Teens and Binge Eating
In the six months after her parents' divorce, 13-year-old Caroline (her name has been changed to protect confidentiality) gained more than 20 pounds. Feeling sad and alone, she consoled herself with food -- and lots of it. Day after day, she was binge eating.
"I remember the night my dad left, I went into the kitchen and devoured a dozen glazed doughnuts and a quart of milk," Caroline said. "Still feeling hungry (but really sad), I took a bag of chips up to my room and ate them in the dark while sitting on my bed, crying."
Unlike people with bulimia, Caroline didn't vomit or use laxatives to purge her system. She just continued to binge eat to soothe her sadness and anxiety.
What Causes Binge-Eating Disorder?
Binge-eating disorder is a relatively recently recognized disorder and is thought by some to be the most common of the eating disorders. People with binge-eating disorder eat large amounts of food at one sitting at least two days a week for six months. Their binges also have three of these five characteristics:
- Eating faster than normal
- Eating until uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
- Eating alone because of embarrassment
- Feeling disgusted, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
Approximately 4 million people in the United States have binge-eating disorder, binging without purging. They eat compulsively -- sometimes thousands of calories at one sitting -- until they feel stuffed. Most people with binge-eating disorder are either overweight or obese, defined as being 20% to 30% above their desirable weight. They often have a history of weight problems and weight fluctuations.
No one knows for sure what causes binge eating disorder, but there are several factors that are thought to contribute. Genetics and biology seem to play a role in the development of the disease. Binge eating tends to run in families. Researchers are actively studying how abnormalities in levels of certain neurochemicals in the brain can contribute to binge eating. Individual psychology is also thought to play a role: about 50% of people with binge eating disorder suffer from depression, and it's thought that negative emotions -- like anxiety, shame, and guilt -- contribute to out-of-control eating behaviors. Sometimes, a traumatic event can trigger the eating disorder.
What Are the Signs of Binge-Eating Disorder?
People with binge-eating disorder may miss school, parties, or social events so they can binge eat. At home, a binge eater may take food to his or her room, lock the door, and eat alone. Binge eaters may hide food under beds or in closets, so no one knows they are binging. Some binge eaters are ashamed of their behavior and suffer tremendous guilt.
Family members or friends might notice the binge eater eating enormous amounts of food, even after finishing a large meal. During the binge, the person might eat very quickly, without even knowing what he or she ate. Those with binge-eating disorder also may have odd eating habits, such as eating food directly from a can or taking food from the garbage and eating it.