PHOTO: Florencia Viadana
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
What causes a person to binge eat?
In this post we are going to discuss the possible causes of bingeing. Before we talk about where it comes from, I will start by defining what a bingeing episode is. According to the DSM-V, an episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
- Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
- A sense of lack of control overeating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
It is also very frequently accompanied by a feeling of shame around the episodes.
If you binge eat regularly—at least once a week for 3 months—you may have the Binge Eating Disorder.
As bingeing very frequently triggers feelings of guilt and shame, it affects significantly the self-esteem of a person that binges and may lead to weight gain. Bingeing is a very frequent cause of overweight and obesity and contributed to weight fluctuations, gastrointestinal symptoms and a complicated relationship with the body.
Why do people binge?
We can distinguish between the reasons why people start bingeing in the first place and the reasons why people continue bingeing although it has negative effects on their psychological and physical wellbeing.
For some people, painful childhood experiences—such as family problems and critical comments about your shape, weight, or eating habits—are linked to developing binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder runs in families, and researchers have identified a genetic component as well.
Among the possible reasons for bingeing or risk factors, we can distinguish:
- Family models. If there was bingeing or bingeing and dieting in the family it is a model we learn from and then repeat not necessarily consciously.
- Dopamine. There is proof that people who have the Binge Eating Disorder (BED) may have increased sensitivity to dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to the reward circuit in the brain and the feeling of pleasure.
- Changes in the brain. There is research that supports the idea that people with BED may have changes in brain structure that result in a heightened response to food cues and less self-control.
- Body weight. Almost 50% of people with BED have obesity therefore weight issues may be both a cause and result of the disorder.
- Body image. People with BED often have a very negative body image that again can be the cause and at the same time the consequence of the disorder.
- Emotional trauma. Stressful life events, such as abuse, parental neglect, death, separation or abandonment, as well as childhood bullying, especially due to weight, are important risk factors. Eating in excess is a way of numbing intense emotions we don’t know how to process otherwise.
- Lack of mentalizing ability. Research shows that a difficult relationship with eating or eating disorders are related to the difficulties in the capacity to mentalize. Mentalizing is an important ability to understand relationships and to manage emotions.
- Dieting or restrictions. When we feel deprived of food or deprived of foods that we like, when there is food available or in a moment of weakness, we would likely binge on food rather than eat slowly and in small quantities. The reason for this is both psychological and physiological.
Moreover, the bingeing itself triggers more bingeing because it is an important stressor – it causes low self-esteem, anxiety because of losing control, shame, guilt and poor body image. Therefore, there is a vicious cycle where eating is used as a way of numbing the stress and then becomes the source of more stress.
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