them to move between clothing sizes often.

As far as binge eating disorder warning signs go, this one is overlooked most often. Many people simply attribute the weight fluctuations to yo-yo dieting or other common causes. Unfortunately, as weight changes affect the psyche, they can increase the urge to binge eat, worsening the problem altogether.

Mental Health Impact

Before recovering from eating disorders, people can suffer minor to severe mental health issues from the stress of living with and trying to manage their condition. Here are just some ways that can manifest.

Urge to Binge Eat

Binge eating disorder often causes strong urges to start consuming a large amount of food. This urge can feel quite overwhelming and make it difficult to think about anything else. People struggling to control these urges may feel overly stressed and irritable as they try to resist.

The urge to overeat can come on randomly and often arises whenever food is around. This is a big reason people with this condition start to isolate themselves and avoid gatherings. Their urges can be too strong to resist when around food, leading them to fear embarrassment and shame from their actions.   

Stress About Food

People with binge eating disorder are frequently stressed about food and may express their frustrations when around their loved ones. They may have rigid expectations and procedures surrounding food, making meals times incredibly stressful for all involved.

The stress about food can reinforce the urge to isolate and avoid group mealtimes, leaving these individuals without proper support. All this stress can worsen the urge to overeat as well, causing a distressing cycle for the person with binge eating disorder and their loved ones caught on the sidelines.

Isolation and Loneliness

As with all eating disorders, binge eating disorder quickly causes people to isolate themselves. These individuals often have low trust in others, even their close loved ones, that keep them silent about their challenges. Their isolation also comes from strong feelings of guilt and shame. They may not trust themselves to not binge eat around other people, causing them to isolate to avoid embarrassment.

When they isolate, these individuals often grow quite lonely and lack the social support they need to become recovered. Also, while they are spending so much time alone, their loved ones cannot watch for the binge eating disorder warning signs. Their journey toward recovering from eating disorder is often delayed, which negatively impacts their mental and physical health.

Shame and Guilt

Binge eating disorder causes people to feel immense shame and guilt. Engaging in binge eating behaviors, and simply feeling unable to control the urges, causes many people much shame. They may feel guilty about taking extra food from the household and hiding the problem from their loved ones.

Their guilt and shame often causes them to isolate even more, however, and even start to avoid important family gatherings. The isolation compounds this problem, alienating people with eating disorders from their social circle. People may start to reach out less often as a result, which leaves these individuals without the support they need.

Body Dissatisfaction

Body dissatisfaction is very common in people with binge eating disorder. As the urges drive people to overeat, their weight and body shape may fluctuate. This causes many insecurities to arise and frequently makes the urge to binge even worse.

But even before binge eating, many people with eating disorders are dissatisfied with their bodies. They may also:

  • Seem overly concerned with their body
  • Distress about weight and size changes
  • Have trouble perceiving their actual body size and shape
  • Checks themselves in the mirror more often than normal

As binge eating disorder symptoms progress, insecurities often worsen and cause a lot of shame. People often feel a stronger urge to isolate as their insecurities and feelings of shame continue.

Anxiety 

About 37 percent of people with binge eating disorder are also diagnosed with anxiety. This condition often heightens the intensity of worries and stress about overeating, body composition, and other issues. Even everyday activities can prove challenging, increasing the urge to isolate.   

Also, the anxious feelings can drive people to overeat as a way to cope with the stress. While eating, the brain receives calming signals that make them feeling better temporarily. But afterward, the guilt and shame can increase anxiety symptoms. Treatment is needed for both conditions to stop this cycle and improve their overall health and wellbeing.

Available Treatment Options for Eating Disorders

Day treatment and residential treatment are the two main treatment options for eating disorders. Admissions specialists can help people with binge eating disorder assess their need for care and find the right level of treatment.

Both of these eating disorder treatment programs focus on helping people become recovered from eating disorders and all underlying conditions, including anxiety. They help people replace dysfunctional behaviors with healthy coping mechanisms and take back control of their lives. Their efforts help people move through every stage of recovery, building the tools and knowledge they need to avoid relapse in the future.

Carrie Hunnicutt

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.

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