Binge eating disorder strikes across cultural boundaries, affecting people regardless of their economic status or educational level. But a new study suggests that the triggers that set the disorder in motion might be different depending on how much money your family has.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted the first study that specifically looks at the impact of socioeconomic status on binge eating. The study looked at the eating behaviors of 2,179 young people at two points: first, during their adolescence, and then five years later, as they entered adulthood.
The study found, unsurprisingly, that some risk factors were common across both groups. Those children with higher body weight were more likely to binge eat, as were those who reported going on diets to lose weight. Children who were teased about their weight were also more likely to binge eat.
The Economics of Binge Eating
But when the researchers compared the two groups, they found that some risk factors had a significantly bigger impact on one group than on the other.
Children from more well-off families were more likely to binge eat when they were dissatisfied with their bodies. They were more affected by being overweight and by dieting, and they were more susceptible to binge eating when they were teased about their weight by their families.
Children from low-income families, on the other hand, were more affected by food insecurity. That is, they were more likely to binge eat if they went through periods in which they didn’t have access to enough food.
Different Communities, Different Risks
The researchers concluded that children from high-income families might be more vulnerable to social pressure to be thin. They suggested that because obesity is less common among people with high socioeconomic status, overweight kids in these communities might be more conspicuous and be subject to more teasing from their peers and their families. The pressure could cause more dieting and restrictive eating behaviors that are key risk factors for binge eating.
Children from low-income families, however, are more likely to experience times when they can’t get enough to eat. Although high-income kids don’t share that experience, food insecurity could mimic the restrictive eating patterns motivated by social pressure in high-income communities. High-income children limit their eating because of social pressure, while low-income children limit their eating because they have no other choice.
In both cases, restrictive eating increases the risk of binge eating, but the source of the risk is very different. That’s an important difference to be aware of for healthcare providers who are looking out for the kids.
“There are a lot of implications for providers who might see adolescents from lower-income communities,” says Caroline West, a Kent State University PhD student who led the study. “While it’s still important to provide them with typical care and resources for treating binge eating, it’s also important to address issues, such as food insecurity, that might be salient in that population by connecting patients with food assistance programs, such as SNAP or WIC.”
University of Minnesota, Research Brief: Risk factors for adolescent binge eating vary by family socioeconomic status
International Journal of Eating Disorders, Differences in risk factors for binge eating by socioeconomic status in a community‐based sample of adolescents: Findings from Project EAT