Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms & Causes

Our culture's obsession with achieving lower weight conveys an unavoidable message to maturing adolescents. According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 33 percent of adolescent girls believed that they were overweight and 56 percent were attempting to lose weight.

Adolescents with unrealistic expectations about weight may end up suffering from an eating disorder.  Read on to learn more about the causes and signs of eating disorders, as well as how Children’s Hospital Boston can help young adults struggling with an eating disorder.


What causes eating disorders?

It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of eating disorders, but there are several factors thought to be associated:

  • Social attitudes toward body appearance — often unrealistic — are believed to play a large role.

  • Adolescents who develop eating disorders are more likely to come from families with a history of weight problems, physical illness and mental health problems, such as depression or substance abuse. Genetics may also play a role.

  • Often teens with eating disorders come from families with high levels of stress, poor patterns of communication, unrealistically high expectations and underdeveloped problem-solving skills.

  • Sports or activities in which leanness is emphasized (e.g., ballet, running or wrestling) and sports in which scoring is partly subjective (e.g., skating or gymnastics) are associated with a higher incidence of eating disorders.

  • Teens with eating disorders often have other mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), affective (or mood) disorders and problems with substance abuse. They may also be dependent, immature in their emotional development and likely to isolate themselves from others.

How can I tell if my child is “bingeing”?
Bingeing is defined as eating much larger amounts of food than would normally be consumed within a short period of time (usually less than two hours). Eating binges occur at least twice a week for three months and may occur as often as several times a day.

Signs and symptoms

If your child has binge-eating disorder, some of the symptoms you may notice include:

  • recurrent episodes of binge eating (rapid consumption of excessive amounts of food in a relatively short period of time; often secretive), coupled with fearful feelings of not being able to stop eating during the bingeing episodes
  • eating a lot even when they don’t feel hungry
  • peculiar eating habits or rituals
  • anxiety
  • discouraged feelings related to dissatisfaction with themselves and their body appearance
  • depression
  • preoccupation with food, weight and body shape
  • weight fluctuations
  • food disappearing from the kitchen

What are the warning signs to look out for?

Eating disorders are illnesses of denial and secrecy; they're often very difficult to track down. So family members and friends shouldn't feel badly about not figuring out right away if their loved one has a problem.

That being said, there are some signs you can look for:

  • weight gain
  • irritability or moodiness
  • hiding food
  • hoarding food
  • rapid disappearance of food from the kitchen

Also be on the lookout for major change in eating or exercise behavior.

What are the potential complications of binge-eating disorder?

Binge-eating disorder is a serious disease. Here are some of the complications a young adult with bulimia may develop:


Researchers are actively exploring the question of whether binge-eating disorder can be prevented.

  • Awareness increases the chance of early detection and intervention — which in turn can reduce the severity of symptoms, enhance your child's normal growth and development and improve her quality of life.

  • Encouraging healthy eating habits and realistic attitudes toward weight and diet may also be helpful.

  • To some extent, parents can help prevent eating disorders in their children:

  • Here at Children’s Hospital Boston, our doctors encourage parents to avoid using food as a behavioral reward and to provide variety in appropriate portion sizes.

  • Parents should carefully monitor growth and development, helping their children avoid obesity through sensible eating and physical activity.

  • Parents should stress health and fitness—not “thinness.”

Long-term outlook

Treatment for binge-eating disorder is still developing because it’s such a new condition. However treatment for most eating disorders is a slow process that may last years.

The vast majority of adolescents suffering from binge-eating disorder will enter a recovery phase, but there may be a lifelong struggle with food and consequent weight loss or gain.

When to seek medical advice

If you notice changing eating or exercising habits in your child, it might mean that she has an eating disorder such as binge-eating disorder. You should make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician right away.

If your child has already been diagnosed with binge-eating disorder, you should call her doctor if you see any further change in your child’s behavior relating to food or exercise.

Useful medical terms

Anorexia Nervosa (Anorexia) is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation with or without over-exercise or purging. Anorexia is a complex disease involving psychological, sociological, and physiological elements.

Anxiety disorder is a generalized term used to describe mental health disorders relating to excess worrying, phobias and nervousness. A person suffering from an anxiety disorder may have panic attacks and may be unable to pursue normal daily routines.

Behavioral problem or disorder is a generalized term used when a child or teenager behaves—over a long period of time—in ways that are not socially acceptable for his or her age and situation or in ways that are destructive or self-destructive.

Binge-eating disorder is an eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of eating what others would consider an abnormally large amount of food and frequent feelings of being unable to control what or how much is being eaten.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by severe mood swings. A person with this disorder may go from being manic, extremely elated and energetic to being depressed, sad, and sluggish. People with this disorder are sometimes known as “manic depressives.”

Bulimia Nervosa (commonly known as Bulimia) is an eating disorder characterized by extreme overeating or “binge” eating followed by self-induced vomiting, excessive exercising, inappropriate use of laxatives or enemas or fasting.

Clinician is an individual who is trained to practice medicine or psychological counseling and who works directly with people instead of in a laboratory.

Depression (clinical) is a mental health disorder characterized by a sad mood that is both prolonged and severe. Clinical depression can be treated with medication, therapy, and hospitalization if necessary.

Diagnostic evaluation refers to when a clinician assesses the symptoms presented by your child in order to come to an informed opinion about what condition is causing those symptoms.

Dietician/Nutritionist refers to professionals with specialized training in nutrition. They, along with nurses and doctors, help families design healthy eating plans and provide long-term follow-up.

Mood disorder is a generalized term referring to mental health disorders where a person’s general mood is distorted or inappropriate given the circumstances. Clinical depression and bipolar disorder are both mood disorders.

Nurse Practitioner refers to a person with an Advanced Practice Nurse (APN) degree who manages patient care and provides primary care services as well as specialty services. Unlike most nurses, nurse practitioners can diagnose patients and prescribe medications.

Psychiatrist refers to a medical doctor who has specialized training in behavioral and mental health disorders. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication to their patients.

Psychologist refers to a mental health professional who is not a medical doctor and who does not prescribe medication. Clinical psychologists have extensive training in therapy and psychological testing.

Social Worker refers to a professional who patients and their families deal with the broad range of psychosocial issues and stresses related to coping with illness and maintaining health.