Kids and teens who reported overeating, including binge eating, were more likely to start using marijuana and other drugs in a new study based on surveys of close to 17,000 youth.
Binge eating - defined by loss of control during overeating - was also tied to a higher chance of depression and becoming overweight or obese, researchers found.
"Physicians and parents should be aware that both overeating and binge eating are quite common in adolescents, and these problems put them at risk for other problems, such as drug use," said Kendrin Sonneville, the study's lead author from Boston Children's Hospital.
"The earlier we can screen for who is at risk, the more able we are to prevent the onset of drug use," she told Reuters Health.
This type of study does not prove that one behavior causes another, but rather that one can be a warning sign of increased risk for the other.
Sonneville said doctors should ask kids and teens about their eating patterns, and parents who notice their children eating much more than usual in a sitting should go to their health care provider. Treatment from a dietician or therapist could help head off future problems, she added.
Her team used data from a large study of 16,882 kids and teens, initially between age nine and 15, who filled out health-related questionnaires every year or two between 1996 and 2005.
At any point during that time, up to one percent of boys and up to three percent of girls said they binged regularly. Those rates were reversed - about three percent of boys and one percent of girls - among kids who overate without loss of control.
During the study period, 41 percent of youths started using marijuana and 32 percent used other illicit drugs. Kids and teens who had reported overeating on surveys were 2.7 times more likely to start using marijuana or other drugs, and binge eaters were 1.9 times more likely to take up drugs.
The findings were published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Researchers have thought teens who lose control while eating might also be at risk for other impulsive behaviors, such as drug use, Sonneville said. But her findings showed any kids who overate - whether they reported losing control or not - were more likely to start experimenting with drugs.
It's not clear yet why that might be the case.
But overeating without loss of control wasn't tied to obesity, so, Sonneville said, it's important to know that eating too much can be a problem for reasons other than weight, and that extra weight isn't the only sign of worrisome eating.
"It may be easy to overlook eating problems in normal-weight or healthy-weight kids," she said.
"We need to think about eating habits even before they maybe affect a kid's weight, but realize these may be a risk factor for other problems down the road."