BED and Depression: The Dangers of Self-Medicating with Food

College girl smiling into the camera

Depression commonly occurs alongside those struggling with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and the combination of the two can have long-standing consequences.

Researchers and clinicians have explored the relationship between both disorders, looking at causality, directionality, and symptomology, and have found that binge eating often develops as an avoidant coping mechanism that distracts from feelings of depression.

Many clinicians refer to this as the “Escape Theory,” which is based on the assumption that individuals believe they are viewed meticulously and critically by their peers based on weight, shape, and appearance and that this belief results in negative self-assessments and depression [Paxton].

Individuals then engage in binge-eating in an attempt to limit the salience of these negative emotions by narrowing the focus of their attention to simple actions and sensations [1] [2].

Avoidance coping is a common factor in all eating disorders, however, when looking at BED and depression, the relationship is a bit different. One study found that “without the coexistence of depression, avoidance coping is not associated with binge eating behavior [1].”

Meaning, those who engage in binge eating as an avoidant coping mechanism were found to do so only when depression was a co-occurring disorder.

Just as a Band-Aid will do little to fix a broken leg, binge eating behaviors won’t help an individual overcome feelings of depression. Quieting these negative emotions with food is harmful to the body as well as the mind, causing health issues and exacerbating the true root of the problem.

Prolonged BED has many of the same health consequences as clinical obesity such as heart disease, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, cholesterol, and gallbladder disease [3].

Coping with Depression

Engaging in binge eating to cope with depression is also harmful to mental and emotional health because, as the term “avoidant coping” implies, it only serves to avoid truly facing the issue at hand.

Heart rock using for coping

Furthermore, the feelings of guilt and shame that arise after a binge eating episode often result in even more negative self-assessments and feelings of depression.

Using food to cope with depression does nothing to resolve the underlying issues and only creates a vicious cycle that exacerbates the problem.

Depression can be debilitating and is incredibly difficult to cope with, but, there are ways to do so that address the problem at hand and result in decreased feelings of depression and more positive self-assessment.

Individuals would be better served by problem-and-emotion-focused coping strategies [1]. These skills are aimed at managing one’s emotions associated with the situation as opposed to attempting to change the situation itself.

Examples include yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, journaling, attending therapy, support groups, and more.

Depression can be a long-term, or lifelong, illness and using avoidant strategies to cope is not healthy or sustainable. Problem-and-emotion-focused strategies offer long-term solutions that nourish the body and soul instead of causing more damage.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Paxton, S. J., Diggens, J. (1997). Avoidance coping, binge eating, and depression: an examination of the escape theory of binge eating. School of Behavioural Science.
[2] Rosenbaum, D. L., White, K. S. (2015). The relation of anxiety, depression, and stress to binge eating behavior. Journal of Health Psychology, 20:6, 887-898.
[3] National Eating Disorders Association (2016). Health consequences of eating disorders. Retrieved on 11 October 2017 from

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 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.

Published on October November 5, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 5, 2017.
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