It’s the Season of Eating, Should We Be Concerned?

Co-authored by Nicole Yu and Alexandra Dupont
The candy and treat gorging associated with Halloween has come and gone but the holiday season of eating has just started.  This leaves many of us excited, yet concerned about our fitness and maintaining a healthy weight.  As tempting food surrounds us this season, it is not uncommon for people to become concerned about eating too much.  Public discussion often highlights the eating disorders of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, but often neglects to talk about a disorder of over eating called binge-eating disorder (BED).

Anorexia and bulimia are the only two currently recognized major eating disorders in the DSM-IV.  Binge-eating disorder was first described and included into the DSM IV in 1994 as a diagnosis considered for further study and is listed under the “eating disorder not otherwise specified” category.  But what sets BED apart from simply overindulging during the holidays?

On occasion nearly everyone overeats, especially at holiday meals or parties, but BED is a very serious eating disorder where simple overeating crosses a line into becoming a disorder. In BED, overeating becomes a regular occurrence accompanied by the nearly irresistible compulsion to continue consuming enormous quantities of food.

According to a study published in the journal of Heath Psychology by Baker et al. (1998) the holidays are a time where individuals who are trying to control their weight are at risk for gaining weight by relapsing into old eating habits. The fall season has come around once again and in America it can easily be summed up by the catchy phrase, “Season’s Eatings,” as often used on the Food Network television channel.  Halloween kicks off the time of year when edible seasonal treats suddenly become available in overabundance.  Food can be seen in large and repetitive quantities everywhere from TV commercials to sweets placed in office common areas.  Not long after Halloween this festive season continues with the celebration of Thanksgiving, winter holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, etc.) and New Year’s. There is no shortage of opportunities to over eat.

The Mayo Clinic website stated, in 2011, that, “Although binge-eating disorder is the most common of all eating disorders, it’s still not considered a distinct psychiatric condition. But if you have binge-eating disorder symptoms, treatment can help you.”  Cognitive behavioral therapy has been implemented as an effective treatment for binge-eating disorder but in order to develop the most effective treatments subjects need to be appropriately identified as having BED and enrolled in treatment studies (Grilo et al., 2011).

A recent study by Dr. Ruth Striegel of Wesylean University demonstrated that few studies of binge eating have included men, despite the fact that binge eating is just as common in men as in women.  Striegel makes the point that the individuals who engage in binge eating behaviors deserve to be empirically studied because such actions significantly correlate to obesity, hypertension and diabetes.   Binge eating behavior also serves as an indicator of distress as demonstrated by its comorbidity with other psychiatric symptoms and impairments in psychosocial functioning.  This large-scale study analyzed data from 46,351 adult men and women who answered questions online about health-related attitudes, behaviors, and psychological and social functioning.

Binge eating isn’t good for your body. Of the 46,351 participants, 1,630 (7.5%) men and 2,754 (11.19%) women reported binge eating at least once in the past month.  Men and women who binge ate were more likely to have higher BMIs than non-binge eaters.  As the number of binging episodes per month increased, the prevalence of obesity also grew. Of those who binge ate 5 to 9 times per month, over 60% were obese.

Binge eating isn’t good for your mental health either. Binge eaters had increased rates of depression compared to non-binge eating counterparts.  They also reported increased rates of work and non-work activity impairment, higher levels of stress, and inadequate amounts of sleep.  Binge eating was also associated with missing work due to illness.

Striegel’s results are consistent with studies based mostly on samples of women that showed significantly higher rates of major depression, anxiety disorders, and functional impairment in those with BED. While both men and women bingers had significant clinical impairments, women were more likely then men to report that they felt stressed or anxious. However, this study’s main contribution to the research on binge eating is that men seem to be just as negatively affected by binge eating behaviors as women.

In conclusion, this study suggests that individuals with binge eating behavior face a burden of illness that affects their daily lives, regardless of gender.  Despite increased education about eating disorders, many men and women remain under-treated. Unfortunately, there is also a stigma and shame that comes with binge eating.  So, maybe it’s wise to think twice before tempting your co-worker or relative with just another cookie over the holidays

Baker, R. C., Kirschenbaum, D. S. (1998) Weight control during the holidays: Highly consistent self-monitoring as a potentially useful coping mechanism. Health Psychology, Vol 17(4), 367-370.

Grilo CM, Masheb RM, Wilson GT, Gueorguieva R, White MA. (2011) Cognitive–behavioral therapy, behavioral weight loss, and sequential treatment for obese patients with binge-eating disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 79(5), 675-685.

Striegel, R. H., Bedrosian, R., Wang, C. and Schwartz, S. (2011). Why men should be included in research on binge eating: Results from a comparison of psychosocial impairment in men and women. International Journal of Eating Disorders. DOI: 10.1002/eat.20962.