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Binge-Eating Disorder: What You Need to Know

Do you suspect that someone you care about might be struggling with an eating disorder? Here are tips on how to recognize a binge-eater-and how to help find treatment.

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What is binge-eating disorder?

Anyone who’s been faced with a table of tempting munchies knows we all overindulge from time to time. Though we might refer to that as “bingeing,” the medical definition of the word is, when excessive consumption becomes a regular, compulsive habit. “The core feature is the sense that you can’t avoid eating or can’t stop once you’ve started,” says Eva Conceição, a psychology research fellow at the University of Minho in Portugal. 

Bingeing was first recognized as a mental illness in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013 and used worldwide. Scientists aren’t exactly certain what causes binge-eating disorder (BED), but they suspect it has a genetic component, as alcoholism sometimes does. 

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What treatments are there for binge-eating disorder?

Because binge-eating disorder is often tangled up with anxiety or low self-esteem, it can be treated with talk therapy. Doctors may also prescribe various off-label pharmaceutical options, including drugs intended for depression or epilepsy. The only medication a national health authority has officially sanctioned for binge-eating disorder is lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (brand name Vyvanse), so far approved only in the United States. Already used by ADHD sufferers, it’s said to decrease binge eaters’ hard-to-control compulsions. However, it isn’t a diet pill and isn’t recommended for people looking to shed a few pounds. 

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What’s the difference between binge-eating and plain overeating?

It’s not always easy to make the distinction between binge-eating and overeating. Weight problems alone aren’t enough to make a diagnosis: even though about two-thirds of binge eaters are obese, the converse isn’t true. Many heavier people owe the condition to a sedentary lifestyle, an unbalanced diet or oversized portions. The DSM-5 lays out the distinguishing features of BED: during episodes, which generally happen at least once a week, binge eaters consume quickly and copiously, whether they’re hungry or not, and they tend to do so alone. 

If this describes you, the place to start is the doctor’s office. Besides treating the psychological aspects of BED, health practitioners can advise on how to lose weight (if relevant) while avoiding unhealthy strategies-such as skipping meals or severely restricting calories-that could backfire by triggering further episodes of bingeing. 

Check out more advice on how to recognize the warning signs of an eating disorder.

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