Women with ‘apple-shaped’ bodies are more prone to binge eating

News & Analysis

16th November 2015

The way women’s bodies store fat could affect their risk of developing eating disorders, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Women with ‘apple-shaped’ bodies — in which fat is predominantly stored in the trunk and abdominal regions — are more likely to report ‘losing control’ of their eating habits.

The researchers, from Drexel University in the US, say this is the first investigation of the connections between fat distribution, body image disturbance and the development of disordered eating.

The study’s lead author, Laura Berner, said: ‘Eating disorders that are detected early are much more likely to be successfully treated. Although existing eating disorder risk models comprehensively address psychological factors, we know of very few biologically-based factors that help us predict who may be more likely to develop eating disorder behaviours.

‘Our preliminary findings reveal that centralised fat distribution may be an important risk factor for the development of eating disturbance, specifically for loss-of-control eating,’ said Berner. ‘This suggests that targeting individuals who store more of their fat in the midsection and adapting psychological interventions to focus specifically on body fat distribution could be beneficial for preventing eating disorders.’

The researchers say that multiple studies have shown that experiencing a sense of loss-of-control during eating, or feeling compelled to keep eating once you have started, is the most significant element of binge-eating episodes.

Berner and her team investigated the possibility that body fat distribution is linked to body dissatisfaction over time, and increases the risk of loss-of-control eating.

In the study of nearly 300 young adult women, the researchers found that women with greater central fat stores, independent of total body mass and depression levels, were more likely to develop loss-of-control eating habits.

The findings indicate that storage of body fat in trunk and abdominal regions, rather than elsewhere in the body, is more strongly predictive of loss-of-control eating development and worsening over time, and that larger percentages of fat stored in these central regions and body dissatisfaction may serve as maintain or exacerbate loss-of-control eating.

According to Berner, more research is needed to explain the mechanism behind these findings, though she speculates that there are a number of reasons why this might happen.

‘It’s possible that this kind of fat distribution is not only psychologically distressing, but biologically influential through, for example, alterations in hunger and satiety signalling. Fat cells release signals to the brain that influence how hungry or satiated we feel. Our study didn’t include hormone assays, so we can’t know for sure, but in theory it’s possible that if a centralised distribution of fat alters the hunger and satiety messages it sends, it could make a person feel out of control while eating.’