This Unexpected Eating Disorder Could Cause Serious Health Problems

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women in the U.S. have an eating disorder of some kind. Clearly, this is a major health issue facing our country. The ones we most commonly hear about are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, but there are unfortunately a host of other ways eating patterns can be affected, and they’re not always obvious to outsiders. While all eating disorders have serious health implications, a new study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders brings to light some particularly worrisome correlations between Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and other major diseases.

Most people occasionally binge on junk food, but The Mayo Clinic explains that BED is characterized by frequent episodes of overeating (at least once per week for three or more months), feeling unable to control these episodes, and eating until you’re uncomfortably full—among other possible symptoms. In this study, researchers wanted to investigate whether people with BED were likely to have other types of diseases as well, and if so, what kinds were most prevalent. After combing through information available through the Swedish national eating disorder clinical register, they discovered that people who had been diagnosed with BED were 2.5 times more likely than the average person to have an endocrine disorder, like hyperthyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome, and 1.9 times more likely to have a circulatory disease, like cardiac arrhythmia or hypertension.

Endocrine disorders commonly affect the thyroid and ovaries, but they can also cause issues with the pituitary and adrenal glands and the pancreas. Symptoms of these disorders are widely varied but very often include fatigue and unexplained weight loss or gain. Luckily, treatment for many endocrine disorders is highly effective. Circulatory diseases mainly affect the heart, and so their implications can be quite serious, including heart attacks. It’s clear that for people with BED, these higher-risk illnesses are concerning. Additionally, the study found that people with BED who were obese faced different and higher risks for disease.

Researchers have yet to establish exactly why these links exist, but it makes sense that continually binging would have an effect on your body and overall health. At this point, it’s crucial to establish whether or not BED causes these diseases (or vice versa), or whether there’s simply a correlation between them through further research. Dr. Cynthia Bulik, senior author of the study and founding director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, explains that “the arrows can go in both directions. In addition, there could be a third underlying factor (that we did not measure) that contributes to risk for both BED and these other diseases. We need to dig deeper to understand more fully how all of these problems are linked, which come first, and how they mutually influence each other,” she says.

Even though the reason for the link remains a major question mark, the authors of the study are hoping that this new information will help doctors bring up BED during appointments. “We encourage clinicians to ‘have the conversation’ about BED with their patients. Accurate screening and detection can bring BED out of the shadows and get people the treatment they deserve,” said Bulik in a press release.

“There is often a lot of shame associated with BED,” Bulik told SHAPE. “A primary care physician might suggest, for example, that a patient lose weight, but fail to inquire about the presence of binge eating. This can backfire as the patient might just take the physician’s suggestion as more pressure about weight and shape, and it can actually be a trigger for more binge eating. So before recommending weight loss, physicians should inquire about eating patterns to make sure disordered eating might not be the core problem.”

Of the disorder in general, Bulik notes that “BED affects anyone. We see children with ‘loss of control eating’ which is a precursor to binge eating. We see adults of both sexes, all races and ethnicities, and all ages dealing with BED. Just because someone falls beneath the clinical threshold for BED (meaning they don’t meet all the requirements for an official diagnosis) does not mean that could not benefit from treatment. It is better to get these symptoms under control before they progress to a full-blown syndrome.”

Regardless of the reason for the increased risk of disease in people with BED, hopefully the results of this study can help doctors and patients be more vigilant about the signs and symptoms and work toward getting people the help they need to combat this lesser-known eating disorder.

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