Does Body Shape Influence Binge Eating?

Can you tell me anything about a study showing that a woman’s body shape can put her at risk of developing an eating disorder? How likely is this?

– February 22, 2016

A study from Drexel University in Philadelphia suggests that “apple-shaped” women, who store more of their fat in their abdominal region, may be more at risk for out-of-control eating than women with other body types. The study also suggests that apple-shaped women are less satisfied with their bodies, which the researchers said might contribute to loss-of-control eating.

Researchers reached these conclusions after following 294 female college students for two years. The women were checked at the study’s outset, six months later, and at the two-year mark for height, weight, body fat percentage and pattern of fat distribution. When the study began, none of the participants had been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but throughout the study they were assessed for abnormal eating as well as being monitored for episodes of loss of control in respect to food.

Those women with greater stores of fat in the abdominal area were found to be more likely to develop loss-of-control eating, with episodes becoming more frequent over time. They were also less satisfied with their bodies, regardless of their weight and independent of any depression they reported.

Lead researcher Laura A. Berner, Ph.D. said in a press release accompanying publication of the study that the results indicate “centralized fat deposition increased disordered eating risk above and beyond other known risk factors.” She said a one-unit increase in the percentage of body fat in the abdominal region was linked to a 53 percent increased risk of developing loss-of-control eating over the next 2 years. No such risk correlated with a woman’s total percentage of body fat.

This is the first study to show an association between apple-shaped bodies and out-of-control eating in women, but it didn’t identify a mechanism to explain the findings. Dr. Berner commented that this type of fat distribution might not only be “psychologically distressing but biologically influential,” perhaps through alterations in hunger and satiety signaling. She said it is possible that a centralized distribution of fat alters the hunger and satiety messages fat cells send the brain.

Fortunately, none of the women in the study were formally diagnosed with an eating disorder during the two years they were observed, but Dr. Berner said the findings make the case that future research should investigate whether women with greater central fat stores are more likely than those with other body types to be diagnosed with such a condition. Of primary concern would be their tendency to develop binge-eating disorder, in which affected individuals frequently consume unusually large amounts of food and are unable to stop. Unlike persons with bulimia, they don’t purge or exercise excessively after a binge to get rid of the excess calories they’ve consumed.

Andrew Weil, M.D.


Laura A. Berner et al, “Examination of Central Body Fat Deposition as a Risk Factor for Loss-of-Control Eating.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, October 2015; 102 (4): 736 DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.115.107128

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