The Myth of Binge Eating

Thursday, September 03, 2009

By Wray Herbert

An inviolable principle of most addiction recovery programs is total abstinence. It appears that for true addicts, one drink or one toke or one line is enough to trigger a binge—and a likely relapse. This dogma is not so hard and fast when it comes to food because . . . well, because we all have to eat.

Still, chronic overeaters do often embrace a version of the abstinence dogma, treating certain foods like Johnny Walker to an alcoholic. It might be an economy-sized bag of potato chips or a
hot fudge sundae or a double order of Buffalo wings. Every foodie has a taboo food or two that will predictably shatter his or her discipline and will power and send the dieter into face-stuffing freefall.

Or so the wisdom goes. But is it true? Surprisingly, this idea has never been tested in a real-life situation, so a team of psychologists decided to do just that. Traci Mann of the University of Minnesota and several colleagues suspected that the notion of catastrophic relapse was too simplistic for a complex behavior like eating. Food-minded people do violate their own rules, of course, but perhaps they make up for their transgressions with a little deprivation later on. This is the idea they wanted to explore.

To do so, the psychologists recruited a large group of college undergrads—all women. They deliberately chose college-age women because as a group they tend to be more weight-conscious and to diet more than the general population. They also questioned each of the volunteers individually to identify their attitudes toward eating, how often they dieted, their weight fluctuations, and so forth. The women thought they were taking part in a broad study of “health habits.”

To make the situation as realistic as possible, the women simply went about their days—going to class, studying, socializing, whatever—but they carried electronic “diaries” with them at all times. The psychologists paged the women once an hour during waking hours, and asked them a variety of questions, including queries about eating and snacking and—importantly—about diet violations. The study took two days, and the results showed no evidence that eating a forbidden food triggers binge or relapse. This was true even among the women most preoccupied with weight and dieting.

The researchers wanted to double-check this finding. So they did a second study, this one lasting eight days, during which the women kept detailed logs of their food consumption. In the first study, it was unclear how each of the volunteers defined a food violation. It might have been a single bite of a Snickers bar, or an entire tray of lasagna. So in this study, the researchers created a ruse that required about half the volunteers to drink an 8-ounce milkshake; they figured this would be a eating violation to most weight-conscious college women. They then compared their post-milkshake calorie consumption to their calorie consumption for the week before, and they also compared the violators to those who had not violated their diet.

And guess what? Drinking the forbidden milkshake was not a dietary catastrophe. Indeed, as reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the women who drank the shake ate no more calories overall than the other women, and their calorie consumption the day of the violation was no greater than their typical daily consumption had been for the prior week—about 1,400 calories. In other words, they somehow compensated for the milkshake later in the day—skipping an evening snack, going light at dinner—and as a result got themselves back on track without delay.

This is good news. It’s not clear from this study if the women deliberately compensated for the taboo milkshake, or if that caloric balancing act takes place on an unconscious level. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that a milkshake is just that and no more. It’s not symbolic of weakness or failure, and doesn’t have to ruin a day or a week or a lifetime commitment.

For more insights into the quirks of human behavior, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Selections from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 1:42 PM


At 4:02 PM , Blogger Jason said...

Did the study include people that are prone to binge eating in the first place and were they singled out in the results? Seems to me, they did the opposite by choosing people with more awareness of their eating and the consequences.

If you did a study like this with alcohol that didn't include any alcoholics you'd have the same result.

At 1:53 PM , Blogger Jennette Fulda said...

Yeah, I was going to make the same point that Jason did. Did any of the women in the study identify as binge eaters? And did any of those binge eaters identify a milkshake as their binge food? Personally, I believe I am a binge eater, but milkshakes aren't my trigger. However, if you stick a bowl of granola in front of me I have serious trouble making myself stop.

At 2:42 AM , Blogger sandy,phd said...

So this study says drinking milkshakes is good for weight loss? Yeehaw! ; )

On a more serious note, I'm with Jenette - my binge risk is rarely a milkshake. I prefer my carbs salty. I too wonder if consuming the particular binge preference is a factor.

I also wonder about the well documented effect of being observed. It may take more than a few days or a week for subjects to let their guard down and "cheat" on their diets. They also may have thought the shake was part of some nutritional component, when consumed daily, helps with weigh loss. I certainly would have been motivated to prove that theory correct!

At 12:26 PM , Blogger Todd I. Stark said...

It's interesting that no one reported eating more following perceived violations outside the laboratory. That's suggestive but not very good evidence of anything yet. The problem is that it oversimplifies the binge eating theory in question and onsequently doesn't test it very well.

The root theory in question seems to be that violating rules we've established for ourselves for eating will lead to giving up on those rules and bingeing.

In terms of any existing cognitive dissonance or expectancy theory, this pattern would be inadequate to predict outcomes. We would need to know more about the expectancy being violated, the person's self-concept, the person's other relevant beliefs regarding food and eating, and so on. The simple fact of violating a rule isn't strongly predictive of much.

This kind of research has only been done effectively in the lab because of the need to control for these factors, and the need to monitor intake and not just rely on self-reports.

So what they are testing here in a more naturalistic setting is just the popular belief that breaking a diet leads to more breaking of a diet in general.

And that, seemingly, is not neccessarily true. But this is more interesting in terms of potentially helping refine a popular belief about bingeing than it is very strong evidence relevant to psychological theories of binge eating. In my opinion.

At 5:33 AM , Blogger Veena said...

Very interesting post useful too I learned so much from this I never knew all this things about eating thanks for posting this:)

At 1:36 PM , Blogger Kellen said...

I'm wondering if the subjects were naturally thin people. Naturally thin folks tend to compensate for high caloric intake and keep their eating in balance.

I've seen other research where dieters drinking a high calorie shake caused them to overeat the rest of the day. They seemed to adopted an "I blew it so I might as well go crazy" attitude common to many dieters.

Research has also shown the reverse. Deprivation leads to binging. The more we deprive ourselves, the more likely we are to lose our minds when we "let go".

Interesting article. I'd like to see more about binge eating studies.


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