Children whose parents are emotionally or physically unavailable or whose families engage in weight-related teasing are more likely to develop binge eating habits, according to a new study at the University of Illinois. Parental weight, race, and income had no effect, however.
“This study found that childhood binge eating is really associated with parents’ weight-related beliefs, but not their actual weight, and their emotional availability but not necessarily the income availability,” said Jaclyn Saltzman, a doctoral researcher in human development and family studies, and a scholar in the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program.
Saltzman explains that childhood binge eating can lead to depression, obesity, and many weight and eating behavior problems as the child grows into adulthood. The key is early recognition and intervention.
“Intervening early to address binge eating may not only help prevent an eating disorder from emerging but also prevent lifetime habits of unhealthy weight-related behaviors.”
The research team focused on binge eating and loss-of-control eating behavior. Loss of control is traditionally considered a symptom of binge eating in adults, but Saltzman explains that, according to recent research in the field, loss of control is used as the hallmark of binge eating in young children, although this is not yet officially recognized in diagnostic manuals.
“Loss of control is something that researchers have used to describe binge eating in young children. The idea is that the size of the binge — the amount of food they eat — is less important than the feelings of being out of control or the stress about that eating behavior, especially in young kids, because they don’t have all that much control over the food that they have access to,” said Saltzman.
“Binge eating is feeling like you are not in control when you are eating. You are eating past the point of fullness and to the point of discomfort. You are experiencing a lot of emotional distress because of it,” she said.
For the study, Saltzman and Dr. Janet M. Liechty, a professor of medicine and of social work at University of Illinois, analyzed studies on childhood binge eating spanning the last 35 years. They found that very few studies had been conducted over the last decade on kids and binge eating in the family context.
The researchers began with over 700 potential studies, to which they applied strict inclusion criteria to locate only those that involved children under age 12, used reliable instruments, and stayed within the constructs of interest.
“That left us with 15 studies, which we screened with a tool to assess risk for bias so that we could comment on the strengths and limitations in the studies,” Saltzman said.
The findings show that poor parenting traits, such as ignoring, under-involvement, emotional non-responsiveness, and weight-related teasing in the family are associated with childhood binge eating.
Weight teasing is being made fun of, mocked, or “kidded with” about one’s weight, usually for being perceived as being overweight, Saltzman explains. “Family-based weight teasing would be any of those behaviors perpetrated by a family member, like a parent or a sibling.”
“We want to emphasize to parents that weight isn’t the ‘be all end all,’ and that focusing on weight too much can be damaging. Instead, focusing on giving kids the tools they need to manage their emotions, particularly emotions around eating and weight, can help strengthen children’s coping skills so they are less likely to need binge eating.” Saltzman said.
The findings show that childhood binge eating is not related to parental weight, education, economic situation, race, or ethnicity. “Actually, no studies found any association between these constructs and childhood binge eating,” Saltzman said.