After carrying out a US-wide study, researchers report that depressed adolescent girls are two times more likely to begin binge eating as girls who are not depressed. In addition, girls who regularly binge-eat are twice as likely to develop symptoms of depression. The findings indicate that adolescent girls who show signs of either binge-eating or depression should be screened for both disorders. The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The researchers explain:

“Binge eating prevention initiatives should consider the role of depressive symptoms, and incorporate suggestions for dealing with negative emotions.”

Senior author Alison Field, Sc.D., an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, says that their findings could provide vital new opportunities to address the nation’s obesity epidemic.

This is the largest investigation to examine the association between depression and binge eating during adolescence, when the majority of eating disorders occur. Binge eating was defined in the study as consuming a large quantity of food in a short time and not being able to control eating during the episode. Girls who consumed large amounts of food but who felt in control were defined as “overeaters”.

The team analyzed data from almost 5,000 girls aged between 12 and 18 who filled out surveys in 1999, with follow-up surveys in 2001 and 2003. The surveys were conducted as part of the nationwide Growing Up Today Study. The study focused on girls, as depression and eating disorders are more prevalent in girls than boys.

In the initial survey, adolescents and young women who claimed that they usually or always felt “depressed” or “down in the dumps” were approximately two times as likely to begin overeating or binge eating during the next two years than other girls were.

Marian Tanofsky-Kraff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland, explained:

“The most common approach to obesity has been to focus on eating better and exercising more, but many pathways can lead to being overweight. There is a group of people where it may be more psychologically driven. Targeting some of these psychological factors might help prevent obesity.

Binge eaters or overeaters can be very secretive, so parents may be unaware that there’s a problem. That’s a really important message for clinicians. If they have patients who are depressed, they need to ask about disordered eating patterns and vice versa.”

According to the researchers the findings from the study might not apply to all populations as the survey respondents include few adolescents belonging to lower socioeconomic groups or ethnic minorities. Furthermore, information on use of medications such as antidepressants was not included in the survey, which might affect outcomes.

Written by Grace Rattue