Freedom from Emotional Eating, Food & Weight Obsession

Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?
What Causes Binge Eating Disorder?

When it comes to understanding the fundamental causes of binge eating disorder, there’s so much we still need to study and learn. The good news these days, and long overdue, is that there’s great interest in the subject. I say long overdue because more people have binge eating disorder than have anorexia and bulimia, combined!

Researchers are looking at mood, food, and brain chemistry, and complex interactions between environment; increased access to high sugar/high fat foods, dieting & food restriction plus stress, early life experiences, genetics, heredity, and mental illness.

Could some of us be addicted to specific foods…or, as new emerging research suggests, have binge eaters and compulsive over eaters developed a “behavior” addiction. (To read more about the difference between a “food addiction” and a “behavior or process addiction”, sign up for my FREE Report, “The #1 Reason Why People Feel Out of Control with Food”.

Also, when it comes to understanding the causes of binge eating disorder, many of us who work with people who have binge eating disorder or have struggled with binge eating disorder (I fall into both of those advocacy groups), are encouraging researchers to expand the inquiry. In our weight-stigma-filled society, what impact does a person’s desperation to be thin, plus the resulting distress, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem that follow repeated diet failures, have on the causes of a binge eating disorder? These are questions we feel need to be explored.

To date, here’s what do we know about what appears to be contributing causes of Binge Eating Disorder. Another way of saying that is here’s what we know about what makes people vulnerable to devloping BED.

-It affects men, woman, children, across all socioeconomic, racial, weight and shapes lines.

-We believe approximately 3.5 % of women and 2% of men will be affected at some point in their lives.

When BED is present

  • There is a clear disturbance of eating behavior. Binge eating is clearly abnormal.
  • When observed in laboratory settings, people w/BED eat more than people of the same weight who do not have BED
  • Compared to the average US population, people with BED have higher rates of anxiety and depression, mood and substance abuse disorders.

-Some studies of people with BED also show higher frequency of negative automatic thoughts, more impulsivity and anger levels, low self-esteem, low sense that they can be effective in their lives (self- efficacy), more social phobia, and over concern with shape and weight.

-One published study I read a few years ago said people with BED tend to have high interpersonal sensitivity.

Men vs. Women

To date, we have very few studies looking at the differences between men and women with BED. Those studies we do have show that,

• Both men and women share body image concerns, dieting behavior, and psychological distress, but it appears that women struggle with more body dissatisfaction ….and a drive for thinness …

• Women are more likely than men to eat in response to negative emotions.

• Men are less likely to report distress over binge eating…

• Men show significantly higher rates of substance abuse problems.

Black and White Women

-Studies show BED is as common in black women as it is in white women, but in a community sample of white and black women with BED, black women with BED were heavier and reported more frequent binge eating. However, they reported less concern about body weight, shape, and eating, had less history with dieting, and were less likely to have had a past history of Bulimia Nervosa than white women with BED.

BED and Children

-The studies I’ve read report that BED in children may look a little different than in adults, and can be seen in kids as young as age 5 and 6. Their risk signs may be eating in the absence of hunger, eating to modulate strong or negative feelings, eating in secret, or hiding food. (In my 20+ years of clinical experience,  that’s how BED looks in most adults, as well.)

Associations with Weight

-Studies show “overweight” and “obesity” are associated with binge eating disorder but not all the time. I’ve read and heard percentages quoted from 50% up to 70% of people with binge eating disorder are in the higher weight ranges…but that means there are also a lot of people with BED who are not obese.

People who have BED and are not overweight often report having their struggles dismissed because they did not “look like” they had a binge eating problem.

What makes a person vulnerable to binge eating disorder?

There’s the $64 billion dollar question! Again, we need more studies. But working with what we know, to date,

Compared to women without eating disorders or other psychiatric disorders, women with BED reported greater exposure to adverse childhood experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, bullying, and family problems, like,

  • parental psychiatric disorders
  • parental criticism
  • lack of affection
  • parental under involvement
  • over protection

Sexual Abuse

-One study found a history of sexual abuse was significantly more common in

  • Black women with BED @ 66%
  • Compared to white women with BED @ 23.8%.

Negative Self-Evaluation

  • Negative self-evaluation and shyness appear to increase risk for BED, as does exposure to risk factors for obesity, like

-childhood obesity
-critical comments by family about weight, shape, or eating

Interesting side note…all of these risk factors are weaker in people with BED than in people who develop Bulimia Nervosa…

Food/Dietary /Stress
Decades ago, Dr. Judith Wurtman at MIT was the first to show that carbohydrates have a natural tranquilizing effect; the carbs contributing to the availability of more serotonin in the brain. I’ve interviewed Dr. Wurtman and she believes some people are more sensitive to this effect than are others. So, in the absence of other healthier ways to self-soothe, for some, binge eating on carbs may have become their #1 “go-to” strategy for managing stress; for coping with uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, situations. etc…likely one more contributing factor to the causes of binge eating disorder.

Today, there’s a great deal of interest in studying and further understanding how and under what circumstances food impacts brain chemistry; mood, reward and behavior reinforcement.

There is still so much to discover and to understand, i.e., why does one person who had inadequate parenting, was bullied, had a history of dieting develop a binge eating disorder while another person with similar life experiences does not?  So much still to be discovered!!!

In the meantime, we’re learning what works to help a person overcome binge eating disorder. To learn more about new skills and tool to overcome binge eating, you are welcome to listen to my FREE phone seminar. Click here for details.

Note…For professionals interested in learning more about causes of binge eating disorder as well as reviewing research findings, I recommend the book, Binge-Eating Disorder, Clinical Foundations and Treatment, by Mitchell, Devlin, de Zwann, Crow, and Peterson, Guilford Press.

In an upcoming post…more on gene interactions that may contribute to causes of binge eating disorder…


Ellen Shuman is a pioneer in the field of Binge Eating Disorder; a Life Coach who specializes in helping people overcome emotional eating, compulsive eating, binge eating disorder, and food addiction. She is the founder of A Weigh Out & Acoria Binge Eating Disorder Treatment (1993-present), A Founding Member and Past President of BEDA; The Binge Eating Disorder Association (2011/2012), and Co-Founder of the Academy for Eating Disorders Special Interest Group on “Health at Every Size”. For information about Coaching Services, contact, 513-321-4242.

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About Ellen Shuman

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I have worked in the Wellness Field for 30 years. I created an Emotional Eating & Binge Eating Disorder Recovery Program way before most people knew BED was an eating disorder, NOT a “willpower” issue. Personally, I suffered for years before finding answers and the help I needed and deserved! I became a Coach in 1997 to help others who were still suffering as I had. I love being a Coach!


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