Anxiety and binge eating

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Are anxiety and binge eating related? Yes, absolutely.

In this article

Everyone has emotions surrounding eating

Our emotions are closely tied to eating, meals, and food choices. We all use food to an extent to influence how we feel. We choose heavy protein and carbohydrate foods after a workout when we feel exhausted; coffee in the morning when we feel sluggish; and desserts when we feel like celebrating or relieving stress. One of the emotions that strongly influences disordered eating is anxiety. We often eat more when we are anxious as a means of relieving stress.

What differentiates anxiety induced eating from binge eating disorder?

The main difference between someone with anxiety related overeating and a true eating disorder is the extent to which food is overconsumed and the pattern of consumption. Someone with stress or anxiety related eating might occasionally eat an extra serving of icecream when they know they shouldn’t. However, someone with binge eating disorder (BED) in contrast, may eat several pints of icecream in one sitting. They may also do so in a worrisome pattern, oftentimes secretly away from others and then make attempts to hide the evidence. Individuals with BED describe difficulty stopping themselves from overeating. It’s a compulsion that they cannot control.

Each time the overeating happens it’s called a binge eating episode.Binge Eating Disorder is technically defined as episodes of binge eating at least once a week for three months, however this should be considered more of a guideline than a strict requirement for diagnosis, and should certainly not influence an individual to defer treatment until it is too late.

Research suggests that binge eating is how some people cope with anxiety. (1) It is important to address anxiety and stress management as part of the treatment for individuals with BED.

Statistics on binge eating

Binge eating is estimated to affect 1.5% of women and 0.3% of men worldwide. In the U.S., up to 23% of those affected by binge eating had attempted suicide. 

Many binge eaters had mental health symptoms their entire life: 70% were affected by mood disorders, 68% by substance abuse, 59% by anxiety disorders, 49% by borderline personality disorder, and 32% by post-traumatic stress disorder. The risk for having a binge eating disorder is increased by deprivation, violence, trauma, various minority statuses, and major mental illness. (3) 

Another study found that 37% of those who have binge eating disorder also have anxiety during their lifetime. (1) Anxiety disorders are the second most common psychological disorder seen in those with binge eating disorder who also are morbidly obese. (1)

In Mumbai, researchers of one study of 2000 English-speaking adolescent females reported higher binge eating behavior than males. Fifty percent of those surveyed reported moderate binge eating while 36.8% reported severe binge eating. Those who binged tended to have irregular menstrual periods and were overweight or obese. (4)

Anxiety and binge eating are often co-occurring

Research also shows that anxious individuals are more predisposed to the development of binge eating. Healthy coping skills for anxiety, including exercise, mediation, and other healthy habits may be effective in reducing anxiety that then profligates cycles of binge eating. (5)

What to look for if you suspect binge eating

If you are concerned about your own eating or the eating of others in your life, the first step is to identify if certain emotions are causing you to overeat or even take on binge eating behaviors. Ask yourself these questions: 

Feelings of tension

  • When you feel tense, do you want to eat? What do you want to eat?
  • When you feel tense, do you find yourself eating?
  • When you feel tense, are you more prone to eat a whole bag, package or container of something? 
  • Do you feel out of control while you eat?

Feeling fearful

  • When you feel afraid do you want to eat? What do you want to eat?
  • When you feel afraid, do you find yourself going to the refrigerator or eating? 
  • When you feel afraid, are you more prone to eat a whole bag, package or container of something? 
  • Do you feel out of control while you eat?

Feeling worried

  • When you feel worried, do you want to eat? What do you want to eat?
  • When you feel worried, do you find yourself going to the refrigerator or eating? 
  • When you feel worried, are you more prone to eat a whole bag, package or container of something? 
  • Do you feel out of control while you eat?

Feeling a sense of panic

  • When you feel panicky, do you want to eat? What do you want to eat?
  • When you feel panicky, do you find yourself going to the refrigerator or eating? 
  • When you feel panicky, are you more prone to eat a whole bag, package or container of something? 
  • Do you feel out of control while you eat?

Feeling agitated or angry 

  • When you feel agitated or angry, do you want to eat? What do you want to eat?
  • When you feel agitated or angry, do you find yourself going to the refrigerator or eating? 
  • When you feel agitated or angry, are you more prone to eat a whole bag, package or container of something? 
  • Do you feel out of control while you eat?

This questionnaire can help you determine what emotions are driving you toward unhealthy eating. If you have concerns, reach out to friends, loved ones, or professionals for help and support. Our team at Within Health is here to support you every step of the way.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Rosenbaum DL, White KS. The role of anxiety in binge eating behavior: A critical examination of theory and empirical literature. Health Psychol Res. 2013 Apr 18; 1(2):e19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4768578/
  2. Schotte DE, Cools J, McNally RJ. Film-induced negative affect triggers overeating in restrained eaters. J Abnorm Psychol. 1990 Aug;99(3):317-320. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2212283/ 
  3. Keski-Rahkonen A. Epidemiology of binge eating disorder: prevalence, course, comorbidity, and risk factors. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2021 Nov 1;34(6):525-531. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34494972/
  4. Dikshit R, Karia S, Shah N, Sonavane S, DeSousa A. A study on binge eating behavior in urban adolescents. Asian J Psychiatr. 2020 Apr; 50:101998. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32229430/
  5. Deboer LB, Tart CD, Presnell KE, Powers MB, Baldwin AS, Smits JAJ. Physical activity as a moderator of the association between anxiety sensitivity and binge eating. Eat Behav. 2012 Aug;13(3);194-201. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22664396/

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