Examining the Connection Between Binge Eating Disorder and Dieting

As the most frequently occurring kind of eating disorder in the United States, binge eating disorder affects slightly more than two percent of the overall population, although the true figure might be higher. BED is often underreported, both because many people with the disorder are afraid to ask for help, and because it’s often dismissed as “simple overeating.”

As with other forms of eating disorders, binge eating disorder appears more often in women, although unlike anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, men display the symptoms of BED almost as frequently as women, with men comprising more than 40 percent of cases. BED, also like other eating disorders has a variety of underlying causes such as home environment, genetics, psychiatric disorder history, and the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders.

One factor that almost always plays into the development of binge eating disorder is a history of dieting. Especially when combined with a distorted and negative body image, trying desperately to lose weight can cause triggers for binge eating episodes that become compulsive.

Identifying the Causes OF BED

As we mentioned, there isn’t a single cause of binge eating disorder that clinicians can point to as the culprit. Instead, there are several potential underlying causes which usually appear in combination with each other. These factors can be organized into the general groupings:

  • Psychological

Mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety occur far more frequently in people with BED, and vice versa. In some cases, the different disorders share similar symptoms, such as compulsive behaviors found in OCD and the repetitive binge eating episodes that define BED. Clinical depression is also closely linked with binge eating disorder, with both “comfort eating” and low self-esteem are common to both disorders

  • Biological

Among other biological factors such as biological sex (women are more likely to develop BED than men) and propensity to obesity, hormonal imbalances can trigger BED behaviors. Among these, the hypothalamus gland, which is the part of the brain that controls feelings of satiety or “being full,” can cease to function correctly. This leads to episodes where a person might eat past the point of being full, or even past the point of causing pain. Binge eating episodes also prompt the release of dopamine, as with sex or some kinds of narcotics, so that the binge eating episodes become addictive.

  • Environmental

People tend to imitate what their parents and those closest to them do. Studies show that children who are exposed to a parent or close relative who had or have BED are much more likely to develop the disorder themselves. On the other hand, children whose parents don’t have BED but harshly criticize their child’s weight may be forced into a repeated pattern of strict dieting, which can trigger BED. Developing a healthy relationship with food is a major preventative factor for BED.

The Telltale Signs of BED

The most common eating disorder in the United States wasn’t officially recognized by the psychological and psychiatric community until 2013, unbelievably. This is partially because another eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, also features binge eating episodes, although BED does not feature the characteristic purge efforts bulimia is so well known for.

The defining behavior of binge eating disorder is a series of episodes where the individual eats large amounts of food, in short periods, past the point of being satiated. Some behavioral signs of binge eating disorder include:

  • Sudden and dramatic changes in weight
  • Hiding food to be eaten later
  • Being secretive about eating habits
  • Snacking throughout the day
  • Distorted body image
  • Lots of food wrappers being found in the trash

Binge eating disorder, because it does not feature purging through self-induced vomiting or other means, also can result in several health consequences related to obesity. Additionally, frequent and fitful periods of dieting might result in sudden weight loss. The back-and-forth of gaining and losing weight rapidly over many years wreaks havoc on many of the body’s systems.

A few of the health risks associated with binge eating disorder and obesity include:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Strokes
  • Diabetes
  • Anemia
  • Sleep apnea
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

People with binge eating disorder are more likely to experience some of these problems than people who are overweight but don’t have BED. One theory for why this happens is that the types of food eaten during binge eating episodes are usually sugary and salty “junk foods” without nutritional value. People with BED are also more likely to suffer from alcoholism, which can contribute to liver, heart, and blood diseases as well as diabetes. As with every chronic disorder, whether mental or physical, these symptoms worsen with time, so it’s essential to begin treatment as soon as possible.

Why Dieting Can Be a Cure Worse Than the Disease

Both excessive, compulsive dieting and binge eating disorder are inextricably linked to a poor body image, also known as body dysmorphia. Usually, binge eating disorder begins in a person’s late teenage years or early twenties, but flawed and distorted body image begins during childhood. Children who struggle with obesity at a young age, or those who are criticized by their parents, teachers, or peers, might begin to believe they are flawed or “bad” somehow. They then might try to escape these negative feelings by forcing themselves into one diet after another. In cases where this is unregulated by a doctor or nutritionist’s recommendation, this can spark a disordered relationship with food which can last for decades. And during those decades, the psychological and health consequences compound.

Several factors play into a distorted body image and yo-yo dieting.  These may include:

  • Media imagery and influence

Every single day, each of us is buffered by images and videos of “beautiful,” attractive people on our TVs, at the movies, and even on our ever-present phones in the form of social media. Of course, when we’re presented with a certain body type as the ideal, we consciously and unconsciously want to look like them. Unfortunately, this standard, “skinny” body type is not attainable for most people, who don’t have a team of nutritionists planning their meals or can’t afford to buy expensive organic foods. For that matter, most of us don’t have the time to eat healthy at every meal. That makes seeing, for example, a traditionally slim woman, or a lean, toned man, on the cover of a health magazine even more likely to negatively influence one’s body image. The natural response for many, as we discussed is to go on crash diets in an unhealthy attempt to reach that impossible body shape. The pressures put on a person by extreme diets then might lead to “cheat days” where the diet is ignored. Those “cheat days” might then mutate into frequent binge eating episodes.

  • Parental influence

Every study on the subject has made it clear that children with parents who have binge eating disorder or another eating disorder are much more likely to show disordered eating behavior in later life. As an example, imagine a young man in his tweens who begins to become a little pudgy as a result of the beginning of puberty. His parents put him on a strict diet until he reaches a certain weight, without consulting a doctor. While the young man may lose weight, he’ll be receiving less than the optimal number of calories for a growing boy, as well as developing a lifelong idea that his body is somehow shameful or flawed. When he “cheats” on this self-imposed diet, his body releases dopamine, triggering an addictive pattern of behavior alternating between dieting and binging. It’s important to remember that this example, even if a common one, is not the result of negative or abusive intentions on the part of the parents; they usually have their kids’ best interests at heart.

  • Peer Pressure

Peer pressure, so common during adolescence and early adulthood, is much more than bullying about weight or body shape. Although bullying certainly happens and can have a supremely negative effect on self-esteem, just as often, peer pressure is self-imposed. People want to be like the ones they admire. In an adolescent context, this often means wanting to be like the “popular kids,” who are often conventionally attractive, i.e. skinny. This may show up as a behavioral symptom common to BED, the reluctance to eat in group settings. In this scenario, the child who feels they’re not skinny enough to fit in may tell their friends that they’re on a diet and eat very little or nothing at school lunch, only to binge eat in secret later on in the day. The comparison of self to others happens whether there’s bullying or not – adolescence is a time of discovering our identities and body image is central to self-esteem. Feelings of guilt about binge eating episodes can make it difficult to talk about these issues with friends, leading to isolation and further development in BED, both in children and in adults.

Reach Out For Help – Don’t Let Feelings of Shame Stop You

Early intervention is usually the best way to embark on a recovery journey from BED, but it’s never too late to start. The health consequences of BED are too severe to ignore and left untreated the psychological symptoms tend to only worsen over time. Binge eating disorder won’t simply go away on its own. However, recovery – and a happier and healthier life – are quite possible. There are programs run by experienced, compassionate professionals, many of whom are recovered themselves, which can be tailored to every individual’s unique needs.

If you’re experiencing signs of binge eating disorder, or you have noticed them in a loved one, please consider reaching out to Monte Nido and associates as soon as possible.  Our admissions specialists are available to provide assistance and guidance.  Call us at 888.891.2590 to start binge eating recovery today.