Causes of binge eating

There is no single cause for binge eating. However, like most eating disorders, it is seen as a way of coping with feelings of unhappiness and low self-esteem.

The binge eating cycle

People who binge eat often display a particular pattern of behaviour known as the binge eating cycle. The binge eating cycle (described below) is difficult to break.

  • binge eating leads to a surge in blood sugar that causes the pancreas to produce insulin (a hormone that helps to break down fat and carbohydrate in the body)
  • the insulin causes blood sugar levels to fall rapidly, resulting in a false message being sent to the brain that more food is needed to top up glucose levels
  • this results in cravings for sugary foods to provide a quick glucose fix, so the person eats large quantities of food even when they are not hungry
  • eating large amounts of sugary foods leads to a rapid increase in blood sugar levels and the production of insulin, causing the cycle to begin again


It is estimated that about 50% of people who binge eat have been depressed at some point in their life. However, it is not clear whether depression causes binge eating or whether binge eating causes depression.

Read more information about depression.

Stress and anxiety

Stress is another common trigger of eating disorders. Stressful events, such as moving house, job or school, or the death of a friend or relative, can sometimes cause someone to binge eat.

People with eating disorders usually experience difficulties in their personal life. Those who binge eat are often ashamed at the amount of food that they consume. They may also feel that their lack of control around food mirrors the lack of control they have over their personal lives.

Research has suggested that there are other factors or emotions that may bring on an episode of binge eating, including:

  • anger
  • boredom
  • worry or anxiety
  • sadness
  • low self-esteem

There are also specific behaviours that are more common in people with a binge eating disorder. These include:

  • impulsive behaviour – acting quickly without thinking about the consequences
  • alcohol misuse – regularly drinking more than the recommended daily amount of alcohol
  • avoiding discussing feelings and emotions openly
  • not feeling responsible for yourself or your actions

Trying to lose weight

The social pressure of trying to achieve a slim body shape can sometimes cause a person to binge eat.

People who binge eat may be unable to achieve their desired body shape. This can result in a sense of inadequacy, causing them to overeat and feel guilty afterwards.

It is not known whether dieting and binge eating are related. However, some people binge eat after:

  • skipping meals
  • not consuming enough food each day
  • avoiding certain foods

These are unhealthy methods of trying to lose weight and alter body shape, and these methods increase a person’s risk of binge eating.

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