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Understanding binge eating patterns

Do your weight loss clients struggle with binge eating? Binge eating, or uncontrolled eating of large quantities of food over a short period of time is an issue affecting people of all sizes. New research from the United States casts a bit more light on this complex topic, testing how symptoms of depression, eating styles and body mass index relate to patterns of binge eating.

Method

The study involved a sample of 625 university students who completed an online survey. The survey focussed on behavioural aspects of binge eating and had three key components: assessing binge eating, measuring depressive symptoms and analysing eating styles.

Assessing binge eating, depressive symptoms and eating styles

The binge eating assessment asked respondents how many days in the past week they “rapidly consumed an excessive amount of food with an experience of loss of control.” Depressive symptoms were measured using the Depression Scale-Short Form (CES-D), and eating styles were assessed using the Dutch Eating Behaviours Questionnaire (DEBQ). This questionnaire clarified emotional (eating in response to feelings) and external (eating in response to qualities that relate to the food) eating patterns.

Results

The key parts of this study were:

  • Measuring depressive symptoms
  • Measuring levels of emotional and external eating styles
  • Measuring levels of binge eating
  • Calculating body mass index (participants self-reported their height and weight).

Each of these variables were analysed to understand where they might be linked. For example, people were grouped according to low and high body mass index, and then levels of low and high external or emotional eating amongst those groups were analysed. Each group was further mapped against their lower or higher levels of depressive symptoms.

The authors found:

  • Higher levels of depressive symptoms, higher levels of external eating, and higher body mass index in combination was a predictor of increased binge eating; and
  • Higher depressive symptoms, higher levels of emotional eating, and higher body mass index in combination was a predictor of increased binge eating.

What is important to note is that these results also illustrated that higher levels of binge eating are not directly associated with higher body mass index. In fact, other aspects, such as levels of depressive symptoms and increased levels of emotional or external eating patterns were the key variables that were associated with increased levels of binge eating.

For example:

  • People with higher body mass index and low levels of external eating patterns had a consistently lower level of binge eating; and
  • Similarly, people with a higher body mass index, and low levels of emotional eating had relatively lower levels of binge eating.

This research shows is that there may be value in community programs delivered to any person who engages in binge eating – irrespective of their body mass index. It also indicates that programs which help people to manage emotional and external eating patterns (with a focus on eating in response to internal cues) and those which assist with management of depressive symptoms may be part of the key to address binge eating behaviour in an effective way.

Reference: Mason, T. B., & Lewis, R. J. (2014). Profiles of Binge Eating: The Interaction of Depressive Symptoms, Eating Styles, and Body Mass Index. Eating Disorders, 22(5), 450–460.

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