What Exactly is the Mechanism Behind Binge Eating?
Being a critical risk factor that significantly contributes to the burden of diseases and high mortality rates worldwide, obesity has been declared an epidemic globally. Health organizations all over the world are struggling to control it but these efforts made to curb this rising menace are largely hindered or slowed down by the fact that most developed countries often provide perfect contexts or environments for harmful unhealthy habits such as binge eating.
Although Binge Eating is defined as eating large amounts of food in a short period of time with feelings of lack of control or extreme distress while eating or afterwards by eating disorder professionals, binge eating may have different meanings for different individuals.
Binge eating is a form of emotional eating and people who binge on food often do so in a bid to cope or feel better about situations and circumstances. While people may find comfort in binge eating, the comfort is only temporary because after binging, binge eaters often experience feelings of guilt, self-disgust and/or regret.
Binge eating is considered an eating disorder. Although not all binge eaters are overweight or obese, in most cases, binge eating leads to weight gain and obesity which also leads to compulsive eating.
It creates a vicious cycle where the more weight one gains the more they binge on food to cope with the weight gain and negative feelings they develop because of their appearance. As a result, binge eaters become overweight or obese because they end up feeling powerless to stop binge eating and the vicious cycle.
Although similar to another eating disorder known as bulimia, the main difference is that with binge eating, one doesn’t feel the compulsion to make up or cancel the effects of the binge by fasting, vomiting or over exercising.
Binge eating is closely related to obesity mainly because it creates an endless cycle of harmful diet related habits.
Researchers define obesogenic environments as the total influences that the surroundings (environment one lives in), opportunities afforded by such an environment and the conditions of life in that environment have on promoting or encouraging obesity in individuals or populations (in that environment).
How Obesogenic Environments Lead to Addiction
A study was carried out by two researchers; Rafael Maldonado from Pompeu Fabra University and Mara Dierssen from The Centre for Genomic Regulation; both located in Barcelona, Spain with an aim of having a better understanding of how obesogenic environments may result in binge eating and consequently encourage the rise in obesity.
In this study, the researchers simulated an obesogenic environment in the laboratory using mice. The results from the study have since been published in the journal Addiction Biology as two complementary articles.
Together with their colleagues from both institutions, the researchers created an obesogenic environment for the mice by offering them two different feeding preferences.
The rodents were provided with their regular food that they usually eat for a balanced diet together with a mixture of chocolate pieces that were gotten from cutting up a variety of chocolate bars available in the stores. The mice were also given an option of eating a “cafeteria-style” feed considered as high in fat.
At one point, the mice were given access to the chocolates for only an hour a day and as a result; they began gorging themselves with the chocolate compulsively eating as much chocolate in an hour as they would normally eat in a whole day if it had been offered regularly.
By preferring to wait for the unhealthy chocolate to be provided and gorging themselves on it when it was finally provided rather than eating the regular mice chow (which was constantly available); the mice displayed similar behavior to people showing signs of addiction.
However, the chocolate did not effectively decrease the feeling of hunger for the mice as it did not offer the nutrients needed by the mice. The mice which were given a high fat diet or chocolate also displayed a distinctive change in their daily feeding habits; preferring to eat during the day (instead of during night-time when mice normally prefer to eat).
They also adopted repeated snack-like feeding habits rather than more infrequent regular plentiful mice food.
According to the results of the study, the researchers found out that the mice began showing signs of addiction behavior after a very short period when they were offered a plentiful but unhealthy feeding option. They began binging on the unhealthy food and started gaining excess weight.
Feeling “Trapped” or “Stuck” in an Endless Vicious Cycle
Results from research studies show that many overweight or obese people who try to lose their excess weight through traditional weight loss methods like dieting and healthy eating or participating in weight loss programs usually relapse and experience weight regain.
This relapse pattern is usually the main setback overweight and obese people face when they decide to adopt and maintain healthy eating habits.
Maldonado and Dierssen propose that the reason why such relapses occur and are very common could be because the obesogenic environments these people live in limits the control people have over their eating behaviors’. As a result, people become trapped in an endless vicious cycle where one unhealthy or harmful choice leads to the next harmful choice and so forth.
Mara Dierssen noted that some metabolic illnesses may be caused not only by a result of biological factors but also by uncontrolled behaviors. Dierssen believes that this is where health experts should learn to get involved. She also added that obesity was not just a metabolic disease but also a behavioral issue.
“People who are overweight or obese are usually told to eat less and move more, but this is too simplistic.” Stated Dierssen.
She believes that to understand the behaviors that lead to obesity, the entire process needs to be examined. “We need to look at the whole process. By understanding the behaviors that lead to obesity and spotting the tell-tale signs early, we could find therapies or treatments that stop people from becoming overweight in the first place.” Said Dierssen. “It is very hard to lose weight successfully, and many people end up trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting,” She emphasized.
Maldonado concluded by saying that the studies they carried out revealed the key cognitive and behavioral changes encouraged by taking foods that were high in calories and that this could be the main reason why people experienced repeated weight regain and difficulties in controlling their diets.
“Our results revealed that long-term exposure to hyper caloric diets impair the ability to control eating behavior leading to negative effects on the cognitive processes responsible for a rational control of food intake.” Maldonado further explains.
Maldonado and Dierssen plan to conduct a further research on addictive habits and behaviors both in cases of people and animals who tend to overeat.