Binge eating is a type of eating disorder that affects about 1-5 percent of the general population - approximately three women for every two men have it. It is characterized by eating large amounts of food in short periods of time, even when the person is not hungry. Many people eat more than what they should from time to time, but when overeating becomes a regular and uncontrollable habit, it can be a sign of binge eating.
People with binge eating disorder use food to cope with negative emotions, but their overeating just makes them feel ashamed or disgusted by their behavior. Unlike bulimics, they do not attempt to “make up” for the binges through purging, fasting and/or over-exercising. Binge eaters can be of normal weight, but most are overweight or obese. However, not all overweight and obese people have this disorder.
Medical problems associated with binge eating are primarily due to being overweight or obese. Some of the most common health consequences include high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and depression.
High Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol - a waxy, fat-like substance - travels through the bloodstream in particles called lipoproteins which consist of fats and proteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as the “bad” cholesterol, carry cholesterol to the body’s cells. High-density lipoproteins (HDL), also known as the “good” cholesterol, carry cholesterol to the liver to be removed from the body. Cholesterol is an important compound with many functions in the body, but too much in the blood can be harmful.
Food most commonly eaten during a binge are high in unhealthy fats, including saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats raise LDL levels, and trans fats raise LDL levels and lower HDL levels. When there is an excess of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, it can accumulate in the arteries forming plaque against the wall of the vessels - a condition called atherosclerosis. Over time, plaque narrows the arteries, limiting or blocking the flow of blood. If there is a build up of plaque in the coronary arteries, the flow of blood to the heart is affected which can cause angina - chest pain - or a heart attack. If the arteries to the brain are affected, a stroke can occur. Plaque can also build up in the arteries carrying blood to other parts of the body such as the stomach, kidneys, arms and legs.
High Blood Pressure
“Blood pressure” is the pressure (force) of the circulating blood pushing against the walls of the arteries. Binge eaters who are obese are at risk of developing high blood pressure because, according to the website Obesity Action Coalition, “Obese individuals have an increase in fatty tissue that increases their vascular resistance and in turn increases the work the heart has to do to pump blood throughout the body.” When a person’s pressure stays high over time, it can damage the blood vessels, heart, kidneys and other parts of the body leading to serious health problems like heart failure, renal failure and stroke.
Type 2 Diabetes
Most people who have this metabolic disorder are overweight or obese. It is not known exactly why overweight people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, but it is believed that the extra weight causes cells to change, which makes them resistant to insulin. Therefore, blood sugar (glucose) cannot be taken up by the cells, causing blood glucose levels to rise. High glucose levels in the blood can lead to coronary heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness and early death.
Osteoarthritis is a painful condition characterized by joint degeneration and loss of cartilage, the gel-like material between joints. Extra body weight places more pressure on the joints which wear away the cartilage protecting the joints. Weight-bearing joints, including the knees, hips and spine, are the areas most often affected by the degenerative changes of osteoarthritis.
People with binge eating disorder, even those who are not overweight may become depressed because of their behaviors. Those who are overweight or obese are often judged as being unattractive and lazy by society. The feelings of shame and rejection may also cause a person to become depressed. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (Binge Eating Disorder), research shows that people with this disorder report more stress and suicidal thoughts than do people without the disorder.
Other medical problems associated with binge eating due to excess weight include:
Gallstones - Obesity causes an increased secretion of cholesterol in the bile which can significantly increase the risk for gallstones.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) - An accumulation of abdominal fat may be responsible for this condition, and it may also increase the risk of developing GERD-related complications like esophageal cancer.
Reproductive Problems - Menstrual irregularities and infertility may occur in women who are obese.
Sleep Apnea - This is a serious breathing condition that causes a person to stop breathing for short periods during sleep. Extra fat in the throat can narrow the airway passage, making it hard to breathe.
Cancer - Being overweight or obese increases the risk of several types of cancer, including breast, endometrial, colon and kidney, and increases the risk of dying from cancer according to the National Cancer Institute.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Do You Know the Health Risks of Being Overweight? - http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/health_risks.htm
- Mayo Clinic: Binge-eating disorder - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/binge-eating-disorder/DS00608/DSECTION=complications
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Understanding Adult Obesity - http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/understanding.htm
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Binge Eating Disorder - http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/binge.htm
- Obesity Action Coalition: Hypertension and Obesity: How Weight-loss Affects Hypertension - http://www.obesityaction.org/magazine/oacnews14/hypertensionandobesity.php
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI): What Are the Health Risks of Overweight and Obesity? - http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/obe/obe_risks.html
- National Cancer Institute: Obesity and Cancer: Questions and Answers - http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/obesity
- National Eating Disorders: Binge Eating Disorder - http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/nedaDir/files/documents/handouts/BingeED.pdf
- Web MD: Weight Loss: Health Risks Associated With Obesity - http://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/obesity-health-risks