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Spotlight on the Cause of Binge Eating

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 8/25/2011

Binge eating involves regular overeating which is secretive and compulsive. Researchers have searched for possible causes of binge eating, and it appears that there are many. This article specifically discusses three binge eating causes.

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    Binge Eating Disorder

    Most people tend to overeat from time to time. There are times when this behavior may be normal. However, for some, this overeating becomes a habit which is usually carried out in secret1. Binge eating also has emotional side effects, and these episodes are often compulsive.

    When this behavior occurs regularly, it is called binge eating disorder and includes symptoms such as: -

    • A feeling that the eating behavior is out of control
    • Eating when full
    • Eating rapidly during binges
    • Frequently eating alone
    • Feeling depressed or upset about these binges

    Depression and anxiety may also be common among those who binge eat.

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    Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

    Many possible causes for binge eating have been suggested, but this article discusses the three most likely binge eating causal factors:

    A study conducted by the University of Minnesota and the University of North Dakota looked at psychological factors among binge eaters and obese people who didn't binge2. It found that well-being and positive emotion scores were lower for binge eaters while harm avoidance scores were higher. After accounting for confounding variables like depression, only harm avoidance remained significantly associated with binge eating. This means that people who regularly binge eat may be doing so as a coping mechanism for things they are excessively worried about.

    Another study by the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University looked at eating disorders among female twins who had been separated through adoption3. The adoption aspect of this study was important because it removed environment as a possible explanation for the results. This study found a correlation of 0.31 between binge eating among 51 separated twin pairs suggesting genetics may account for some binge eating behavior. Still, the correlation is relatively weak which means that it is not the primary cause of binge eating.

    The final binge eating cause could be the environment. A study carried out by Pike, Wilfley, Hilbert, Fairburn, Dohm, and Striegel-Moore examined the life events of binge eaters in the previous year4. When they compared the 269 binge eaters against a matched control group, they found that binge eaters had significantly more life events than the control group. These life events included significant changes like moving or the end of an important relationship, but they also included comments about their weight from others. Binge eaters were also more likely to be sexually abused.

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    References

    1. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/binge-eating-disorder/DS00608

    2. Peterson CB, Thuras P, Ackard DM, Mitchell JE, Berg K, Sandager N, Wonderlich SA, Pederson MW, & Crow SJ. Personality Dimensions in Bullimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Obesity. Comprehensive Psychiatry 2010, 51(1), 31-36.

    3. Klump KL, Suisman JL, Burt SA, McGue M, & Iacono WG. Genetic and Environmental Influences on Eating Disorder Symptoms: An Adoption Study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 2009, 118(4), 797-805.

    4. Pike KM, Wilfley D, Hilbert A, Fairburn CG, Dohm F, and Striegel-Moore RH. Antecedent life events of binge-eating disorder. Psychiatry Research, 2006, 142(1), 19-29.