If you’ve been diagnosed with binge eating disorder (BED), you may feel helpless or out of control. But there is hope. Understanding your triggers can help you anticipate your binges before they occur. Once you know what your triggers are, you can arm yourself with tools to lessen the chance you’ll give in to them.

BED is more than just overeating every now and then. Symptoms of BED include:

  • consuming large amounts of food rapidly, within a short period of time
  • eating when you’re not hungry
  • regularly eating alone or in secret
  • feeling you are not in control of your eating patterns
  • feeling depressed, ashamed, or disgusted with your eating habits

BED impacts people of all ages and sizes. Many people with BED are overweight or obese, but some are of normal weight. It’s unclear why BED occurs. Genetics, history of dieting, family history, acute stress, and psychological concerns may play roles.

Untreated, BED may cause severe physical side effects. Physical effects are often caused by obesity. These include:

  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • type 2 diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • gallbladder disease

BED may also have psychological side effects. These include:

  • bipolar disorder
  • depression
  • body dysmorphic disorder
  • anxiety

Common Triggers and How You Can Avoid Them

Eating triggers play a major role in BED. These may be emotional or environmental.

Emotional Triggers

Emotional eating is driven by the need to be comforted, not by hunger. People often binge on foods such as ice cream, fried foods, or pizza that make them feel good, or remind them of a positive experience or comforting memory. Triggers that lead to emotional eating include:

  • stress and anxiety
  • boredom
  • childhood habits or trauma
  • social eating

If you feel the urge to eat because of your emotions, try distracting yourself. Call a friend, take a walk, or practice relaxation techniques. You may also try taking a five-minute pause before eating to determine if you are eating because you are hungry or because of emotions. If emotions are to blame, identify and accept those emotions. This can help you find other, healthy ways to cope with your feelings.

Environmental Triggers

Environmental triggers are things in your environment that make you want to eat. For example, parties and other social gatherings often include food. You may eat at these events even if you are not hungry. Seeing foods may also trigger environmental eating, such as a candy dish or box of donuts in your office. Large packaging and portion sizes may also contribute to environmental eating and make it difficult for you to stop eating when you are full.

There are many things you can do to combat environmental triggers:

  • plan meals in advance
  • when dining out, decline the bread basket and have half of your meal wrapped to go
  • store convenience foods, like potato chips or cookies, in hard-to-reach locations such as high cupboards or the basement
  • replace the cookie jar with a fruit bowl
  • store healthy foods in the front of the refrigerator for easier access
  • transfer prepackaged foods into portion-controlled containers
  • use smaller dishes and silverware to help keep portions in check

Keep a Food Journal

To address food triggers, you first must recognize them. Keeping a food journal can be an invaluable tool. Write down:

  • the times you eat
  • what you eat
  • where you eat
  • why you eat, such as for nourishment or because you were happy, sad, bored, etc.
  • how you felt before and after eating

Over time, you should see patterns evolve that indicate your eating triggers. Remember, the point isn’t to track calories, but to focus on the reasons why you eat.

When to Seek Help

Binge eating is uncontrolled eating, by definition. Some people keep it in check without professional help, but others cannot. Seek help if eating habits are impacting your quality of life, happiness, or your concentration. It’s important to get help as soon as possible to prevent worsening physical or psychological effects.

If you struggle with binge eating, remember you’re not alone. Despite the out-of-control feelings, don’t lose confidence that you can break the bingeing cycle. Instead, take action by identifying eating triggers and, if necessary, talking with your doctor to come up with a treatment action plan that’s right for you.