Signs of binge eating disorder (BED) include eating large amounts of food at one time, an inability to control how much food is consumed and deliberately concealing episodes of binge-eating from family members. People with BED eat until they are uncomfortably full and no longer hungry. Powerful feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression overwhelm them following BED episodes–guilt over eating too much, anxiety about being overweight and depression over failing to control their compulsion to overeat.
Is Binge Eating Disorder an Eating Disorder or an Addiction to Food?
Ongoing research into binge-eating disorder causes has consistently demonstrated that consuming sugary, high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods actually elicit changes in the brain similar to changes seen in people with a drug or alcohol addiction. In particular, when someone with binge-eating disorder eats large amounts of food they specifically crave, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods the brain and stimulates the brain reward system. This is exactly what happens when somebody abuses opioids or stimulants and becomes addicted to them.
With new research suggesting that signs of binge-eating disorder may develop as a result of brain chemical responses mimicking the same responses seen in substance abusers, overcoming binge-eating disorder may eventually include therapies currently applied to people with addictions to heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.
Neuroimaging scans further support the theory that binge-eating disorder is a type of food addiction. Brain scans of people with BED show evidence of sensitivity to “reward” cues and greater reactivity in a brain area called the medial orbitofrontal cortex when compared to control groups. Additionally, activation differences in the ventral striatum (neural networks involved in decision-making, motivation, and reward) and the amygdala (regulates memory, emotions and survival instincts) were detected in overweight adults with BED compared to overweight adults without BED. Neuroscientists think this suggests BED patients have greater, more enhanced visual processing and motivational sensitivity to palatable foods than people without signs of binge-eating disorder.
Given that behavioral and brain similarities appear to exist between substance abuse and binge-eating disorder, the theory that BED is partly a severe dependence (addiction) on food accompanied by mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and guilt is being thoroughly investigated and more commonly accepted by eating disorder psychiatrists.
Binge-eating Disorder Causes not Associated with Food Addiction
While stimulation of the brain’s reward center appears to play a key role in the development of binge-eating disorder, other causes have also been clinically validated, such as a genetic component, low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, sociocultural influences, personality disorders and medical problems involving the hypothalamus, a brain organelle controlling appetite. With so many factors possibly involved in the origin of a binge-eating disorder, individualized treatment programs for overcoming binge-eating disorder could feasibly include educational courses about the genetics of BED, how the media and culture shape our view of physical attractiveness and the science behind neurotransmitters, emotions and thought processes.
Are Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa Considered Food Addictions?
Individuals with anorexia nervosa may severely restrict their food intake. However, a common symptom of anorexia nervosa is an obsession with how much food is consumed. An individual exhibiting this eating disorder may read food labels, count the number of bites they take and weigh food portions to avoid gaining weight.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa may eat large amounts of food regularly, but may make themselves throw up or exercise excessively to prevent weight gain. Abuse of diuretics and laxatives is also a common symptom of bulimia nervosa.
If you or someone you know is showing signs of binge eating disorder, call today for immediate, professional help.