June 24, 2003
BIRMINGHAM, AL — A study published in the most recent issue of the journal Behavioral Medicine finds that some people who suffer from what is known as binge-eating disorder (BED) engage in chaotic or bizarre eating behaviors such as gorging on food straight out of cans, on food taken from trash and even on chewable medicines. In addition, researchers found that negative emotions rather than hunger from dieting were the strongest contributing factor to chaotic eating behaviors.
University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) research psychologist Mary Hagan, Ph.D., directed the study to detail the nature of binge eating practices in BED sufferers. It is the first clinical study to explore these behaviors in people seeking treatment for BED.
Unlike bulimics, who binge and purge, BED sufferers do not vomit or take laxatives. BED has only been recognized as an eating disorder in the last few years. An estimated 4 million adults suffer from BED, characterized by recurrent binging and severe distress over binging. It is estimated that nearly a third of all obese persons have BED, Hagan said.
“Despite this prevalence and because of the secretive nature of binge eating,” writes Hagan, “little is known about the specific behaviors and eating-related habits common to BED or the factors that contribute to their expression.”
Hagan and her colleagues conducted a Semi-Starvation-Associated Behaviors Scale (SSABS) evaluation of 54 women, ages 17 to 54, who were seeking treatment for BED. They also evaluated a control group of 29 individuals who did not have eating disorders.
The evaluation included questions about bizarre eating behaviors that are usually associated with semi-starvation. The researchers also included questions about why participants felt they had started a binge, the consequences of their binging and how they valued various food properties.
Hagan and her colleagues found that BED sufferers engaged in considerably more bizarre eating behaviors than the control group. Such behaviors included eating soiled food or food that has been discarded in the trash, sneaking or hoarding food, eating food that is frozen or too hot, binging while driving or making strange mixtures of food. The survey provided a scientific measure of the degree of frenzied desperation that the person with BED experiences.
The researchers found that negative emotions — such as depression, guilt and shame — and not extreme dieting, were the strongest contributing factors toward bizarre eating behaviors.
“We found this surprising,” Hagan said. “We knew people who were forced into a state of semi-starvation showed these chaotic eating behaviors, but negative emotions are apparently enough to send BED sufferers — who are nowhere near starvation — into these behaviors.”
Hagan said further research focusing on the role of negative emotions in triggering and maintaining BED is needed.
The study’s co-authors are Ellen S. Shuman, B.A., director, and Michelle Schwiebert, M.Ed., of WellCentered Eating Disorder Treatment Programs, Cincinnati; Kimberly D. Oswald, B. S., Paula Chandler, B.S., and Kathleen Blackburn, UAB Department of Psychology; Kevin C. Corcoran, Ph.D., and Christina Birbaum, M.S., University of Cincinnati, Department of Psychology; and Jennifer Profitt, M.S., Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.