Binge Eating & Compulsive Shopping: What are the links?

Contributor:  Leigh Bell, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

shopping-606993_640People struggling with binge eating disorder (BED) are more likely than non-bingers to compulsively shop; yet researchers aren’t exactly sure why. We do know the two problems cause a numbing, somewhat euphoric state, and are used to avoid negative feelings

Co-Occuring Disorders

The comorbidity of these two disorders is of concern because they exacerbate symptoms of each other. The guilt and shame of over-buying can drive someone to binge, and vice versa.

Binge eating is by far the most common eating disorder, occurring in 1 in 35 adults, or almost 3% — almost twice the combined rate for anorexia and bulimia. BED is characterized by recurrent, persistent episodes of binge eating – consuming unusually large amounts of food beyond fullness – without compensatory behaviors, like purging. The illness is listed as an individual eating disorder diagnosis in the DSM-5, which is used by clinicians to diagnose psychological disorders.

Couple eating pizza and watching TVCompulsive shopping, or oniomania, is more pervasive than BED, affecting about 1 in 20 Americans, according to an article in Psychiatric Times. Compulsive buying is not actually mentioned in the DSM-5, but it could be classified in the manual’s category of “impulse control disorder not otherwise specified,” according to the article. The problem is marked by a frequent preoccupation or impulse to buy unneeded things or more than someone can afford, and due to this, experiences adverse consequences with work, relationships, and/or finances.

Compulsive shopping and binge eating are rooted in impulse control, and are in fact, compulsive-impulsive disorders, or conditions in which people cannot resist the urge to do something knowingly harmful to themselves or others, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. Other compulsive-impulsive disorders include substance addiction and compulsive gambling.

foodA few studies have been done on the comorbidity of the bingeing and compulsive buying. An analysis of the research on the two conditions included one study that found women diagnosed with BED had significantly greater buying tendencies than women of similar weight who didn’t binge eat. The other study showed compulsive buyers were more likely to have engaged in binge eating; had more symptoms characteristic of BED and bulimia; and were more likely to be clinically diagnosed as having an eating disorder than a matched control group.

Illusion of Control

Research has found both BED and shopping disorders are coping mechanisms used to avoid overwhelming or seemingly out-of-control feelings, according to an article in Psychology Today. Many people with these “companion” disorders feel an emotional and sometimes even physical emptiness, which they try to fill up with food and purchases, said F. Diane Barth, author of the article and a licensed clinical social worker.

“The most important task is not to uncover terrible (forgotten) past events or painful childhood experiences,” Barth writes, “but to find new ways to manage feelings that seem so uncontrollable that they have to be binged out of existence.”

Treatment for compulsive shopping typically involves some form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and oftentimes an antidepressant, for which the success in treating the disorder is mixed. The same approach is often used in the treatment of BED, and antidepressants have shown effective in decreasing the depressive symptoms and/or syndromes that may accompany BED. Yet, these medications don’t show clinically significant benefits on body weight, and their long-term efficacy in BED is not known.

This year, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved for the first time a drug for BED. The drug is Vynase and had been previously FDA-approved only for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in individuals over the age of 6.


Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you or your loved one experienced compulsive shopping and binge eating disorder?  What steps did you take to obtain recovery?  What advice do you have to share?

About the Author:

Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders.  These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.  We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors.  If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 18, 2015. Published on