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Dieting Can Contribute to Binge Eating Disorder – Here’s How

Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It is known to affect approximately two percent of the overall population. Similar to other eating disorders, binge eating disorder is more prominent in women, although unlike anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, it affects men almost as frequently as women. Binge eating disorder recovery programs for men are needed for four percent of overall patients, as compared to an incidence rate of less than ten percent for other eating disorders. Binge eating disorder causes, similar to other eating disorders and most other behavioral health issues, can be a combination of various factors, such as home environment, genetic factors, psycho-biological and the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders. While dieting itself is not a primary cause of binge eating disorder, the stresses that normally result in extreme dieting are very commonly associated with the disorder itself.

What Are the Signs of Binge Eating Disorder?

Before we get into specific binge eating disorder causes, it is essential to define the signs of binge eating disorder and the health consequences it can cause. Unlike more traditionally defined eating disorders, BED doesn’t normally reflect avoidance of caloric intake or a purging behavior. The main behavioral symptom of binge eating disorder is the repeated pattern of eating large amounts of food, in short periods of time, beyond the point of being full. Some behavioral signs of binge eating disorder include:

  • Weight fluctuations, both sudden increases and decreases
  • Hoarding and/or hiding food away
  • Excessive food wrappers in the trash or hidden away
  • Avoiding mealtimes
  • Eating past the point of being full
  • Eating continuously through the day
  • Feeling discomfort or unease at meals with others
  • Engaging in frequent or excessive dieting

Binge eating disorder signs can also manifest physically, especially after the disordered behavior has been continuing for some time. By the time binge eating disorder recovery has begun, the individual may have serious health problems resulting from the disorder. Because the binge eating episodes that define the disorder are not followed by purging behaviors such as vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercise that are associated with bulimia nervosa, people with BED may be in a larger body. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Some of the health risks associated with BED include:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Strokes
  • Diabetes
  • Anemia
  • Sleep apnea
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Studies have shown people in need of binge eating disorder recovery programs are more likely to experience these problems than obese people who don’t have BED, perhaps because of the non-nutritional nature of the foods normally consumed during binge eating episodes and the cycle of meal avoidance and binge eating. If you observe some or all of these behaviors in yourself or a loved one, it is better to explore treatment sooner rather than later, as the complications can be severe if left untreated.

Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

Therapists, psychiatrists, and experienced caregivers at binge eating disorder recovery centers all agree; they can’t agree on one single cause of BED. As is common with most mental health and behavioral health disorders, it is generally thought a combination of factors can lead to BED. These factors can be broken down into three groups:

  • Biological factors

Certain glandular and hormonal diseases can precipitate the onset of binge eating episodes and binge eating disorder. Among these, the hypothalamus gland (a part of the brain which controls appetite and feelings of “fullness”) can malfunction, leading to hunger even when full, or a lack of a sense of fullness at all, which allows for eating large amounts. It is also indicated that when serotonin levels are low, compulsive or addictive behaviors such as binge eating sessions are common.

  • Psychological factors

Binge eating disorder presents far more often in people who suffer from mental health illnesses than in people who don’t. General anxiety disorder often results in compulsive behaviors (most dramatically in obsessive-compulsive disorder) which then may provoke feelings of guilt or shame, which exacerbate the anxiety, continuing a cycle of destructive behavior. Clinical depression is also closely linked with binge eating disorder, in that people with depression are often known to engage in comfort eating when depression symptoms are especially prevalent.

  • Environmental factors

These factors are more closely linked to a pattern of dieting and binging than the biological or psychological factors discussed above. Children who are exposed to a parent or close relative who had or have BED are much more likely to develop the disorder themselves. Similarly, people who are criticized for their weight or appearance as children, or are forced into dieting, often develop feelings of guilt or shame surrounding food intake, which can lead to a disordered relationship with food. This factors into the “sneaking” of large amounts of food or binges of junk food, again causing a cycle of negative feelings surrounding eating behaviors.

Dieting, BED, and Self-Image

The signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder are observed outwardly in certain behaviors, but the causative factors are normally internal. One of the central components of a disordered relationship with food and eating is a negative self-image; meaning the way a person sees themselves. In all eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, orthorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, a distorted or negative self-image is a causative factor.

The average age for onset of BED is normally in the late teens to early twenties, but a poor self-perception often has roots in childhood. Children who experience criticism or mockery for their weight or body shape can internalize the negative feelings resulting from these criticisms, feeling ashamed about their body or guilt over their eating habits. Especially in cases where the child is forced into a diet by parents, even on the recommendation of a doctor, it can set the foundation for a disordered attitude about food, skewing their thoughts about what, how much, and when they eat.

  • Parental pressure

It’s observed time and again that parents who have disordered relationships with food, eating, and weight can pass them on to the children. A theoretical example of this could be as follows: A young girl, say in 5th grade, may put on some weight as a natural part of pubescence, and may even feel self-conscious about it. Her father notes the weight increase and makes her go on a restrictive diet of only vegetables. While he may feel he is genuinely concerned about her health, the subconscious lesson she is being taught is that her body is somehow shameful, and she should stay on a strict diet until she is “skinny.” When she inevitably “cheats,” her body releases dopamine, triggering an addictive pattern of behavior alternating between dieting and binging. (Please note this is rarely if ever a malicious act on the part of the parent; it’s a sad fact that well-intentioned acts can have unforeseen consequences.)

  • Media and entertainment pressure

Via the movies, TV, the internet, social media, and even print magazines, people are assailed almost constantly by images and video of beautiful, “healthy” people. It’s completely natural to want to look like these people; in fact, advertising depends in large part on sex appeal. The problem is, the people in these ads and tv shows are professional models and actors whose job it is to look “pretty” and attractive (which means skinny, although this attitude is changing). It’s simply not realistic to compare yourself to someone who has a team of nutritionists planning their meals and who can spend several hours a day working out. When seeing, for example, a beautiful skinny woman, or a lean, muscular man, on the cover of a health magazine, many people will compare their own body to these idealized images of attractiveness. These pressures can add up to create feelings of body inadequacies, which can then lead to excessive dieting. And again, the addictive nature of “cheats” can then escalate into regular binge eating episodes which keep the cycle going.

  • Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is another factor that commonly takes place in the childhood/teenage years, although it is certainly not eliminated by adulthood. It can take the form of bullying, but just as often, peer pressure is internal – a sense of wanting to fit in, and be like your peers or people you know who you admire. Peer pressure can be linked to the common sign of binge eating disorder, the feeling of discomfort at meals with other people. In this scenario, someone who feels they are overweight may tell their friends that they’re on a diet and will eat only sparingly at meals with them, only to have a binge eating episode later on in the day. Even if the friends aren’t mocking or bullying, a person might make comparisons between themselves and their friends. Feelings of guilt about binge eating episodes can make it difficult to talk about these issues with friends, leading to isolation and further development in BED, both in children and in adults.

Food Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy

An essential part of binge eating disorder recovery and recovery from other eating disorders as well as body dysmorphic disorder and even depression is rehabilitating the individual’s relationship with food and their own self-image. BED can be described as a vicious cycle of a negative self-image, which leads to dieting, which leads to binge eating episodes, which leads back again to feelings of shame and guilt. This cyclical nature means that the symptoms of BED tend to worsen as time goes on, putting the individual at further risk of the health consequences mentioned earlier.

Treatment for BED can involve medication, but programs which ignore the causes of binge eating disorder in favor of appetite-suppressing drugs are missing the central point of therapy. A fully recovered lifestyle is only possible if the root causes and emotions are addressed through compassionate, understanding therapy from people who understand the journey to eating disorder recovery. The disordered cycle of dieting and binge eating sessions can be hard to break; for this reason, certain therapeutic methods that assist in changing attitudes about food and a person’s self-image are extremely useful during recovery.

Techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are a perfect example. Through a number of sessions, clients engaging in CBT will identify disordered thoughts and feelings surrounding food and self-perception, and then make a concentrated effort to understand them. They can then begin to replace these distorted and negative thoughts with more realistic, and self-accepting thought patterns. One of these positive attitudes is a “healthy” relationship with food. Many of the feelings of shame surrounding a person’s body, acquired from parental influence, media, or elsewhere have been so internalized that a person with BED may even feel that food is an enemy of sorts. Breaking this cycle is possible by accepting themselves and their body – not ignoring a medically appropriate weight and nutritional balance but not putting undue pressure on oneself to meet an unrealistic goal of attractiveness.

If you’re experiencing signs of binge eating disorder, or you have noticed them in a loved one, please consider reaching out to Monte Nido and associates as soon as possible. Our admissions specialists are available to provide assistance and guidance. Call us at 888.891.2590 to begin the journey to a recovered life today.


Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.