8 Predictors of Early Onset of Binge Eating

Risk factors that inform prevention strategies

Posted Sep 28, 2017

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Source: By Maria Raquel Cochez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The initial sign of binge eating appears to be the loss of control eating (Brownell and Walsh,  2017). Loss of control eating disorder may be experienced as an inability to control what or how much is eaten—a behavior in which one has no agency. Persistent loss of control eating at 12 years of age and younger have been shown to transition to partial or full-syndrome binge-eating disorders in about 50 percent of youth. In short, loss-of-control eating is a known risk factor for the development of binge eating disorder and can lead to obesity. It is also a potential early target of preventive interventions. 

The following are potential gateways for the development and maintenance of loss of control eating behavior.

1. It runs in the family

Eating disorders are heritable. Children are 50 percent more likely to suffer from eating disorders if they have a close family member with an eating disorder (Thornton et al 2011).

2. Strong desire for food

They have a strong desire to eat or a preoccupation with food. One effect of repeated overeating is habituation to high-calorie food intake. Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Thus, individuals with lower sensitivity of reward overeat to compensate for this deficiency.

3. Context-dependent craving for food

Youth with loss of control are prone to eat in response to external food cues (opportunities), such as the sight or smell of food. Repeated intake of high-calorie, palatable foods (e.g., chocolate, pizza, ice cream) results in cravings when exposed to the cues associated with those foods.

4. Impulsivity

Impulsivity refers to the inability to inhibit responding to a stimulus. The temperamental trait of impulsivity appears to contribute vulnerability for loss of control. The overeating behavior is driven by reactive impulses rather than thoughtful, goal-directed decision-making

5. Insecure attachment

Children with loss of control eating frequently exhibit insecure attachment styles. Additionally, social isolation and childhood experiences of peer teasing and bullying, particularly about weight and shape, are predictive of the initiating of loss of control eating.

6. Overvaluation of  shape and weight

The excessive influence of shape and weight on self-worth is often seen as the core psychological feature of eating disorders. Weight concerns and thin body preoccupation have been shown to predict partial or full-syndrome eating disorders in the adolescent.

7. Escape theory

Binge eating functions as a way to escape (sooth themselves) from harsh aspects of self-awareness.Youth with loss of control eating tend to report more symptoms of depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem. Such mood states typically predict greater subsequent consumption of palatable foods and carbohydrates.

8. Emotion regulation

Eating disorder behavior may function as unhealthy coping methods for regulating negative emotional feelings. Emotion regulation emphasizes the ability to inhibit impulsive behavior and to maintain goal-directed behavior in the face of negative emotions. Emotion regulation teaches individuals the ability to discern and distinguish between emotions, as well as the ability to accept emotions without judgment or experiencing negative secondary reactions. Finally, emotion regulation focuses on an individual’s willingness to tolerate emotional distress in the context of pursuing activities that are important or meaningful to him or her, as opposed to engaging in avoidance.


Kelly, BD. and Walsh BT (Eds) (2017) Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook, Third Edition, Guilford Press

Thornton LM, Mazzeo SE, Bulik CM. The heritability of eating disorders: methods and current findings. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2011;6:141-156.