Binge eating: A hidden work issue

Nearly 10 percent of the workforce reported binge eating at least once in the past month and nearly 5 percent reported binging four or more times in the past month, according to a new study by Wellness & Prevention, a Johnson & Johnson company.

The large-scale study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also found a significant association between binge eating and low work productivity. Binge eating is defined as overeating combined with a sense of loss of control.  The study was comprised of 46,818 men and women.

“I did not expect to find that nearly 1 in 10 people in our sample reported binge eating behavior,” said Richard Bedrosian, director of behavioral health at Wellness & Prevention and co-author of the study.

Specifically, 4.7 percent of individuals reported regular binge eating, defined as four or more times in the past month. Another 4.7 percent reported binge eating at least once but less than four times in the last month.

Though regular binge eating was more common in women, it was high in men. Nearly 8 percent of men binged at least once in the past month. There’s a perception that eating disorders are female disorders, but this study refutes that, Bedrosian said.

Prior research has found that 35 percent of those who regularly binge reported that binging had disrupted their work at least mildly. Many studies have shown high levels of depression among individuals who binge eat, and depression can reduce productivity as well.

This study estimated that a company of 1,000 employees would lose $107,965 in productivity annually due to binge eating.

Moreover, binge eating is a major contributor to obesity, a fact that’s not widely known, said Bedrosian. His study found that binge eating was more common among obese employees (17.8 percent of obese people binged) than among non-obese employees (5.5 percent).

And obese people who binge are more likely to experience medical or psychological problems than obese individuals who do not binge eat. Obese employees also report more sick days compared to non-obese employees and.  These factors all add to the loss of productivity.

Binge eating remains an under-reported problem, possibly because of shame and the stigma associated with overeating. Because eating disorders are considered female problems, men may be more reluctant to talk about it.

“Routine medical examinations, and even weight management services may not include screening for binge eating,” said Bedrosian.

“We hope to increase awareness among employers of the scope of the binge eating problem, and its high prevalence among the obese,” Dr. Bedrosian said. Wellness plans don’t usually screen for binge eating.

Efforts to reduce weight gain or obesity should target binge eating, he said. Studies show better results when binge eaters stop binging.

Effective strategies to treat binge eating
Though more research into effective treatments for binge eating is needed, several approaches have shown to be somewhat effective.

• Cognitive-behavioral therapy has the strongest research support. CBT focuses on helping patients develop stable eating habits and identify triggers for binge eating.  Patients are taught techniques for resisting the urge to binge and to develop healthier strategies for coping with negative emotions and other triggers.  Lastly, they learn to challenge and change negative thoughts and beliefs that play a role in binge eating.

• There have been mixed results for the use of medications, such as antidepressants and appetite suppressants.

• Research is beginning to show that self-help CBT approaches, such as Web-based digital health coaching, can be helpful for binge eating.