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Mental Illness and Eating Disorders

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Mental Illness and Eating Disorders

Jun 13, 2014

Binge Eating Disorder is a disruptive condition characterized by repeated binge/purge cycles. Psychiatrist Jason Hunziker explains why the condition and other eating disorders may be a symptom of a deeper underlying mental disorder. Prompt, effective treatment of the mental disorder can help to avert long-term physical problems often associated with obesity.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: People with eating disorders experience severe disturbance in their eating patterns. It's important to remember that eating disorders are mental illnesses and the physical effects are the symptoms. That's coming up next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: Three percent of Americans suffer from binge eating disorder. We're talking with Dr. Jason Hunziker, a psychiatrist at the University of Utah. Dr. Hunziker, what mental conditions can cause an eating disorder?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: There are lots of mental illnesses that are associated with eating disruption or eating disorder for different reasons. An example would be somebody with schizophrenia gets very paranoid often, so they won't eat their food because they're afraid it's been poisoned. We have other people who are so anxious about allergies in food that they just won't eat, so they have a specific phobia about certain foods. Some recent studies have shown that people with bipolar disorder and/or depression also struggle with eating disorder of a different type in which they binge eat.

Interviewer: First of all, what is binge eating?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: Binge eating is when you're going along fine and you eat normal foods, then you have an episode in which you just can't get enough food. You binge on whatever's in front of you. Most often it's not stuff that's good for you.

Interviewer: Always.

Dr. Jason Hunziker: You eat lots of it. Then, you eat to the point that you almost feel like you're going to burst. That leads to some people then going in and purging and getting rid of the food that they just ate.

Interviewer: So, it's different than, say, on a Saturday night I'm in front of a movie and I'm eating everything that's in my kitchen. That's different. It's those people that do that but then feel guilty, and then they throw up afterwards. Is that correct?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: That's correct. Usually, with binge eating there is a number of times you need to participate in that event before it even gets classified as a binge eating disorder. That has to be several times a week or month. Then, you qualify for a binge eating disorder.

Interviewer: What exactly causes someone mentally to think okay, I need to throw up? Because when I eat too much and I'm full I just wait for the food to settle down.

Dr. Jason Hunziker: Not everybody does throw up when they have the binge eating. What they'll do, though, is they use that food as some way to help comfort them for whatever's going on in their life. Often, as I said, it is associated with depression. When people are sad and they're down they...

Interviewer: They eat.

Dr. Jason Hunziker: ...feel like eating. And, the same with bipolar disorder - when you're sad and you're down, you eat. That somehow gives them some comfort, while at the same time it induces shame, and guilt, and other aspects of well, now I'm gaining weight, and now I'm not thin. It's a vicious cycle for them.

Interviewer: We obviously know that we classify binge eating as an eating disorder which is a mental illness. What other physical health conditions can it cause?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: It depends on how long this goes. Clearly, binge eating is going to increase your weight. As your weight increases we know that affects all aspects of your body including your lungs, and your heart, and then the cardiovascular system and other physiologic effects that it can bring on. Type-2 diabetes in this country now is really expanding because of the obesity problem, and this would be another way to contribute to that problem.

Interviewer: That's interesting. There are all these sorts of more severe diseases that can come from just binge eating.

Dr. Jason Hunziker: That's correct.

Interviewer: Obviously, you know that's going to happen. You want to treat it. Is it something that you physically and emotionally are maybe aware of, or do you need somebody to tell you I think there's a problem you need to go see a specialist?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: I think that some people are aware and some aren't. I think if it's associated with your mood disorder that would be a time to get into your doctor and get on some medication for your depression, which often will help take care of those binge eating episodes. Sometimes the medication itself will help take care of that compulsion or drive to eat which some people just have. They just feel compelled to do it and they can't feel good unless they do it. Then, they feel bad after they do it. It's a really vicious cycle. The medicine often will help with that.
There are good therapies that can help with eating disorder as well. It's really important to understand the underlying cause, and if it's caused by another illness to make sure that you treat that illness so that you can then treat the binge eating.

Interviewer: Any final thoughts on binge eating?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: I think that the important thing to do is for the patients and/or their families to recognize that the binge eating is a disruption to them, and that they get into talk to their doctor as soon as possible about what could be done to help them...

Interviewer: Because it can be treated.

Dr. Jason Hunziker: ...because it can be treated.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope. University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.