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Binge Eating Disorder Health Center

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3% of Americans Are Binge Eating

Survey Shows Uncontrollable Binge Eating Is the Most Common Eating Disorder

Genetic Predisposition to Eating Disorder

What causes eating disorders? Some people clearly are at higher risk than others.

There's strong evidence that certain combinations of genes predispose people to anorexia and bulimia.

Many people appear to have a genetic predisposition to binge eating disorder, too.

But it's not a simple matter of inheriting an eating-disorder gene. Genetics, family experience, and environmental triggers all play their parts.

Also, today, there is what Bulik calls a "cultural barrage" of enticements to binge.

"Eating disorders are classic examples of gene/environment interactions," Bulik said. "It is more a question of how genetically liable you are. Some people are more sensitive to this cultural barrage.

"Some can go to the food court in the mall, and they won't even smell the food or read the signs because they have low genetic liability," she says. "Whereas for someone with high genetic liability, the food court is a minefield."

One woman Bulik treated for binge eating disorder would go to a particular fast-food restaurant's drive-through window. She'd buy her favorite foods and uncontrollably gobble them while driving, putting herself and others at risk.

As the woman got better, Bulik gave her an assignment: Go to the drive-through window, order the food, but get all the way home before eating.

"But on that day they added these hot cinnamon buns to the menu," Bulik recalled. "She bought six of them, and could not inhibit the urge to eat them all in the car. So all the planning in the world can be undone by a sudden signal that triggers the binge eating."

Binge Eating and Bulimia

Unlike people with bulimia -- a closely related eating disorder -- people with binge eating disorder don't purge by vomiting or laxative abuse.

But Pope said that while the two conditions are distinct, there is a link.

"My experience after several hundred interviews is that [bulimia and binge eating] are closely related, and it is not uncommon for a person to morph from one to the other," he said.

"Some people have pure bulimia and have always purged and are focused on keeping their weight low," Pope said. "And then there are those in the intermediate category, who occasionally purge. And particularly there are people who are older, whose binge eating came on at a later age, who never thought of purging or just could not get themselves to do it."

Purging, of course, carries its own health risks. But people with binge eating disorder tend to become morbidly obese.

And as binge eating disorder is now known to be much more common that previously thought, it is a big part of the obesity epidemic.

The good news is that eating disorders are treatable.

"We are faced with this incredible obesity epidemic," Bulik said. "We have to ask ourselves what we have in our arsenal to reverse this tide.

"Binge eating is one of those modifiable behavior factors we can focus on as one tool in our arsenal to combat obesity epidemic," she said. "This points to a very substantial minority that we can work with to reduce obesity in a segment of the population."

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