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Teens and Binge Eating

In the six months after her parents' divorce, 13-year-old Caroline (not her real name) 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 is one of the most common 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 may contribute.

  • Genetics and biology seem to play a role. 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 may also 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 binge-eating disorder.
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