Binge Eating

Binge Eating Definition

Binge eating is eating a large amount of food in a small amount of time. It is distinguished from overeating because it is accompanied by a feeling of a loss of self-control while eating. The process of the binge is engrossing, pleasant, and can have a frantic quality. At some point the bingeing ends, and the binger is usually upset, embarrassed, and full of negative thoughts and feelings about his or behavior and self.

Binge Eating Analysis

Binge eating is significantly more common among women, although a small number of men engage in it as well (often as part of a social group such as an athletic team where weight is an issue). Binge eating is often done in private, although it can happen as part of a small social group.

Binge eating is a main component in two recognized psychological disorders: bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. The behavioral pattern of binge eating, however, is essentially a large exaggeration of a normal phenomenon. It is typical for Americans to eat large amounts of calories at special events, holidays, parties, and so on. This is often followed by dieting, increased exercise and activity levels, and a conscious decision to diet or otherwise reduce weight and food intake. Occasional food binges are common enough among men and women, but repeated binge eating, often done alone and with a loss of control, followed by increased depression, lowered self-esteem, and other dark thoughts are considered to be a sign of a significant problem.

People who are concerned about their body image, their weight, and their physical appearance and attractiveness are most likely to engage in binge eating. This is probably because these kinds of psychological concerns lead to dieting. Successful dieting is very difficult, and there are numerous physiological and neurological mechanisms that can act powerfully to maintain body weight. Dieters are often very hungry, smells and tastes improve in their urgency, and food-related thoughts can dominate the dieter’s day. If a dieter engages in what is known as “black and white thinking,” with a strong line drawn between “good” and “bad” foods, between “healthy” and “unhealthy” eating, then any small falling off of a diet, even a bite or two of a forbidden food becomes a significant and total failure. This small failing has the effect of disinhibiting eating—when a person has crossed the line into forbidden territory, the next bad behavior is not much more of an offense. With this kind of thinking, bingeing can spiral out of control. When it ends, the binger is left with self-blame, guilt, and unhappiness. This in turns leads to renewed commitment to dieting, exercise, and lowering caloric intake. This in turn sets up the next bingeing episode.

The clinical evidence for this cycle is excellent and is much the same for people who have trouble controlling their drinking, gambling, smoking and other drug taking, or sexual appetites. The most important difference between binge eating and binge drinking or gambling, sexual binges, or drug addictions is that eating is a normal and essential part of life, and one cannot forswear eating. This makes the careful management of eating, allowing some eating—but not too much— more important, and self-control becomes especially difficult. Stress, life challenges, or simply depletion from working on other problems all make self-control more difficult, and this can increase the probability of setting of a binge.

Binge eating is also associated with a range of other variables associated with poor psychological functioning, including anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, perfectionism, and so on. All of these are indicators of difficulty with functioning in life, particularly in the area of self-control. There is evidence that binge eaters are people who continually have troubles with self-control, either as a personality trait or because they experience life stress or other difficulties that deplete their ability to manage their eating. Binge eating, like other addictive behaviors, may be a way to avoid paying attention to the self. Because binge eating allows a person to narrowly focus on a pleasant and (temporarily) rewarding activity, binge eating can shut out competing, more painful awareness of failings, unfulfilled desires, and personal shortcomings.

Binge eating is not entirely new, but the high rates of binge eating—particularly among adolescent women—do seem to be a fact of the past few decades. This has been traced to social changes that allowed increased access to food, a connection of thinness to attractiveness and high social class among women, and related facts of modern life. There is little evidence that bingeing, followed by shame, guilt, and resolutions to diet (or more rarely, vomiting), existed in any high numbers before the 1970s.

Binge eating seems to run in social groups, such as cheerleading squads, men’s and women’s athletic teams, dance camps, and sororities. There is evidence that binge eating is a behavior that is passed among friends. Sorority members seem to pick it up from their friends. When entering a group with social norms that favor binge eating, women have been shown to increase their binge eating levels to match those of their friends. Conversely, when women with higher rates of binge eating join a friendship group with lower rates of binge eating, their own binge eating tends to go down. Men on athletic teams where weight is an important determinant of competitiveness (e.g., wrestling, lightweight crew) often acquire binge eating and purging as part of their repertoire. This cycle might become part of their week, with dieting leading up to the weigh-in day, followed by binge eating. Even though this cycle becomes a part of the week, it is rarely accompanied by shame, guilt, or feelings of being out of control. When binge eating is a part of athletics, there is often little or no affective roller coaster, and the binge eating often ends with the competitive season.

Binge eating is not unusual and is quite common among adolescent and college-age women. Many women seek treatment when binge eating gets out of control and when it is accompanied by significant and painful feelings of anxiety, depression, shame, and guilt. But the underlying pattern of binge eating, followed by regret and a determination to “be good” in the future, is a common and normal phenomenon. It is only when it becomes frequent and uncontrollable that it becomes a problem.


  1. Crandall, C. S. (1988). Social contagion of binge eating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 588-598.
  2. Fairburn, C. G., & Wilson, G. T. (1996). Binge eating: Nature, assessment, and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.
  3. Heatherton, T. F., & Baumiester, R. F. (1991). Binge eating as an escape from self-awareness. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 86-108.
  4. Striegel-Moore, R. H., Silberstein, L. R., & Rodin, J. (1986). Toward an understanding of risk factors for bulimia. American Psychologist, 41, 246-263.

Back to Health Psychology.