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The Lasting Effects of Adolescent Binge Eating

Overeating and binge eating in adolescents predicts marijuana and other drug use later on.

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Marijuana plant-- by Nina Lincoff

The Gist

Munchies and spliffs are a common duo, but the typical order that happens in—marijuana use followed by overeating—may be turned on its head.

A study published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine reports that binge eating, or the consumption of an amount of food in a sitting that is larger than most people would eat in a similar period with a distinct lack of control, during adolescence is “associated with obesity, drug and alcohol use, negative psychological experiences such as lower body satisfaction and self-esteem, and mental disorders.” 

In a large study of nearly 17,000 adolescents over nearly an 11-year period, researchers observed the effects of overeating, binge eating, and reports of loss of control during such episodes on drug and alcohol use and the development of depressive symptoms. And it seems that episodes of overeating and binge eating during your pre-teen and teenage years indicate later marijuana and drug use.

The Expert Take

Because links have been demonstrated between overeating, binge eating, and other health concerns before, most of these findings were as expected, says study author Kendrin Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D. of Boston Children’s Hospital. However, “what was somewhat surprising was that experiencing loss of control during overeating episodes was uniquely predictive of overweight and/or obesity and high depressive symptoms only,” says Sonneville. Loss of control was also largely reported by girls who were overeating, and much less so by boys.  

That sort of gendered divide says Sonneville, may have more to do with type of questions researchers were asking. “More research is needed to determine how to best assess binge eating among boys," says Sonneville. "It is unclear whether it is in fact rare, or if the questions we are asking about binge eating don't work as well in boys as they do in girls." Regardless, this study highlights the fact that more—and better—interventions need to be in place in order to prevent and stop binge eating and overeating for adolescents that are struggling with it in the first place.

As for the apparent bias towards drug use, Sonneville says that although researchers can’t explain why adolescents who were overeating and/or binge eating start binge drinking based on the findings, frequent binge drinking was common in the study—as high as 60 percent. But that may have more to do with a teenage state of mind: “The fact that we didn't see an association between binge eating and the onset of frequent binge drinking may have something to do with the fact that this behavior is so normative among teens,” she says.

The Takeaway

Overeating, with or without a reported loss of control, was indicative of marijuana and other drug use and binge eating took those predications a step further, foreshadowing the development of overweight and/or obesity conditions. However, just binge eating alone predicted high depressive symptoms.

Loss of control, which is important to overeating episodes, and may factor into an onset of drug use initiation. But while self-control and impulsivity are highly heritable traits, says Sonneville, this isn’t necessarily a nature versus nurture divide. Life experiences and environmental influences also play a role. 

Moving forward, “physicians and parents should be aware that overeating and binge eating is common among older adolescents and that these behaviors put them at risk for other problems such as drug use." As a preventative measure, physicians can screen for these behaviors so they can be addressed early. 

While these findings may explain factors affecting those that may already be overweight and/or obese, this study “shows that these behaviors are problematic for all kids. No matter what they weighed, teens who reported binge eating were more likely to start using drugs and to become depressed than those who did not binge eat,” says Sonneville.  

Source and Method

A very large study population of nearly 17,000 males and females between the ages of 9 to 15 years took part in the Growing Up Today Study, which took place between 1996 and 2005. Every one to two years, participants answered a questionnaire where they self-reported feelings of loss of control, overeating and/or binge eating, and the initiation of drug use.

Questions specific to drug use were on the 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2007 questionnaires and covered a variety of drugs ranging from marijuana to heroin, to mushrooms, to crystal meth. Between 1996 and 2007, nearly 31 percent of participants became overweight or obese, and between 2001 and 2007, nearly 41 percent of participants started to use marijuana and nearly 23 percent developed high levels of depressive symptoms.

Other Research

A 2009 article in Journal of Nutrition looked at what people were binge eating and found that sugary foods, particularly a sweet taste in the absence of fat, may produce addictive-like behaviors.

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Tags: Awareness , Drugs , Epidemics , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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