Insight into the Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

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What are the Possible Causes of Binge Eating Disorder?

The exact cause of binge eating disorder is unknown but a combination of factors such as a person’s genes, emotions, and experience could lead to its development.

Biological causes of binge eating disorder

Research (Leibowitz 1990) suggests that binge eating disorder could be due to abnormalities found in the structure or activity of the brain structure called the hypothalamus. This structure is responsible for regulating our eating behaviors amongst other activities. It could be that in those who binge eat the hypothalamus is not communicating the correct messages about fullness and hunger, thus these people are unable to differentiate when they are hungry and when they are full.

Several different neurotransmitters are involved in binge eating disorders. Multiple neurotransmitters work together to control different kinds of functions such as mood, appetite, energy level, memory, etc. For example, low levels of serotonin can play a role in compulsive eating. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter, which helps regulates mood and helps to control impulsive behavior. Not having enough of this brain chemical might cause a person to over react to situations, become impulsive, have difficulty concentrating, develop feelings of sadness and crave carbohydrates.

This is why many people with binge eating problems often crave and gorge themselves on foods that are rich in carbohydrates. The body will convert the sugars from these carbohydrates into tryptophan. Tryptophan is then used to create serotonin which will create a sense of satiation.

In addition, genetic mutations also appear to be possible causes of binge eating disorder. Researchers have pinpointed certain proteins such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein may influence an individual’s susceptibility to developing an eating disorder. In a study carried out by Akkermann and colleagues from Estonia, removing the BDNF gene in mouse models resulted in overeating and obesity. BDNF gene alleles are Val (valise) and Met (methionine). Other findings of this study were that a Val/Met polymorphism in humans is linked to higher body mass index and higher risk of obesity. Individuals who are Val/Met carriers also have a 36% increased risk of an eating disorder diagnosis.

Social, environmental and cultural causes of binge eating disorder

Perceived pressure to be thin, also contributes to feelings of shame in binge eaters thus fueling their emotional eating. Often times parents might also contribute to setting the stage for binge eating especially when food is used as a means of comfort, as punishment or as reward for our kids. In school kids are sometimes exposed to critical comments made by their peers about their appearance. These criticisms make them vulnerable. People who have been sexually molested when they were younger are also susceptible to binge eating disorder.

Psychological and emotional causes of binge eating disorder

Many binge eaters may have low self-esteem, low self-worth, in addition to having trouble controlling impulsive behaviors. These individuals also normally have trouble managing their moods and expressing their anger. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that depression and binge eating disorder are strongly linked. The majority of binge eaters are either depressed or they have been depressed before. Other factors that may contribute to binge eating are loneliness and body dissatisfaction.

Binge Eating and Stress

Attempts to manage stress appear to be one of the most common causes of binge eating. These individuals try to manage unpleasant and stressful emotions such as depression, feelings of loneliness, and fear and anxiety by binge eating. Those feelings and attempts are not entirely foreign to many of us. Sometimes when we have a bad day, food can seem like our only friend. We eat to make ourselves feel better and for a short period of time, while we are eating, our stress, sadness, anxiety, boredom or depression can cease to exist. But as we well know the relief is only temporary. Using food to numb ourselves in order to cope with our daily life stressors, or provide comfort or to fill a void within us is not an effective coping mechanism. However, like all eating disorders, binge eating disorder can be overcome through proper treatment.


  1. Binge Eating Disorder
  2. Binge-eating Disorder
  3. Eating Disorder
  4. Coping with Binge Eating Disorder
  5. Akkermann K, Hiio K, Villa I, & Harro J (2010). Food restriction leads to binge eating dependent upon the effect of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met polymorphism.
  6. Leibowitz SF. Hypothalamic serotonin in control of eating behavior, meal size, and body weight.