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What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

By Deborah Fields, BSc (Hons), PgDip, MCIPR

Binge eating disorder is a condition that involves a person rapidly and excessively eating over a period of time and then feeling embarrassed about their over-consumption. In comparison to other disorders, the person does not purge the food afterwards.

The disorder was recently recognized and added to the 2013 update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is one of the three most common eating disorders (the others being anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa). Several reasons have been suggested for why a person develops the disorder.

Genetic factors

Some researchers have indicated that binge eating can be an inherited disorder with a variant in some people’s genes making them more prone to binge-eating. If a person has a family member who has binge eating disorder, this potentially makes them a higher risk for the disorder as well. Nevertheless, it must be taken into account that first-degree relatives usually share genes and environments; therefore it is hard to differentiate genetic factors from various environmental causes in familial instances of binge eating.

Restrictive diets

Another factor that is thought to be a factor in binge eating is the limiting of food intake as part of a strict diet. Eating patterns that are similar to starvation can alter the way the body feels about food and encourage excessive cravings for food. Examples of extreme diets that can inspire binge eating include delays in eating, very low calorie intakes and cutting out specific types of food. While the person who has been dieting changes their behavior to one that is more normal, they are at risk of overeating as a result. The feelings inspired by a diet can continue after the restricted pattern has changed to a more normal one.

Environmental factors

Studies have indicated that traumatic experiences can trigger overeating in a person. A series of challenging events that upset the patient, make them depressed, stressed or unhappy can have a dramatic impact. Furthermore, traumas and losses in life can trigger eating behaviors like binge eating that become intertwined with feelings and emotions. The person therefore turns to food as a form of comfort or escapism.

Body image

How a patient feels about their self-image plays a role in triggering the condition for some. Physical or sexual abuse during childhood has been linked to binge eating. Also other experiences that alter their self-esteem such as harsh remarks about how they look can contribute.

Diagnosis

Binge-eating can be dangerous for the health of the patient. A doctor can diagnose the condition and also suggest involving a psychologist to determine what is driving the binge eating disorder. The medical team will also assess through a series of tests such as physicals, blood and urine tests and consultations whether the excessive consumption of food is having an impact on other aspects of the patient’s health such as his or her blood pressure, heart health, cholesterol levels and sleep. There is also a risk of developing diabetes and gastrointestinal reflux disease.

Reviewed by: , MD, PhD

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: May 19, 2016

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