Binge-eating disorder

Binge-eating disorder (BED) is a type of eating disorder where people feel compelled to overeat in order to deal with difficult emotions. People may feel as though they can’t stop themselves from eating, no matter how much they want to.

Binge-eating is when a person eats a large amount of food over a short space of time. They may not be hungry when doing this, often resulting in physical discomfort, as well as feelings of shame and guilt. Often referred to as compulsive eating, the sufferer may have come to rely on food to mask or cope with feelings of distress.

It is estimated that more than 1.5 million people in Britain suffer from an eating problem. Binge-eating disorder is believed to affect men and women equally at any age, though it tends to be more common in adults.

What is binge-eating disorder?

Binge-eating episodes will typically take place in private and may last a number of hours, though some episodes can last all day. This lack of control can leave a person feeling very distressed and upset, and it is often a sense of shame that prevents them from speaking up and seeking support.

Binge-eating disorder (also referred to as BED) can affect a person both physically and emotionally. Commonly associated with depression and anxiety, it is important for sufferers to know they're not alone and shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help. 

Spotting the signs of binge-eating disorder

There are certain feelings and behaviours associated with binge-eating disorder. If you are turning to food for emotional support, you may experience feelings of guilt, loneliness, sadness, low self-worth, stress and anxiety.

It is common for people with eating problems to feel ashamed, or even embarrassed by their behaviours. They tend to be very secretive and, because of this, many people will not seek help early enough, if at all. Below we list some of the feelings and behaviours associated with binge-eating disorder. If you recognise them in yourself, or you are worried about someone else, please keep reading.

  • feelings of shame/guilt
  • picking at food all day or eating large amounts at once
  • eating until you feel sick or discomfort
  • feeling sad or upset about your body, in particular if you are gaining weight
  • feeling very low or worthless
  • sensing a loss of control around food, even if you want to stop
  • feeling stressed or anxious
  • eating in private or hiding how much you’re eating

I wish people knew that I do not enjoy eating until I’m in agony. It’s not as simple as making a choice to diet, to run or to go to the gym; while this can sometimes help, if your mental health is not looked after it rarely lasts. This is something that runs deep, it’s from trauma and from a lack of support, it has never been my choice.

- Read Charlotte's experience of binge-eating disorder.

If you recognise any of the above signs or behaviours, it doesn’t necessarily mean you do have an eating problem, but it is important to consult your GP. When you are in the depths of an eating problem, it can be very difficult to see a way out - this is even more difficult if you’re doing it alone. But recovery is possible and there is a way out - as dark and alone you may feel right now, people are there to help you.

Getting support

As with most eating problems, binge-eating disorder will often develop as a result of an underlying issue. Understanding this and getting help is key to overcoming and recovering from an eating disorder.

Talking about your experience can help ease some of the pressures and stress you may be feeling, though we understand that this can be incredibly daunting. We can often turn to our friends and family for support, though sometimes this is not possible. Other ways you can get support include:

  • speaking to your GP
  • online charities or support groups 
  • consider talking to a counsellor

What treatment is available?

It’s important to realise that you can recover from an eating disorder. While it may not be straightforward or easy, we know that the earlier someone gets treatment, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. Having people around you, who you trust and will support you, help make the next steps seem less of a climb.


It is common for your GP to recommend self-help techniques for overcoming binge-eating disorder. They may suggest books or self-help courses, as well as online support groups and helplines. Self-help programmes can be for individuals, in a group or one-to-one with a professional (guided self-help). What form you would like is up to you, ask questions and take time to decide what you believe will be most beneficial.

Take steps to develop a healthier relationship with food. It is important to understand the difference between hunger and relying on food for emotional support. 

Talking therapies

Psychological treatment is often required to help overcome eating problems. Below are the most common talking therapies recommended for eating problems, including binge-eating disorder.

Understanding some of the emotional reasons that perpetuate your eating is a good start, and counselling will help you gain insight into this and assist you to develop tools for managing your emotions without turning to food.

- Sarah Dosanjh (Disordered Eating Psychotherapist).


Your GP may recommend medication as either an alternative or to accompany other therapies. While there are no drugs that help specifically with eating disorders, antidepressants or medications for anxiety may be offered.

When used as an accompaniment to talking therapies, medication can be helpful. This isn’t the option for everyone, so be sure to discuss this with your doctor.

Supporting a loved one

Having an eating disorder can be very scary and isolating. People may be too ashamed to speak up, so it is important for others to be aware of the signs and reach out if worried about a loved one.

If you suspect someone you know may be struggling, consider the following:

  • One of the most important things you can do is let them know you’re there. They may not be ready to talk, but knowing you will be there to listen when they are is a very powerful thing.
  • Understand that while to you, their behaviour is a problem, they may not see it in the same light. Many people with an eating disorder do not see it as a problem, but a solution to dealing with other, more difficult feelings.
  • Try to avoid making social plans surrounding food. This can be very stressful for your friend. Instead, suggest going for a walk or having an evening to relax and take your mind off things.
  • Educate yourself on the conditions and how you can help. This can give you an insight into what they are going through and how they may be feeling.

Remember to look after yourself. Worrying about a loved one can be exhausting, so be sure to take time out and talk about your thoughts. It can be frustrating to see someone you care about in trouble, but without looking after yourself, you risk pushing them. Making sure you rest and are healthy is the first step to caring for another.

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

There is no law in place specifying the level of training a counsellor must have in order to treat individuals with BED. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence have developed a set of clinical guidelines that issue advice on types of psychological treatment, medication and available services.

Key recommendations include the following:

  • Cognitive behaviour therapy for binge-eating disorder (CBT-BED), a specifically adapted form of CBT, should be offered to adults with binge-eating disorder.
  • Other psychological treatments may be offered to adults with binge-eating disorder, including interpersonal psychotherapy for binge-eating disorder and modified dialectical behaviour therapy.
  • Patients should be informed that all psychological treatments for binge-eating disorder have a limited effect on body weight.

For more information, please visit the full NICE guidelines:

Eating disorders: NICE guidelines

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