About two years ago I was diagnosed with a binge eating disorder. But that wasn’t always the case. For years (over a decade) I used to starve myself for no real reason, I just have a terrible relationship with food and no real interest in eating. But one day I made a decision to overcome my suicidal depressive states that would happen when I wasn’t able to go out at the weekend. At the time, I needed that release as a way to cope. Without it, I would break down, cry, and experience a desire to kill myself that would consume me.
I thought I had come up with a great plan to overcome this issue by rewarding myself a night in with takeaways and chocolate. Unfortunately, this led to the development of my binge eating issues, especially when I felt depressed. Which is frequent. I’ve been depressed longer than I can remember, starting way back in primary school. This is the reason I thought I’d write this article to help people avoid a similar fate.
What Is Depression
There’s often a thin line between being sad and being depressed. The main difference between feeling down and being depressed is how long it lasts. We can all feel sad from time to time, but for something to be classed as depression, it has to be consistent for weeks or even months (NHS). The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggest a figure of two weeks before sadness can be considered depression.
Depression will also come with a whole host of symptoms that you may not experience in a moment of sadness that lasts a few days. Depression is one of the most common forms of mental health issues, affecting how someone thinks and feels, how they cope day-to-day, and how much they sleep, eat, and work (NIMH).
What Is Binge Eating And Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder just like bulimia, anorexia, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, and orthorexia. Binge eating disorder has a lot in common with bulimia, as both come with episodes of eating very large quantities of food without people feeling like they’re in control of what they’re doing (Beat). However, unlike bulimia, this isn’t followed by some form of purging.
However, I was diagnosed with a binge eating disorder (replacing my bulimia diagnosis) without having a loss of control over my eating in the traditional sense. I bribe myself with unhealthy foods and often consume a lot of high calory food, but that food wouldn’t represent a large quantity of food. So there is flexibility within the diagnostic criteria, so it’s essential to talk to a professional rather than self-diagnose.
Whereas a binge eating disorder is largely classed as having episodes of high food intake and a loss of control, binge eating is a little different. The two main differences between the two are the frequency, much like depression, and the point where you stop eating. According to Verywell Mind, for it to be classed as a disorder, the person needs to experience an episode of binge eating at least once a week for a minimum of three months.
It’s also important to note that individuals with a binge eating disorder will often eat past the point of feeling uncomfortably or even painfully full (Walden). Whereas, someone who’s binge eating will stop when they feel full.
The Relationship Between Depression And Binge Eating
One of the symptoms of depression is how it can affect a person’s appetite. This can cause someone to lose weight or gain weight, by not eating or binge eating (APA). And, one of the symptoms of binge eating disorder is feeling depressed, guilty, shame, and disgusted because of a binge (NHS).
Support for this comes from a study by Jarmolowicz, Bickel, Sofis, Hatz, and Mueller (2016), who found evidence of a connection between symptoms of depression and binge eating disorder. Because of this connection, you’ve probably heard of terms like “emotional eating”, “depressive eating”, or “comfort eating”.
Interestingly, according to WebMD, around half of people who experience binge eating will have a mood disorder, such as depression. Furthermore, many of those who binge eat but aren’t currently classified as being depressed will have a history of depression.
A study conducted by Skinner, Haines, Austin, and Field (2012) into the relationship between depression and binge eating supports WebMD‘s claim. They investigated overeating, binge eating, and depressive symptoms among 4,798 female participants through the United States’s Growing Up Today Study (GUTS). The study found that depressive symptoms predict the onset of overeating and binge eating, and overeating and binge eating predict the development of high depressive symptoms during two years of follow-ups. However, one of the drawbacks of this study is the complete lack of male participants.
This is likely because of one key difference in their relationship. This difference is how depression-based binge eating (comfort eating) can cause a habit to develop. Someone who’s depressed will likely eat even when they’re not hungry and they can learn that eating certain foods can temporarily improve their mood (FHE Health).
Such a habit causes binge eating to function as a coping mechanism, albeit an unhealthy one. Some people turn to food as a way to cope with depression, as well as emotional distress. Food may provide temporary relief or serve as a distraction from negative emotions. This habit can persist even after the depression has lifted. This would explain how people can binge eat without feeling currently feeling depressed but have a history of depression.
Whereas, depressive symptoms developing as a result of overeating and binge eating in Skinner, Haines, Austin, and Field (2012) study is likely a result of them feeling guilt and shame. Such feelings are common after episodes of binge eating, but these feelings can develop as our body shape changes as a result of the unhealthy eating habit. This, in turn, can result in body image issues developing.
Another thing to consider is what Wheeler, Greiner, and Boulton (2005) said. According to them, the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) states that depression and binge eating are tightly correlated. They went on to outline two possible relationship routes. The first is where experts agree that although depression might not be the primary disorder underlying an eating disorder, binge eating may affect long-term feelings of depression. The other is how depression and binge eating disorder could co-occur at the same time, which then reinforces each other. Basically, creating a negative cycle or a self-perpetuating cycle.
Depression, Binge Eating, And Food/Sugar Addiction
According to FHE Health, there’s a link between depression and binge eating. That link is sugar addiction. They claim that there’s clinical evidence that shows how sugar acts on the brain’s reward pathways in the same way drugs, alcohol, and gambling can.
One of the main beliefs around depression and binge eating is that there can be neurochemical imbalances in serotonin and dopamine, which are involved in mood regulation. These imbalances may contribute to the development or maintenance of both conditions.
Thus, it’s not a stretch to see how eating high-sugar foods could hijack our reward system because we do experience joy from eating. If true, this could also suggest that people might experience withdrawals from sugar, which could explain difficulties in maintaining lifestyle changes and dieting.
FHE Health also pointed out that eating unhealthy food can lead to nutritional deficiencies which can also help in maintaining depression and binge eating. They state that such people may lack B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, and other nutrients that are needed to make neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Without these, there’s a greater chance of developing and maintaining mental health issues.
There is a clear connection and overlap between depression and binge eating, as studies have shown. To the point that it might be hard to know which came first for some people. It’s important to note that not everyone who binge eats struggles with depression, and not all individuals with depression engage in binge eating.
However, if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of either condition, seeking professional help is advisable. Furthermore, whether your depression came first or your binge eating did, if you want to recover from the effects, tackling both issues is a good place to start.
Because there’s also evidence of how what we eat will affect our mental wellbeing, it’s important to have a balanced diet.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with binge eating and depression in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Jarmolowicz, D. P., Bickel, W. K., Sofis, M. J., Hatz, L. E., & Mueller, E. T. (2016). Sunk costs, psychological symptomology, and help seeking. Springerplus, 5, 1-7. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s40064-016-3402-z.
Skinner, H. H., Haines, J., Austin, S. B., & Field, A. E. (2012). A prospective study of overeating, binge eating, and depressive symptoms among adolescent and young adult women. Journal of Adolescent Health, 50(5), 478-483. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3336086.
Wheeler, K., Greiner, P., & Boulton, M. (2005). Exploring alexithymia, depression, and binge eating in self‐reported eating disorders in women. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 41(3), 114-123. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kathleen-Wheeler/publication/7622194_Exploring_Alexithymia_Depression_and_Binge_Eating_in_Self-Reported_Eating_Disorders_in_Women/links/5776481d08aead7ba071ad29/Exploring-Alexithymia-Depression-and-Binge-Eating-in-Self-Reported-Eating-Disorders-in-Women.pdf.