A 3-Part Series on Binge Eating Disorder: What Causes BED? (Part 2) / by Gia & Danielle

By Drs. Danielle Keenan-Miller and Gia Marson

[Part 1: What is BED?]

What causes binge eating disorder? Once someone starts binge eating, why is it so difficult to stop? Although there’s no one answer to these questions, scientific studies of binge eating can point to some answers and highlight ways that individuals and mental health practitioners can work to stop binge eating. 

First, we know that there are some biological factors that contribute to binge eating. Genes can play a role in binge eating [8]-- that is, people are more likely to binge eat if others in their families had BED or related concerns (although see [this post] for an explanation of the meaning of genetic risk). We also know that some brain systems appear to be altered among people who have BED, particularly networks in the brain that regulate pleasure, pain, and reward [9]. It’s not yet clear whether the differences in brain patterns that are observed among people with BED are a cause of the BED or a consequence of BED. 

Our thoughts, feelings, and environment are also known to be important causes for why people start binge eating in the first place and why it can be so difficult to stop. Many theories of binge eating suggest that dieting plays a central role in binge eating disorder. One model [10] that has been supported by a number of studies suggests that dieting (or a sense of deprivation from not having desired foods) sets people up biologically for overeating, as our bodies will try to compensate when we feel deprived. If you’ve ever missed a meal and then eaten much more than you intended at the next opportunity to eat, you’ve experienced the way that our body will try to overcompensate for even temporary deprivation. Some people with BED might not be on a formal diet, but they might be trying to restrict in some situations (for example, eating too lightly or not what they want to eat when out to lunch with coworkers). Feeling bad about one’s body and trying to avoid thinking about food can also trigger episodes of binge eating [11]. Negative emotions can also contribute to binge eating as people try to distract themselves with food or engage in binge eating because the guilt associated with that behavior is more tolerable than the other reasons they’re feeling bad [12]. Another explanation for BED highlight the fact that our willpower is a limited resource-- if we expend a lot of it trying to diet or suppress our emotions, we deplete our ability to engage in self-control and could end up binge eating [13].  

It’s likely that there is no one “reason” for binge eating. Any one person may have several factors that contribute to his or her binge eating, and the reasons may differ from person to person. Understanding what your causes and triggers are can be the first step towards putting together a plan to stop binge eating that will work for you.

[8] Kessler, Hutson, Herman & Potenza, 2016
[9] Kessler, Hutson, Herman & Potenza, 2016
[10] Fairburn, Cooper & Shafran, 2003
[11] Mason & Lewis, 2015
[12] Kenardy, Arnow, & Agras, 1996
[13] Loth et al, 2016

Clinicians looking for additional information are referred to Marson & Keenan-Miller’s companion article in The Los Angeles Psychologist (2016).