Your Body Shape May Increase Your Risk of Binge Eating Disorder Behaviors

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Women with “apple-shaped bodies” – those who store more of their fat in their rear and abdominal areas – may be at significantly heightened risk for developing binge eating disorder (BED) behaviors, according to a new study from Drexel University. The findings indicate those with apple-shaped bodies were at particularly high risk for the development of eating episodes during which they experience a “loss of control,” a key behavior for BED.

apple-and-pear-body-shapeThe study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, also found women with greater fat stores in their midsections reported being less satisfied with their bodies, which the researchers believe may contribute to loss-of-control eating.

The researchers hope their findings can improve early detection of individuals likely to develop disordered eating. The study is the first to explore the links between natural fat distribution, body imae disturbance, and the development of disordered eating.

“Eating disorders that are detected early are much more likely to be successfully treated. Although existing eating disorder risk models comprehensively address psychological factors, we know of very few biologically-based factors that help us predict who may be more likely to develop eating disorder behaviors,” said lead author Laura Berner, PhD, who completed the research while pursuing a doctoral degree at Drexel.

“Our preliminary findings reveal that centralized fat distribution may be an important risk factor for the development of eating disturbance, specifically for loss-of-control eating,” said Berner. “This suggests that targeting individuals who store more of their fat in the midsection and adapting psychological interventions to focus specifically on body fat distribution could be beneficial for preventing eating disorders.”

The team cited recent research that suggests experiencing a sense of loss-of-control during eating as the single most significant element of binge-eating episodes, regardless of how much food is consumed during the episode.

“This sense of loss of control is experienced across a range of eating disorder diagnoses: bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and the binge-eating/purging subtype of anorexia nervosa,” said Berner. “We wanted to see if a measurable biological characteristic could help predict who goes on to develop this feeling, as research shows that individuals who feel this sense of loss of control over eating but don’t yet have an eating disorder are more likely to develop one.”’

For the study, the researchers followed a group of nearly 300 female college freshman for two years, primarily investigating if body fat distribution is directly linked to body dissatisfaction over time and whether this increases the risk for the development of loss-of-control-eating.

The researchers assessed all participants at the start of the study, six months later, and finally after 24 months. At the onset of the study, none of the participants met the diagnostic criteria for eating disorders.

The team found that women with greater central fat stores, independent of total body mass and depression levels, were notably more likely to develop loss-of-control eating, which tended to become more severe over time. The results also indicated that storage of body fat in trunk and abdominal regions is most strongly linked to loss-of-control eating, and that increased percentages of fat stored in these areas may contribute to body dissatisfaction, which over time may exacerbate loss-of-control eating behaviors.

“Our results suggest that centralized fat deposition increased disordered eating risk above and beyond other known risk factors,” said Berner. “The specificity of our findings to centralized fat deposition was also surprising. For example, a one-unit increase in the percentage of body fat stored in the abdominal region was associated with a 53 percent increase in the risk of developing loss-of-control eating over the next two years, whereas total percentage body fat did not predict loss-of-control eating development.”

While Berner believes more research is needed to fully explain the mechanisms underlying this behavior, she suggests a few reasons why this might happen.

“It’s possible that this kind of fat distribution is not only psychologically distressing, but biologically influential through, for example, alterations in hunger and satiety signaling,” she said. “Fat cells release signals to the brain that influence how hungry or satiated we feel. Our study didn’t include hormone assays, so we can’t know for sure, but in theory it’s possible that if a centralized distribution of fat alters the hunger and satiety messages it sends, it could make a person feel out of control while eating.”

She also indicates the findings may apply to other disordered eating behaviors, but that is unclear without more research.

“Body fat distribution hasn’t been studied in disorders characterized by binge-eating behaviors as much as it has in anorexia nervosa,” said Berner. “The participants in our sample didn’t develop eating disorder diagnoses within the two year period that we studied them, but this study suggests that future research should investigate whether individuals with greater central fat stores are more likely to develop bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.”

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