Written by Hanley Foundation Prevention Specialist Caleb D. Akers, MA.
Binge-eating disorder (BED) is the most prevalent eating disorder and is characterized by persistent episodes of overeating accompanied by loss of control (i.e., binge eating) and significant distress over binge eating, but with no compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative misuse (Wang, Jones, Dreier, Haley, & Grilo, 2019). Although binge eating is relatively new in many respects to professionals, and clinicians, the severity of this disorder has made an everlasting impact on society. This type of disorder isn’t something that is reserved for only women or adolescent girls, nor is it restricted to any specific age group.
It is important to note now that there are many different reasons which lead men and women, young and old, into various eating disorders such as binge eating, but there are also a multitude of coping strategies as well as techniques one can implement to overcome these disorders. There is a very specific chemical in everyone’s brain which could be the culprit for not just eating disorders but many other types of mental health problems. The name of this important brain chemical is Dopamine. Dopamine is one of the “feel-good” chemicals in our brain. Interacting with the pleasure and reward center of our brain, dopamine — along with other chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins — plays a vital role in how happy we feel. In addition to our mood, dopamine also affects movement, memory, and focus.
Dopamine modulates motivation and reward circuits. Dopamine deficiency perpetuates pathological and compulsive eating as a means to compensate for decreased activation of these circuits. Over the past 18 years, research publications have identified that the food industry has engineered palatable foods high in sugar, salt, and fat as addictive foods, compared to traditional foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, nuts). Food cues and consumption can activate neurocircuitry in food addiction similar to that seen in drug addiction (Wieland, 2019).
Eating disorders, which in addition to Binge Eating Disorder, also include Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa, have the highest rate of mortality, and place some of the highest costs on the system of any psychiatric disorder. Untreated eating disorders can set in motion a cascade of complications, magnifying the severity and chronicity of these conditions and, by extension, the already imposing cost of care. Consistent with biases that eating disorders are a female condition, (Sim, 2019) determined reduced rates of help-seeking and treatment utilization for certain eating disorders in men. Although the authors found that men represent a considerable portion of those struggling with BED (27%), men were significantly less likely than women to seek help for their condition (Sim, 2019).