Drug Use and Eating Disorders Linked in Adolescents

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Binge eating is distinguished from overeating because of the lack of control shown. In other words, once a binge eater starts, he or she eats a lot during a single sitting, whereas someone who overeats does so at a steady but high calorie level. A report from the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (abstract here) has now linked overeating behaviors to later drug use.

Researchers tracked both the weight and behaviors of more than 16,000 young men and women for almost a decade. They wanted to see how these factors would change over time. They found that binge eating was associated with a higher level of depression, especially in females, whereas any type of overeating increased the risk for drug use.

Is overeating then a “gateway” drug?

Researchers don’t yet know. Since many overeaters (both binge and regular) are depressed, depression might be the key to both the weight gain and subsequent drug taking. However, the picture is more complex, since binge eating was not an indicator of who might go on to adopt binge drinking.

This study has a high impact and significance because it tracked a large number of individuals over an extended period of time. This allows small effects to show up in statistical measures. For example, the incidence of binge eating in adolescent males was 1% or less and wouldn’t have been significant in a smaller study.

Because abnormal eating behaviors show up before drug use, parents and practitioners may use these results to treat the condition more seriously and be on the lookout for any signs of drug use. Marijuana use was specifically mentioned as a possible outcome for the overeating seen in adolescence.

Commonly, clinicians will look for an emotional cause (including depression) with a diagnosis of any eating disorder, including those not studied, like bulimia and anorexia. The emotional component is properly a target for treatment and may be the primary causative factor.

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