Binge Drinking and Binge Eating Disorder:  What are the Connections?

Alcohol problems are frighteningly common in individuals who engage in binge eating and binge drinking. Research suggests the comorbidity is a combination of genetics, impulsivity issues, and a desire to escape from negative feelings.

Methods of Escape from Binge Eating and Binge Drinking

About 50% of people who binge and purge also abuse alcohol; and this rate is 5 times that of the general population and of those with restrictive-type eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. So the link is definitely in the binge and/or the purge.

Most research on binge eating and binge drinking doesn’t specifically address binge eating disorder (BED), which recently became a separate eating disorder diagnosis in the “bible” of psychological diagnoses, the DSM-5.

Still, the motivations behind bingeing on booze and food are similar enough to extrapolate to BED, which is defined by recurrent, persistent episodes of binge eating – consuming unusually large amounts of food beyond fullness – without compensatory behaviors, like purging. BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States, where about 3.5% of women and 2% of men have the illness.

Binge drinking is also common in the United States. More than half of the alcohol consumed by adults are binge drinks, which is about 2.5 drinks per hour, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Why Do These Disorders Co-exist?

Two predominant theories explain why binge eating and binge drinking commonly co-exist in individuals, according to a study of these co-occurring issues in women. The first theory claims binge eating and heavy drinking share similar rewarding properties among those deprived of the substance in question; and the second theory suggests both addictive behaviors help people avoid and/or temporarily escape uncomfortable emotions.

The first theory says those with the propensity to binge on both alcohol and food struggle between “discipline and desire,” and they surrender to the desire as an emotional reward. This supports research findings that dieting can lead to binge eating.

The second theory says people who binge on food or alcohol are often depressed and/or have experienced past trauma, and therefore the buzz from overeating and/or over-drinking is a temporary reprieve from negative feelings. This theory is supported by some comments from the study’s subjects, such as this from “Taylor”:

The binge eating is sedating, like the alcohol. I numb out when I am doing it. They do the same thing … They release the pressure. I feel like a volcano is building up, and I can’t handle it, and I don’t know what to do. By bingeing, by drinking excessively, it’s like letting some steam escape.”

“Taylor” is one of 58 women in the study, all of whom were receiving treatment for alcohol problems. More than 70% of these women acknowledged a history of binge eating, which is almost double the rate of 36% observed in the general population.

Lack of Impulse Control

A lack of impulse control is another quality often found in women who drink and have bulimic behaviors, including binge eating. Women who had both bulimia and alcohol addictions scored higher on the Impulsivity scale than women who had only bulimia, according to one study on the comorbidity. The findings suggest “impulsiveness and a tendency to approach rewarding stimuli may contribute to developing” both alcohol addiction and bulimia, the researchers wrote.

Alcohol abuse and BED have been repeatedly linked – though somewhat inexplicably – both to genetics and increased impulsivity. However, a triangulation relationship has not been definitively established between binge drinking, binge eating, and impulsivity.

We certainly know drinking too much leads to impulsivity and what’s called a “blackout binge,” when someone overeats after binge-drinking but is too drunk to remember doing it. Evidence found the next day – empty cookie boxes, fast-food wrappers, dirty plates – may or may not jog one’s memory.

One survey found downing three large glasses of wine can cause people to eat some 6,300 extra calories in the following 24 hours.

Excessive drinking and binge eating are often considered addictive because they are repressive and uncontrollable; and both behaviors are often followed by feelings of guilt and shame.


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.


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

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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.