Examining the Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health disorder that’s defined by consuming extremely large amounts of food in one sitting regularly. It is similar to bulimia nervosa without purging to eliminate the calories. Often a person is not even hungry when the food is consumed. After each binge eating episode, the person may feel overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame. This may lead to even more overeating. The individual often feels unable to stop the eating binges.

Understanding what causes binge eating disorder is critical to developing the most effective treatments. This condition will usually begin sometime in adolescence or early adulthood. While the exact cause of binge eating disorder is not always known, there are several factors and combinations of factors that can contribute to binge eating disorder. Genetics, environmental factors, societal pressures, and certain psychological conditions are all possible causes of binge eating disorder.

Genetic Causes

Science is continually studying genetics and the role genes play in everything from personality traits to the likelihood of developing certain disorders. Research has found that genetic factors are a large factor in who will develop binge eating disorder. The majority of individuals who develop binge eating disorder have at least one parent who also had the disorder.

The American Psychological Association reported that during puberty activation of estrogen may significantly affect how genetics influence binge eating. There are several different hormones in the brain that control hunger and the ability to feel full. Hormone irregularities may also be a factor in the development of binge eating disorder. There have also been genetic twin studies done that have shown a direct correlation between family genetics and a variety of eating disorders.

New advancements in gene mapping have produced research showing particular genes that potentially play a role in binge eating disorder. This specific gene, CYFIP2, may significantly contribute to an individual’s likelihood of developing binge eating disorder. Having this particular gene is now considered a major risk factor for binge eating disorder. As researchers continue to study and understand how this gene works, new treatments can be developed that will aid in helping those experiencing this eating disorder.

Environmental Causes

Even though genetics likely plays a major role in the development of binge eating disorder, other factors may contribute to or worsen the condition. Environmental factors could include external influences as well as behaviors that individuals have learned from others.

  • Restricting Food – People that have a history of extremely restricting or continually regulating the amount of food they consume can affect their ability to control how much food they will consume in one brief period. If individuals consistently restrict eating, cravings and hunger may intensify to the point that it becomes difficult to control the amount of food that is consumed once they begin eating again. This continued cycle of restriction and binge eating may lead to a pattern of disordered eating in some people.
  • Bullying Behavior– Bullying or teasing may also trigger disordered eating. According to the Duke University School of Medicine, there is a link between eating disorders and bullying. It’s important to note that bullying and teasing don’t only negatively affect adolescents. Many adults are often bullied as well. This can occur in a work setting or even a personal relationship. An individual may feel trapped and unable to leave a job or a relationship for a variety of reasons. Binge eating episodes may provide an emotional escape from the bullying.
  • Emotional Trauma – An individual who has experienced a traumatic event in life may be more susceptible to developing an eating disorder. When a person goes through a significant loss or experiences a traumatic event and doesn’t have adequate coping mechanisms or a strong support system an individual may turn to other less acceptable behaviors for comfort. Traumatic events could include physical or sexual abuse, the death of a close family member at a young age, or a debilitating accident.

Social Causes

Social or cultural issues are often considered part of environmental conditions that can contribute to eating disorders. Social influences, however, have become so prominent in their relationship to eating disorders in recent years that they should be explored as a separate category. Real or perceived pressure from society to look a certain way has increased dramatically during the last few decades. People are constantly bombarded with images of what is considered beautiful or attractive. In particular, women with binge eating disorder may feel pressure to look a certain way or maintain a particular type of body. There are several specific social issues that can cause or contribute to binge eating disorder.

  • Social Media – Social media, in particular, can have a prominent impact on how individuals feel or think about themselves. Social media could include platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Pictures and videos online often present unrealistic images of what is considered attractive. Even though many of these pictures are often photo shopped or enhanced in some way, constantly viewing these types of images can dramatically affect an individual’s way of thinking regarding their body.
  • School Pressure – Since binge eating disorder often develops when a person is still in high school, and college this can be a large part of the social pressure that leads to an eating disorder. The effects of peer pressure can be overwhelming for many individuals. While these sorts of pressures may not directly cause an eating disorder they can affect the development of these conditions. Sometimes an eating disorder such as binge eating will manifest itself for the first time when a young person goes away to college. Without parental support and structured home life, a person may turn to food for support and comfort.
  • Acculturation – People who come from different ethnic or racial groups outside of the United States sometimes face different challenges than those who have grown up here. Those who undergo quick assimilation to Western culture may be more at risk of developing eating disorders such as binge eating. The pressure to fit in and succeed in a new culture may cause an individual to feel they must also change their body to be accepted.

Psychological Causes

There are several psychological traits, feelings, and perceptions that those who experience binge eating disorder will often have. Binge eating can temporarily relieve the unpleasant psychological feelings or thoughts. Psychological symptoms of binge eating disorder can include grief, shame, and disgust because an individual feels trapped in a constant cycle of excessive eating. The following are several types of feelings or traits a person may have that leads to binge eating.

  • Poor Body Image – Those who develop binge eating disorder will often find many things wrong with their bodies or overall appearance. Some individuals have a distorted view of what they actually look like. According to the National Institutes of Health, body dissatisfaction in adolescents and children is connected to a loss of control and episodes of binge eating. In public or social situations people with binge eating disorder may eat a normal amount because they believe that this is what is expected of them. In private, however, they will overindulge.
  • Low Self-Esteem – Having an overall low opinion of oneself often accompanies binge eating disorder A person may have feelings of worthlessness or not being able to measure up to other’s expectations. Sometimes parents may have used food as a punishment or reward when the person was a child. Feelings of being “good” or “bad” are then tied to certain foods in the individual’s mind. Food and eating then become interconnected to the individual’s sense of worth and self-esteem. If an individual ties their self-worth to any number of external factors, including food, it could make that person more vulnerable to a variety of eating disorders.
  • Loneliness and Poor Coping Skills – Individuals experiencing binge eating disordermay feel isolated or find it difficult to develop and maintain meaningful relationships. A person that has difficulty coping with stress, sadness, or other types of emotions may turn to food for comfort. Instead of working through problems and finding support in relationships with others, food becomes the person’s support system.

Besides, those with binge eating disorder may also have co-occurring psychological disorders that impact or worsen the disorder. Several specific types of conditions may co-occur with binge eating disorder:

  • Anxiety – General anxiety is normally defined as persistent and excessive fear or worries about daily events and situations. Anxiety is normal when it occurs occasionally during stressful situations. It becomes problematic when feelings of anxiety become excessive and begin to interfere with a person’s daily life. A large percentage of individuals that are diagnosed with Binge eating disorder have also been diagnosed with some form of anxiety. The brain chemical dopamine seems to be a factor that connects anxiety and binge eating. Dopamine plays a significant role in general feelings of well-being as well as in those feelings of pleasure and reward that are related to eating.
  • Depression – There is a strong connection between depression and Binge eating disorder. The Cleveland Clinic states, “…up to half of people with this condition suffer from depression. Whether depression is a cause or the effect of binge eating is unclear. ” There are several different types of depression including Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Psychotic Depression, and Persistent Depressive Disorder. When coupled with any of these types of depressive disorders a person’s binge eating can be worsened or complicated. Binge eating and depression can create an endless cycle of overindulging, followed by more depression. Obesity and obesity-related medical complications are often a result of prolonged Binge eating disorder and may contribute to a person’s depression.
  • Schizophrenia – Other types of psychological and mental conditions often accompany eating disorders. The British Journal of Psychiatry states that there is a shared risk between schizophrenia behaviors and binge eating. Disorganized or distorted thinking patterns are a primary symptom of schizophrenia. Cognitive distortions are also associated with eating disorders. While an eating disorder will not cause schizophrenia, the same brain chemistry components that can cause schizophrenia may make it more likely that a person will develop an eating disorder such as bulimia.

Choosing Treatment

No matter what the underlying causes of binge eating disorder may be for each individual, effective treatment is available. The underlying cause of binge eating disorder, especially if there are co-occurring disorders, may not always be easy to specifically pinpoint. If the cause is known it will likely be easier to put together a successful treatment plan. A medical professional may use different types of therapies, medications, or a combination to treat the eating disorder. Binge eating disorder can make treatment more complex, often requiring a combination of therapy and medical care.

Oliver-Pyatt Centers feature the most complete eating disorder treatment available in a home-like setting. An individual can receive daily exposure therapy, individual psychotherapy, and a complete medically managed plan with a high staff to patient ratio. They provide residential programs, day treatment, and supervised living. An individual will receive personalized care that is comprehensive and thorough, yet psychologically gentle. Nonjudgmental, experienced professionals can provide the tools people need to successfully achieve their goals. Contact Oliver Pyatt Centers for more information. They provide an easy step-by-step process to guide and support individuals and families through the admission process.

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.