How do we draw the line between binge eating, soon to be recognized as a unique eating disorder, and more general overeating? A group of researchers conducted a new study examining a key difference between these types of eating — feeling a loss of control while eating.

On the surface, this idea is not new. Feeling a loss of control while eating has been a central characteristic to how scientists define binge eating for years. But does anyone who eats a large amount of food in a short period of time feel some kind of loss of control?

To answer that question, researchers from North Dakota compared two groups of obese adults, those with and without binge eating disorder. The researchers asked participants to keep a palmtop computer on them everyday for one week and record their emotions and eating in real time. The findings will soon be published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. 

The obese people with binge eating disorder consumed more calories each time they ate compared to the obese people without the disorder. The researchers controlled for this fact in statistical analysis. They found that after taking into account how much people ate and also controlling for negative moods, obese people with binge eating experienced a greater loss of control over their eating compared to obese people without binge eating.

What exactly does a loss of control over eating look like? The researchers explained it as:

"feeling 'driven' or 'compelled to eat,' feeling 'unable to stop eating once eating had started,' or feeling 'unable to prevent the episode from occurring' ” 

While this study only looked at obese adults, people can absolutely be suffering from binge eating and manage to maintain a healthier weight.

The study shows that feeling a loss of control over eating isn’t just because some people generally feel more negative emotions or are eating more food. Even after controlling for those factors, feeling a loss of control helps to distinguish binge eating from more general overeating. 


Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology in NYC.

This article was originally posted on Binge Eating and Bulimia: The latest psychological research

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About the Author

Sumati Gupta, Ph.D.

Sumati Gupta, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Columbia University's Barnard College and privately sees patients at Tribeca Psychology in New York City.

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