Continuing EducationResources & EducationUncategorized

Practical strategies for the diagnosis and management of binge eating disorder

Author(s): Amy McKeever, PhD, CRNP, WHNP-BC and Laura J. Clauss, APRN, NP-C, CEDS, F-IADEP

This test is no longer available

Binge eating disorder (BED), now included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5),1 is defined as follows:

  • Recurrent and persistent episodes of binge eating
  • Binge eating episodes that are associated with three (or more) of the following:
    • Eating much more rapidly than normal
    • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
    • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
    • Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
    • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
  • Marked distress regarding binge eating
  • Absence of regular compensatory behaviors (such as purging)

Particularly common among females (See Cases 1, 2, and 3) and associated with obesity, BED poses physical, psychological, and social challenges that decrease health-
related quality of life (HRQOL) and increase disease burden.


The etiology of BED is multifactorial and complex. Although associated with hedonic hunger, BED is linked less to pleasure and more to an attempt to suppress negative feelings through bingeing without purging.2 Motivation to binge likely also arises from homeostatic hunger.

Risk factors

Risk factors for BED include genetics, female gender, Caucasian ethnicity, weight concern, negative body image, childhood problems, low self-esteem and self-efficacy, low family cohesion, psychiatric morbidity, and stressful events.3,4 In addition, a community-based case–control study demonstrated that patients with BED, versus controls, were significantly more likely to report sexual abuse and repeated severe physical abuse. The typical overweight person with BED is overly concerned with body shape and weight. BED is most likely to occur in young women of high socioeconomic status in industrialized countries, but it is not limited to this population (See Cases 1, 2, and 3).

Binge-eating disorder in children and adolescents

In children and adolescents, early identification and treatment of BED is vital (See Case 1). Loss of control over eating is associated with modifiable lifestyle factors. Often considered temporary, BED is actually a long-term chronic condition often associated with co-morbid obesity. Childhood factors that increase risk for BED include obesity, self-criticism, poor self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and emotional abuse.5 In female adolescents and young adult women, BED is associated with pre-existing depressive symptoms and an increased risk for developing mood disorders.6
Specific goals of treatment for children and adolescents include treatment of underlying depression or anxiety, improvement of self-esteem, normalization of eating patterns, promotion of physical activity, and implementation of family therapy to address family dysfunction and engage family members in supporting the patient’s recovery. BED treatment outcomes can be optimized through early detection and referral to eating disorder specialists; incorporating a multidisciplinary treatment team to address the physical, psychological, nutritional, and spiritual aspects of BED; and combining cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a self-help program, and, when appropriate, pharmacotherapy.

Co-morbid psychiatric disorders

Co-morbid anxiety, mood, and disruptive behavior disorders are common in patients with BED, as are obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. Co-morbid obesity increases psychopathology, emotional eating, concerns about weight and body shape,7 and perhaps a desire for bari­atric surgery.8 Obesity and BED are common in patients with bipolar disorder. In patients with personality disorders, alexithy­mia (a personality construct characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self) correlates more highly with BED than with other eating disorders.9
A case–control study showed that patients with BED, compared with controls, reported a significantly greater number of adverse life events during the year prior to symptom onset, suggesting that the accumulation of stressful events can trigger the disorder.10 Even after weight loss and CBT, patients with BED experienced higher morning basal cortisol levels than did a control group without BED.

Effects of disordered eating patterns on reproductive health

Disordered adolescent eating patterns affect one’s development, with implications for reproductive function. Behaviors associated with risk-taking and self-harm frequently co-exist with eating disorders and increase risks for unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Obesity is strongly associated with conditions that adversely affect reproductive function.
In anovulatory overweight or obese women, sustained gradual weight loss will regulate menstrual cycles and increase the chance of spontaneous ovulation and conception.11Lifestyle modification has been shown to improve reproductive function.

Effects of binge eating disorder on pregnancy

Pre-pregnancy and pregnancy dietary patterns of women with BED may influence pregnancy outcomes. Many obstetricians do not query patients about weight control or disordered eating during pregnancy, and many patients do not seek treatment. Studies evaluating maternal and fetal outcomes in women with eating disorders are limited.
Women with BED during pregnancy are considered high risk. BED treatment during pregnancy is important for long-term management and reduction of harmful behaviors such as smoking; in fact, treatment during pregnancy is particularly likely to produce long-lasting results.
Pregnant patients with BED need frequent prenatal visits to discuss problems related to both nutrition and BED. Healthcare providers (HCPs) should do the following:
• Empower women to discuss weight and body-image concerns during pregnancy;
• Educate patients that uneven weight gain patterns may occur in pregnancy;
• Inform patients that controlling BED during pregnancy reduces the risk for a large-for-gestational-age newborn;
• Provide or refer for dietary support and meal planning;
• Assess and/or refer for management of psychiatric co-morbidities;
• Provide a routine postpartum visit at 1-2 weeks to monitor for relapse or exacerbation of BED; and
• Provide nutritional and dietary counseling for breastfeeding mothers and for the first 6-12 months postpartum.12

Co-morbid physical disorders

Binge eating disorder is associated with multiple physical co-morbidities, with decreased HRQOL and physical and psychosocial functioning.13 A large majority of individuals with BED receive medical treatment for co-morbidities, particularly obesity-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes mellitus (DM). Weight loss in patients with type 2 DM and BED who control their eating habits is similar to that in persons who have never experienced BED. BED may precede bariatric surgery and/or re-emerge post-surgery.

Screening and diagnosis

Assessment for eating disorders, including BED, should be part of a routine health evaluation. HCPs can use an assessment tool or pose a simple screening question in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental, empathetic manner to facilitate open conversation: Do you have thoughts, feelings, or behaviors regarding eating, weight, or body image that occupy most of your time or that make you feel out of control? (See Cases 1, 2, and 3.) The SCOFF Questionnaire can be useful. Practical strategies for screening and diagnosis implemented by the authors include the following:
• Use an eating disorder screening question at routine visits as patients age from childhood through the older adult years;
• Engage patients in a conversation about possible BED;
• Maintain accurate chronological weight records;
• Be familiar with DSM-5 diagnostic criteria;
• Obtain a 24-hour written food intake and feelings journal for
7 consecutive days (including weekends) and review the journals with patients;
• Assess for underlying depression or anxiety; initiate medication if indicated;
• Use physical, nutritional, and psychological findings to incentivize patients to engage in treatment;
• Avoid references to calories, weight, and dieting that may exacerbate feelings of shame or excessive focus on food;
• Advocate an approach for treatment of BED and obesity that does not center on the need for dieting but, instead, emphasizes the importance of specialized psychological, medical, and nutritional care;
• Be familiar with eating disorder specialists in your geographic area and be able to implement the referral process; and
• Confirm that patients follow through with BED treatment.
Binge-eating disorder subtypes may manifest in difficult-to-treat food addictions, which are common in patients with co-existing histories of addictive personality or substance abuse disorder. A marker of substance dependence includes consumption of high-fat/high-sugar foods.14 A food addiction symptom count (using criteria similar to those for substance abuse disorder in the DSM-5) should be obtained for these patients.15 Emotions associated with binge eating may be experienced differently by individuals from specific ethnic, racial, and cultural groups.


The American Psychiatric Association has established levels of care guidelines for patients with eating disorders, who can be difficult to treat. Many patients with BED experience shame, embarrassment, self-disgust, depression, and guilt as a result of their eating disorder. They tend to eat secretly or alone and may hide binge foods. Patients may deny that they have an eating disorder and may be reluctant to discuss BED with their HCP. Many patients who use binge eating to deal with difficult life situations are reluctant to eliminate this behavior and do not fully commit to a treatment program. Others welcome interventions that may improve HRQOL.
Nonpharmacologic approaches
Cognitive behavioral therapy, considered a first-line therapy for BED, and interpersonal psychotherapy are effective in patients with BED (See Cases 1, 2, and 3). Other nondrug approaches usually entail a combination of a lifetime nutritional plan, assertiveness training, improved stress management, and moderate exercise to increase lean muscle mass.
No agent is FDA-approved for the treatment of BED. An application for an indication for lisdexamfetamine dimesylate as a treatment for BED likely will be filed soon with the FDA. Multiple pharmacologic agents have demonstrated benefits at varying dosages in trials conducted between 2005 and 2010.
Antidepressants address common mood-related co-morbidities. Of note, many patients with BED consume tryptophan-containing carbohydrates that synthesize serotonin. When these patients’ serotonin levels are low, cravings commence. Antidepressants that inhibit reuptake of serotonin can help decrease compulsive/binge eating. In many patients with co-morbid depression (or if CBT is unavailable), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can decrease bingeing (and purging) by 50%, although some patients may not respond to treatment or may relapse with SSRI dis­continua­tion.16 Bupropion has beneficial effects on weight and does not have SSRI side effects. Bupropion dosages of 300-450 mg/day have been shown to be effective.17Psychostimulants
Agents used to treat attention defi­cit hyper­activity disorder (ADHD) affect dopamine/norepinephrine systems associated with both the etiology of BED and eating behavior/reward behavior. An epide­miologic relationship between BED and ADHD has been noted in adolescents18 and adults.19 An association has also been reported between bulimia nervosa (BN) and ADHD; a small study of patients with co-morbid BN and ADHD showed the efficacy of psycho­stim­­ulant medication. An ongoing study is comparing methyl­phen­i­date with CBT in the treat­ment of BED.20Pharmacotherapy during pregnancy
Few studies have evaluated the use of psychotropic agents during pregnancy other than a large cohort evaluation of SSRIs. Additional data may guide decision making regarding the use of agents such as bupropion, methylphenidate, memantine, naltrexone, sodium oxybate, topiramate, and zonisamide in pregnant women.


Binge-eating disorder is a complex, multifactorial condition that requires a comprehensive and integrated course of treatment. Nurse practitioners and other advanced practice HCPs caring for women are positioned to play important roles in patient assessment and management.
1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
2. Witt AA, Lowe MR. Hedonic hunger and binge eating among women with eating disorders. Int J Eating Disord. 2014;47(3):273-280.
3. Jacobi C, Hayward C, de Zwaan M, et al. Coming to terms with risk factors for eating disorders: application of risk terminology and suggestions for a general taxonomy. Psychol Bull. 2004;130(1):19-65.
4. Jacobi C, Paul T, de Zwaan M, et al. Specificity of self-concept disturbances in eating disorders. Int J Eat Disord. 2004;35(2):204-210.
5. Dunkley DM, Mashib RM, Grilo CM. Childhood maltreatment, depressive symptoms, and body dissatisfaction in patients with binge eating disorder: the mediating role of self-criticism. Int J Eat Disord. 2010;43(3):274-281.
6. Skinner HH, Haines J, Austin SB, Field AE. A prospective study of overeating, binge eating and depressive symptoms among adolescent and young adult women. J Adolesc Health. 2012;50(5):478-483.
7. Vancampfort D, Vanderlinden J, De Hert M, et al. A systematic review on physical therapy interventions for patients with binge eating disorder. Disabil Rehabil. 2013;35
8. Bulik CM, Sullivan PF, Kendler KS. Medical and psychiatric morbidity in obese women with and without binge eating. Int J Eat Disord. 2002; 32(1):72-78.
9. Wheeler K, Gruner P, Boulton M. Exploring alexithymia, depression and binge eating in self-reported eating disorders in women. Perspect Psych Care. 2005;41(3):114-123.
10. Pike KM, Wilfley D, Hilbert A, et al. Antecedent life events of binge-eating disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2006;142(1):19-29.
11. Pandey S, Pandey S, Maheshware A, Bhattacharya S. The impact of female obesity on the outcome of fertility treatment. J Hum Reprod Sci. 2010;3(2):62-67.
12. Harris AA. Practical advice for caring for women with eating disorders during the perinatal period. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2010;55 (6):579-586.
13. Rieger E, Wilfley DE, Stein RI, et al. Comparison of quality of life in obese individuals with and without binge eating disorders. Int J Eat Disord. 2005;37(3):234-240.
14. Cooper R. Could your patient have an eating disorder? Nurs Womens Health. 2013;17(4):317-324.
15. Gearhardt AN, Corbin WR, Brownell KD. Preliminary validation of the Yale food addiction scale. Appetite. 2009;52(2):430-436.
16. Mehler PS, Anderson AE. Eating Disorders: A Guide to Medical Care and Complications. 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press; 2010.
17. Stahl SM, Pradko JF, Haight BR, et al. A review of the neuropharmacology of bupropion, a dual norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004;6(4):159-166.
18. Swanson SA, Crow SJ, Le Grange D, et al. Prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in adolescents: results from the national comorbidity survey replication adolescent supplement. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(7):714-723.
19. Hudson J, Hiripi E, Pope HG Jr, Kessler RC. The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biol Psychiatry. 2007;61(3):348-358.
20. Quilty LC, Kaplan A. Center for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Methylpheni­date versus cognitive behavior therapy in overweight or obese adult females. 2014.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Get your free subscription to the Women's Healthcare Newsletter!

Women's Healthcare Newsletter Sidebar

Enter your email to receive our bi-weekly newsletter from the publishers of Women's Healthcare

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
*By submitting your e-mail, you are opting in to receiving information from Healthcom Media and Affiliates. The details, including your email address/mobile number, may be used to keep you informed about future products and services.