Depression and Binge Eating Linked in Teen Girls

Parents Can Play a Role in Looking for Warning Signs

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 13, 2011 -- Depression and binge eating may go hand in hand among teenage girls.

New research shows that teen girls who are depressed are twice as likely to binge eat or overeat. The converse is also true: Teen girls who binge eat or overeat are two times more likely to become depressed than their counterparts who don't show signs of problematic eating.

Binge eating is often accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame that may lead to depression. Many people who are depressed may turn to food for comfort.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Adolescent Health, may have some important implications for the treatment and prevention of depression and binge eating.

"If you notice that your daughter is down and depressed, talk to her and try to see if she is using food to feel better," suggests researcher Alison E. Field, ScD. She is an associate in medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston.

In the four-year study, girls who said they ate a very large amount of food in a short period of time at least once a month during the last year were considered overeaters. Binge eaters were girls who said they felt out of control while overeating at least once a month during the past year. Researchers also screened the teens for depression symptoms.

While not all of the teen girls in the study had full-blown eating disorders, binge eating and overeating may set the stage for developing one. "They are on their way, and it's much better to try to stop early this early," Field says.

Screen All Teen Girls for Binge Eating

Field says all adolescent girls should be screened for binge eating -- not just those who are depressed. "Asking just a couple of short questions such as, 'How often do you overeat,' and 'Do you ever feel like you can't stop eating,' can help diagnose binge eating," she says.

It can be hard to pick this up any other way, she says. "Most binge eaters are normal weight and you can't tell anything is wrong by looking at them," she says. Also, it's not uncommon for teens to be secretive about binge eating.

Treatments for depression and binge eating are similar, she says.

The new findings mirror what Lara Pence, PsyD, sees in her practice at the Renfrew Center of Texas in Dallas. Renfrew is a for-females-only eating disorder treatment facility with centers across the U.S.

"It validates the idea that adolescents who are headed in the direction of an eating disorder are struggling with feelings of depression," Pence says. "An eating disorder is not about food, but feelings."

Parents need to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of depression and eating disorders in their children. "The sad kid can become the eating-disordered child," she says.

"The role of parents is very significant in terms of diagnosis," says Abigail H. Natenshon, MA. She is an eating disorder psychotherapist in private practice in Highland Park, Ill., and co-founder and co-director of Eating Disorder Specialists of Illinois.

Much of this -- such as a change in moods or attitudes about food -- may happen at home.

"Parents also need to be role models for healthy eating," she says. "They should eat properly themselves and serve three meals a day with all food groups. Talk to your kids and learn what they are concerned about during meals."

This type of parenting goes a long way toward encouraging healthy eating and healthy coping strategies, she says.


Binge eating disorder is best described as… See Answer

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SOURCES: Alison E. Field, ScD, associate in medicine, Children's Hospital, Boston.Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, eating disorder psychotherapist, Highland Park, Ill.Lara Pence, PsyD, Renfrew Center of Texas, Dallas.Skinner, H. Journal of Adolescent Health, study received ahead of print.

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