How abnormal is binge eating?
What was the aim of this research?
Binge eating is the consumption of an excessive amount of food whilst feeling out of control. Although this behaviour is associated with serious health conditions (bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, morbid obesity), research has shown that it is becoming increasingly common. This study aimed to discover whether with this increased frequency, there has been any changes in its impact on individuals and society over the past 20 years.
How did we do it?
Six surveys with 15,126 adults were conducted between 1998 and 2015. Participants were asked how frequently they binge eat, how distressed they were about binge eating, and a range of questions about quality of life and the number of days they have had to take off work or studies in the past month (“days out of role”).
What did we find?
A large increase was observed in the number of people who engaged in at least weekly binge eating from 1998 (3%) to 2015 (13%). Interestingly, in 2015, only around half of these binge eaters said they were distressed by it. Further, the low levels of quality of life reported by binge eaters in 1998 was not observed by 2015, where it was no different to non-binge eaters. On the other hand, the number of “days out of role” (although decreasing over time) remained higher among binge eaters than non-binge eaters over time. Further, when people were distressed about their binge eating, they were also more likely to experience significant impairment in their quality of life.
What does this mean in practice?
The findings from this study suggests that although we are seeing a very large surge over time in the number of people who binge eat on a regular basis, the impact of this on the individual and society is becoming less severe. This may imply that as binge eating becomes more ‘normalised’, the stigma associated with it has reduced and its acceptability increased (“if the people around me do it, then it is OK for me to do it too”). On the other hand, we know that binge eating is highly problematic when associated with other inappropriate behaviours (e.g., self-induced vomiting in bulimia nervosa) or when it results in conditions such as morbid obesity. The onus is therefore on health professionals to identify those individuals who are suffering as a result of their binge eating, and prioritise their treatment.
Citation: D. Mitchison, D., Touyz, S., González-Chica, D. A., Stocks,N., Hay, P., (2017) How abnormal is binge eating? 18-Year time trends in population prevalence and burden, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica