With so much of our culture hyper-focused on what a person eats (and what a person weighs), it can be hard to define what “overeating” actually is—and when that overeating becomes a bigger problem. Do you simply have a big appetite, or are you actually with struggling an eating disorder? Here’s how to decipher the differences between regular overeating and the more serious binge eating disorder.
What is binge eating disorder?
According to the National Eating Disorders Associationbinge eating disorder is severe and can be life-threatening but is also treatable. It’s characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food. This is typically done very quickly and to the point of feeling uncomfortable. Other characteristics of BED include a feeling of loss of control during the binge and shame or guilt after it. Notably, bulimia involves unhealthy compensatory measures like purging after a binge, while BED does not.
BED is recognized in the DSM-5, but its addition to the diagnostic manual as its own disorder is relatively recent. Prior to 2013, it was considered a subtype of OSFED, or “other specified feeding and eating disorder.” Now, it’s the most common eating disorder in America.
Diagnostic criteria include the following:
- Eating within a discrete time period an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in that time period under similar circumstances
- A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode
- Eating more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts when not hungry, eating alone because of embarrassment over how much is being consumed, and feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty afterward (note that three of these must be present for a diagnosis)
- Marked distress regarding bingeing
- The binge occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months
- The binge eating is not associated with inappropriate compensatory behaviors like purging and does not occur exclusively during the course of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa
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How is binge eating disorder different from overeating?
According to HealthlineBED is a medical condition, and overeating is not. BED is also associated with other psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety.
Another primary difference between the two is the feeling of distress or shame that comes with BED and its related behaviors. If you occasionally overeat, but you don’t feel distressed or guilty about it afterward, it’s unlikely you have BED. Next time you overeat, take note of what is going on. If you are doing it alone to hide your behavior, feeling out of control when it’s happening, and feeling ashamed afterward, you could have BED and should consider talking to a mental health professional.
(Here is how to find a good therapist even if you don’t have insurance, and here are warning signs your child may have BED.)
What can be done about BED?
If you end up with a diagnosis, here’s what you need to know: First, getting the diagnosis is a good thing, as BED can cause health complications like asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure in addition to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
Second, there are treatments available. Typically, people with BED will be treated with some kind of psychotherapy or counseling and there will be a medical or nutritional component, too. To figure out what kind of treatment you need, your mental health professional will consider emotional factors and the severity of your BED. Therapy can help address the underlying causes of the disorder, and medicine can help regulate your eating habits.