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What is binge eating?

People with binge-eating disorder (or compulsive overeating) go through periods of eating too much when they are not actually hungry. They often feel that they can't control their eating, yet constantly try to gain control through dieting or fasting. People with this eating disorder feel compelled to binge eat in a way that is very like bulimia. However, they do not purge what they have eaten, like people with bulimia do.

There is a strong connection between dieting and diet thinking, and binge-eating disorder. Fasting, restricting food intake, and characterising certain foods as good or bad lead to a negative cycle of food cravings and obsessions, overeating, and then to feelings of guilt and shame. People with binge-eating disorder are likely to become overweight.

Binge eating is also often called emotional eating. For many people who binge eat, food provides comfort or distraction. It also might be a way of dealing with feelings, and coping with the stresses and strains of everyday life.


Binge-eating disorder is caused by a combination of factors both inside and outside the person. These contributing factors fall into three groups: past experiences; pressure from outside; and pressure from within.

Past experiences

This can include: history of dieting; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; drug or alcohol misuse; childhood food restriction or denial; family problems; and depression.

Pressure from outside

Outside pressure includes: social pressure to be thin; social pressure to eat, consume and enjoy food; pressure to be attractive; stress.

Pressure from within

People with eating disorders may experience: low self-esteem or self-dislike; depression; unexpressed anger; relationship problems; and worries about their sexuality or sexual orientation.

Possible warning signs of binge-eating disorder

The warning signs of binge-eating disorder can include: frequent weight fluctuations; weight gain; frequent dieting; alternating between eating and fasting; rapid eating and eating until uncomfortably full; eating alone or in secret; obsession with food and eating.

How binge eating affects health

If you binge eat you may experience depression, anxiety, feelings of shame, obsessive thoughts and preoccupations. You may also have increased risk of: cardiovascular disease; bowel, breast, and reproductive cancers; and diabetes. You may also have arthritic damage to your joints, caused by obesity

What can help?



EAT can provide support, information and referral services to people dealing with binge-eating disorder, and to their families and friends.

Written by the Eating Awareness Team, St John of God Waipuna. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Updated January 2015.


Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane at

Page reference: 73567

Review key: HIEDI-73561