Teen Binge Eating Disorder

What is teen binge eating disorder? Which teens are at risk for binge eating? What are the symptoms of a teen binge eating disorder? Keep reading to learn the warning signs your teen may have a teen binge eating disorder, and what treatment is available for teens who binge eat.


Binge eating is not as well known as other teen eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but it can also have devastating effects on a teen's physical and mental well being. This article will help you understand what binge eating is, how to tell if a teen is at risk for binge eating, and how to help a teen who struggles with binge eating disorder.

What is binge eating?

Binge eating is the most common type of eating disorder. A teen binge eating disorder, also known as compulsive overeating, is when a teen is not able to control his or her overeating and has very negative emotions about his or her overeating problem.

Binge eating is not the same as eating too much at Thanksgiving dinner or at a get together with friends. It is also not the same as a teen suddenly eating more because he or she is still growing and needs more nutrition and calories. Though teen binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia, binge eating does not involve throwing up or laxative abuse after overeating.

Binge eating is a negative cycle where a teen eats because he or she feels bad, then feels even worse and eats more. Though the average person eats about 1800 to 2800 calories per day, a teen that is binging will usually eat 10,000 or more calories in a day. Because teen binge eating disorder makes one feel ashamed, they often hide their eating problems, so their family and friends may not be aware of how much they are eating.

Who is at risk for teen binge eating disorder?

Because teens with binge eating disorder usually hide their problem, it is important to be aware of risk factors for teen binge eating disorder. One of the most critical things to know about teen binge eating disorder is that, unlike most eating disorders, it affects guys and girls in about equal numbers.

Scientists don’t know all the causes of teen binge eating disorder, but they have found some common causes that may contribute to binge eating. Not all teens that binge eat have all of these risk factors, and not every teen with these risk factors will binge eat, but it is still helpful to know what may cause binge eating:

  • Genetics - having other family members with eating disorders
  • Problems with the hypothalamus, which controls appetite
  • Chemical imbalance involving serotonin, which controls moods
  • Poor body image or a preoccupation with unrealistic body images from the media
  • Lack of coping skills for strong emotions
  • Unhealthy eating habits or attitudes toward food
  • A history of being sexually abused
  • Suffering from depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Feeling a lack of control
  • Not knowing how to express feelings
  • Feeling lonely or left out
  • A tendency toward impulsive behaviors

What are the symptoms of a teen binge eating disorder?

One of the most common symptoms of teen binge eating disorder is being overweight or obese. Not every teen that binge eats is overweight, however, and because teens that binge eat tend to hide their problem, symptoms may be hard to notice. A teen that is gaining weight and seems withdrawn, depressed, and secretive may be hiding a problem with a teen binge eating disorder.

Some signs that a teen has binge eating disorder include:

  • Overeating several times a week for 6 months or more
  • Excessive weight gain
  • Eating faster than normal
  • Eating a lot even when he or she is not hungry or feels very full
  • Hiding eating habits from other people
  • Feeling disgusted, angry, depressed and/or guilty because of eating habits
  • Feeling unable to control eating
  • Going on crash fad diets, followed by more binging
  • Uncontrolled eating while doing other things, like watching TV
  • Eating for comfort when upset, stressed, or depressed
  • Hiding or hoarding food
  • Hiding empty food containers
  • Skipping other activities to binge

A teen binge eating disorder can also have serious side effects related to overeating, the emotional stress of binge eating, and/or obesity, such as:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Menstrual problems, for girls
  • High blood pressure 
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Cancer
  • Social withdrawal
  • Low sense of self worth
  • Depression and suicide

How is teen binge eating disorder treated?

Teen binge eating can be effectively treated, but a teen with binge eating disorder needs professional help to overcome his or her problem.

The first step to helping a teen with binge eating disorder is to talk to him or her about your concerns. Set aside a private time to talk. Express your love and concern for the teen using “I” statements (I’m worried about how much you’re eating) instead of “you” statements (You’re eating too much). Reassure your teen that there is help for him or her to overcome the eating disorder.

A doctor or therapist can help find the best way to treat a teen's binge eating disorder. Some treatments may include:

  • Treating any underlying medical problems
  • Treatments to control appetite
  • Antidepressants, though the benefit of these drugs must be weighed against the increased risks for suicide when taken by teens
  • Visits with a therapist to learn better ways to deal with emotions or other problems
  • Working with a nutrition counselor to develop better attitudes toward food and healthier eating habits
  • Improving body image and learning to be more critical of the body image portrayed in the media
  • Finding positive outlets for emotions, like writing, music, art, or physical activities
  • Finding supportive people to be around and avoiding people whose attitudes encourage an unhealthy body image or dangerous eating behaviors

Family and friends can set good examples for teens with binge eating disorder by not obsessing over weight or body image, and by not using food to make someone feel better or reward them. Instead, they can offer comfort or rewards in the form of kind words, hugs, or fun activities. Friends and family should be patient and supportive with the teen suffering from binge eating disorder, as it takes time to change negative patterns and learn healthier habits.

Sources:

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Weight-control Information Network, "Binge Eating Disorder" [online]

National Eating Disorders Association [online]

Mayo Clinic, "Binge-eating disorder" [online]

National Institute of Mental Health, "Eating Disorders" [online]

Nemours Foundation, TeensHealth, Binge Eating Disorder

Related Article: Overeating Disorder >>