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Binge Eating & Compulsive Shopping: What Are the Links?
On the surface, it may seem that binge eating disorder (BED) and compulsive buying disorder (CBD) have little in common. But the two conditions are more closely related than many people think.
Both binge eating and compulsive shopping are tied to struggles with impulsivity and self-control. And the conditions are frequently co-occurring, meaning they are both expressed in the same person.
It may even be possible that one of these behaviors could trigger the other, or make the other worse. That’s why it’s critical to understand the many different ways these two conditions impact each other, and the relationship between them.
Why Do Binge Eating & Compulsive Shopping Co-Occur?
Researchers found connections between binge eating and binge shopping in the 1990s. Since that time, studies have suggested that people who express both conditions may experience deeper psychological distress than someone who only shows signs of one.
In 1995, researchers found that women with binge eating disorder were significantly more likely to buy compulsively, when compared to people who didn’t binge on food.  And a 2021 study found additional connections between the two conditions, including: 
- Impaired decision making: This trait had the unfortunate effect of impacting someone’s success rate with therapy.
- Inflexibility: People with both conditions had a harder time changing their thoughts or behaviors.
- Novelty seeking: This group was interested in new and unusual things, which impacted how quickly they could get better.
While it’s possible for these traits to appear in anyone, the combination was especially common among people with co-occurring binge eating disorder and compulsive buying disorder, leading researchers to believe they could play a role in sustaining the conditions.
Understanding the Role of Impulsivity
Still, among the shared traits of BE
D and CBD, impulsivity may play the biggest part in upholding the disordered behavior. This trait describes the tendency to act without thinking, which in many ways represents the foundation of compulsive actions.
Researchers say this trait is closely tied to a number of eating disorders, but especially those that appear on the bulimic spectrum.  Due to their shared aspect of binging, BED and bulimia nervosa are both considered part of this group.
Impulsivity may contribute to the “trance like” state many people say they feel while binging. It overrides the messages sent from the brain, allowing the body to simply take over through the action of continuous eating.
And more than 95% of people with compulsive shopping behavior have described their purchasing habits in a similar way.  They don’t consider whether they need what they buy, and they don’t think about whether they can afford it. They simply succumb to the action of buying the items.
It’s likely that impulsivity plays the central role in the development and maintenance of both disorders, whether it’s expressed as trouble with eating, shopping, or both.
Other Connections Between Binge Eating Disorder and Compulsive Shopping
Aside from the many co-occurring psychological traits, there may be additional reasons for the frequent overlap of compulsive shopping and binge eating disorder.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by weight cycling.  People often gain weight when they experience frequent binging episodes, and they may lose weight in periods where they exhibit greater control over the behavior.
And each weight change could merit shopping for new clothes.
These trips can be necessary reactions to weight cycling, but they run the risk of triggering more compulsive shopping behavior.
One of the biggest markers of binge eating disorder is mental distress.
People who engage in this type of behavior often experience guilt and shame over their actions, along with the low self-esteem and negative body image that contribute to the behaviors in the first place.
For some, shopping may offer an escape.
Looking for items to buy online can help distract people from these unhappy and uncomfortable feelings. Still, there’s a thin line between healthy distraction and the transferring of compulsive behaviors from one action to another.
Some pharmaceutical therapies, including dopamine agonists, have been found to increase someone’s measures of impulsivity. 
Side-effects of these medications could make it more difficult for someone to exert control over their behavior, or easier for them to get swept up in a compulsive action or train of thought.
Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder and Compulsive Buying Disorder
Many people who experience binge eating and compulsive shopping report a sense of feeling out of control. They may desperately want to stop their habits, but simply not know how.
But finding the right kind of treatment for BED or CBD can be crucial in helping people step away from these behaviors.
Therapists often focus on the thoughts that happen before, during, and after a compulsive episode. For example, patients who struggle with impulsivity might be encouraged to consider:
- What happened earlier that day
- What they thought about an hour before the binging episode
- What they thought about immediately before eating or shopping
- What they thought about during the episode
- How they felt right after the episode stopped
Patients are encouraged to reflect on these thoughts and feelings, and to look for patterns, which could reveal potential triggers.
Techniques such as meditation or measured breathing are also often recommended to help people stop and think before making a decision, eating a snack, or making a purchase.
And other types of treatment encourage people to challenge some of their negative thoughts, with questions like:
- Will this shopping make me happier?
- Will the snack make me forget the issues I faced today?
- Will I regret these actions later?
Changing the way someone thinks can help change the way they act and react. It can help someone avoid the next binge, and, over time, become better able to manage triggers.
Therapy can take time and practice to be effective, but with hard work and support, it can help someone change their habits for the better, and get on the road to recovery.
- Faber, R., Christenson, G., de Zwaan, M., Mitchell, J. (1995, December). Two Forms of Compulsive Consumption: Comorbidity of Compulsive Buying and Binge Eating. Journal of Consumer Research; 22(3):296.
- Munguía, L., Lucas, I., Jiménez-Murcia, S., Mora-Maltas, B., Granero, R., Miranda-Olivos, R., Sánchez, I., Testa, G., Lozano-Madrid, M., Turton, R., Menchon, J. M., Fernández-Aranda, F. (2021, November). Executive Functions in Binge Spectrum Eating Disorders with Comorbid Compulsive Buying. European Eating Disorders Review; 29(6):854-857.
- Lavender, J., Mitchell, J. (2015, October 1). Eating Disorders and Their Relationship to Impulsivity. Current Treatment Options in Psychiatry; 2:394-401.
- Christenson, G. A., Faber, R. J., de Zwaan, M., Raymond, N. C., Specker, S. M., Ekern, M. D., Mackenzie, T. B., Crosby, R. D., Crow, S. J., & Eckert, E. D. (1994). Compulsive buying: descriptive characteristics and psychiatric comorbidity. The Journal of clinical psychiatry; 55(1):5–11.
- Binge Eating Disorder. (2022). National Eating Disorder Association. Accessed August 2022.
- Correa e Castro, C., de Araujo, A., Coelho Botelho, M., Bosco Nascimento, J., Marchon de Souza, R., Roberto Gadelha, M., Nardi, A. E., Dutra Violante, A. H. (2022, May 26). Binge Eating and Compulsive Buying During Cabergoline Treatment for Prolactinoma: A Case Report. Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 31, 2023