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Does Work Stress Make You Binge Eat?

Learn about symptoms and triggers of binge-eating disorder

Binge eating can be diagnosed as an eating disorder if it meets certain clinical criteria. Before 2013 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals (DSM) of mental disorders described binge eating as a possible type of eating disorder that was not specified within the main section of the manual. In 2013 the new DSM-V specified criteria for the diagnosis of binge-eating disorder to allow clinicians to recognise the signs of problematic excessive eating. A study of more than 24,000 people from 14 countries found that 1.4% have the disorder [1], although the true prevalence might be higher.

What is binge-eating disorder?

It is important to recognise the symptoms of this disorder, which are about much more than eating too much food. One symptom, alone, does not qualify as a sign of a binge-eating disorder. Remember that not everybody who eats too much food has this disorder and it is not about weight or obesity but about behaviours or attitudes towards food and eating. According to DSM-V, someone with binge-eating disorder has the following symptoms:

  • At least once a week over three months, you have an episode of eating a large amount of food in a very short time (such as within two hours) and you feel like you have no control.
  • You do not have anorexia or bulimia (e.g. you do not engage in vomiting or using diuretics after each episode). Or if you do, the binge-eating episodes do not happen exclusively during episodes of anorexia or bulimia.
  • During each episode, you exhibit at least three of the following five signs:

1. You eat more quickly than you usually eat.

2. You eat until you feel so full that you feel uncomfortable.

3. You eat a lot of food without being hungry.

4. You eat alone because you feel ashamed about the amount of food.

5. You feel guilty, depressed, or disgusted with yourself afterward.

6. You feel distressed about the behavior.

It is important that you do not try and diagnose yourself as having a binge-eating disorder because using the DSM-V criteria for diagnosis needs to be done by a professional with appropriate clinical training and experience. If you are worried about your eating, speak to a health care professional about it.

Is there a hidden epidemic of binge eating?

Although binge eating can be associated with weight gain there might be a hidden epidemic of binge eating among people of all shapes and sizes because the symptoms often occur in private. It is important not to confuse binge-eating disorder with obesity because people with binge-eating disorder can have a body mass index that is within the normal range. Unlike anorexia, binge-eating disorder is not about how much someone weighs but about specific types of excessive eating behaviours and feelings that meet the DSM-V criteria described above. Indeed, studies show that even though 36.2 to 41.7% of people who have a binge-eating disorder are obese, 25 to 31.7% of people with the disorder have a normal weight based on the body mass index and 1.3 to 1.5% are underweight.[1]

What causes binge eating?

Literature shows that several factors raise the risk of someone having a binge eating disorder: a depressive mood or high levels of stress [2]; coping with stress through distraction behaviours [2]; lacking social support [2]; smoking [3]; lack of physical activities [3]; and work stress [4]. Binge eating is associated with jobs involving work that is highly demanding yet insufficient in the resources it offers staff to help them cope with job demands.[4] Our research [5] suggests that the following job-related factors can increase the risk of binge eating:

  • Burnout that involves feeling emotionally exhausted from work
  • Having a work-life imbalance
  • Using self-blame as a way of coping with stress
  • Being relatively new in the profession

Binge eating, like alcohol abuse, is something that people often use to cope with stress, including stress from work therefore if you find yourself eating excessively after a hard day at work it is important to do something about it.

What can I do if I binge eat?

Our line of research [5], [6] shows that people who want to tackle binge eating need to start by equipping themselves with knowledge about it. If you are overweight, avoid getting into a mindset of fat-shaming or body-shaming yourself. Remember that people of any weight can and do have a binge-eating disorder [1] therefore learn about the symptoms, and reflect on things that trigger your binge eating. Speak with your healthcare professional about situations, experiences, or thoughts that make you more likely to binge eat.

If you find that episodes of binge eating are more frequent at the end of a stressful day at work, think about things that could help to reduce the level of stress. Changing jobs or careers is not something that everyone can do; if you are trapped in a job that stresses you out, find ways of reducing or eliminating the stressors such as by asking for adjustments to your workload, taking time off when you can, not working overtime without pay and having a work-life balance.

For stressors that you cannot change, such as rude clients, seek support (e.g. from your manager) or see a healthcare professional for advice about how best to cope. Seek help and support from your spouse, friends, family members or people who you can rely on when you feel quite stressed about work and you need someone to talk to. Spending time with other people can help you cope with times when you feel an urge to binge eat by offering you a sense of distraction and social support.

Binge eating can be an outcome of work stress among other types of stressors. Addressing the stressors that make you eat excessively can help you break free from it.


[1] Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P. A., Chiu, W. T., Deitz, A. C., et al. (2013). The prevalence and correlates of binge eating disorder in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys. Biological Psychiatry, 73(9), 904-914.

[2] Freeman, L. M. Y., & Gil, K. M. (2004). Daily stress, coping, and dietary restraint in binge eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 36(2), 204-212.

[3] Bertoli, S., Leone, A., Ponissi, V., Bedogni, G., Beggio, V., Strepparava, M. G., & Battezzati, A. (2016). Prevalence of and risk factors for binge eating behaviour in 6930 adults starting a weight loss or maintenance programme. Public Health Nutrition, 19(1), 71-77.

[4] Gralle, A. P. B. P., Moreno, A. B., Juvanhol, L. L., da Fonseca, M. D. J. M. et al (2017). Job strain and binge eating among Brazilian workers participating in the ELSA-Brasil study: Does BMI matter? Journal of Occupational Health, 16-0157.

[5] Medisauskaite, A., & Kamau, C. (2019). Does occupational distress raise the risk of alcohol use, binge-eating, ill health and sleep problems among medical doctors? A UK cross-sectional study. British Medical Journal Open, 9(5), e027362.

[6] Medisauskaite, A., & Kamau, C. (2019b). Reducing burnout and anxiety among doctors: Randomized controlled trial. Psychiatry Research, 274, 383-390.

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