For someone who engages in binge eating behaviors, they may frequently experience distressing emotions such as self-disgust, guilt, shame, helplessness, and depression after they have taken part in a binge. Often times, there is an out-of-control feeling that arises, and many questions are directed at the self – Why did I do this? Why can’t I control myself? Why don’t I have any willpower? What’s wrong with me? Without being able to understand the cause of their binge eating, many individuals resort to self-blame, which can plunge them back into the binge eating cycle. Here are some common reasons of binge eating that may help you identify your own triggers:
Many triggers of binge eating behavior may not be related to food directly, but are an interplay of underlying emotional processes. Moreover, individuals with binge eating disorder can struggle with psychiatric comorbidities, particularly depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance use. Thus, someone may turn to binge eating behaviors to help alleviate, avoid, or numb unwanted feelings temporarily. Such eating patterns may eventually alter or confuse one’s natural hunger/fullness signals, leading the individual to mistake their emotional “hunger” for physical hunger.
The Impact of Mood on Food. Research demonstrates that an individual’s mood is a common precursor for binge eating behavior. A study by Stein et al. (2007) demonstrates that a negative mood (i.e. feeling frustrated, miserable, sad, and/or tense) is much greater for a person before and after binges versus at non-binge times. They also found that issues related to weight and shape and relationship concerns are specific to the individual’s negative mood prior to their binge, compared to negative moods at non-binge times.
Situational Triggers. Participants in a study on binge eating reported what they thought were the causes of their binges: almost 50% attributed their binges to how they felt, 17.4% to breaking a rule they had around food, 14% to hunger, and the rest to “unknown causes” (Stein et al., 2007). They also reported what they thought were causes of the “loss of control” they experienced for each binge: an attempt to change their mood (27.3%), breaking of a food rule (20.5%), and food being pleasurable (17.8); the rest of the causes were marked “unknown.” Low self-esteem, which could be a result of bullying, weight-related discrimination, or general marginalization, is another risk factor for binge eating (Stice et al., 2002).
Pleasure and Reward-Seeking. Like many other pleasure-inducing activities (i.e. sex, drug use) eating can increase the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter (Bello & Hajnal, 2010). Thus, binging is often used as a way to self-soothe or experience pleasure when the individual feels depressed, anxious, traumatized, scared, or other distressing emotions. Someone who engages in substance use may also exhibit binge eating as a reward-seeking behavior. In fact, frequently as an individual tries to recover from a substance use disorder, binge eating may arise (or worsen) as an alternative way for the individual to experience that “rush” of pleasure. Moreover, a volatile affect or high impulsivity, present in some personality disorders or manic states, can also enhance the risk for binge eating for reward-seeking purposes.
Coping, Comfort, and Safety. Living within toxic or turbulent environments (i.e. in a dysfunctional family or unsafe surroundings) could induce the urge to overeat as a coping mechanism. Similarly, feelings of grief can also trigger binge eating in order to reach the same effect, and as a literal, tangible means to fill an emotional void that an individual might be feeling. In general, a lack of emotional fulfillment, which could result from unmet relational needs, could be a precursor to binge eating as a means to fill a deep void or longing. Trauma is also an important risk factor for binge eating. Many individuals with a history of physical or sexual trauma use binge eating as a protective mechanism, eating to gain weight as a type of defensive shield (physical and emotional) against further victimization.
Poor Body Image and Physical Hunger
Although this may seem pretty obvious, there is a tendency to forget or minimize the effect of restriction/starvation on binge eating. Many individuals I come across who struggle with binging are actually engaging in dieting, overexercising, or other irregular eating patterns (or have a history of doing so). They may comply with restrictive food rules or use compensatory measures to avoid weight gain and attempt to resolve body image concerns.
However, as much as we’d like to think that we need only willpower to “fight the urge” to eat, our body does not work this way. We need food for fuel and energy, and subsequently, a binge can be a biological response to starvation, your body’s way of telling you that you need to eat (Striegel-Moore et al., 1986). After periods of restrictive eating, an individual reaches a point of feeling ravenous as the body “fights back” against this starvation, which can trigger overeating or binging.
Binge eating often leads to feelings of helplessness as the individual is unable to control their behaviors. Subsequently, a profound part of recovery is to understand the underlying bases for one’s binge eating behaviors and develop more adaptive approaches to address these triggers.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fifth Edition). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Bello, N. T., & Hajnal, A. (2010). Dopamine and binge eating behaviors. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 97(1), 25–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2010.04.016
Stein, R. I., Kenardy, J., Wiseman, C. V., Dounchis, J. Z., Arnow, B. A., & Wilfley, D. E. (2007). What’s driving the binge in binge eating disorder?: A prospective examination of precursors and consequences. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(3), 195–203. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20352
Striegel-Moore, R. H., Silberstein, L. R., & Rodin, J. (1986). Toward an understanding of risk factors for bulimia. American Psychologist, 41(3), 246-263. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.41.3.246
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are struggling with compulsive exercise or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food, body image, and movement.