Binge eaters who say they cannot help it may have a point. A study suggests a gene may contribute to the cause of binge eating in some people. Researchers said they hoped the finding would point the way to a pill that could bring appetites under control.
The Swiss-German-American study makes the strongest case yet that a genetic mutation can cause an eating disorder, the researchers say. Researchers generally believe that eating behaviour is complex and cultural in its causes.
“Willpower is not always important to reduce weight,” said Dr Fritz Horber in Zurich. “Some people can by willpower. Some cannot, and I think these patients have a hard time.”
The study is in New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers have been trying to understand the reasons for an epidemic of obesity, which raises the risk for heart disease, diabetes and many other ailments. Abundant high-calorie foods and sedentary habits are widely blamed for the surge.
Probably the most common eating disorder, binge eating strikes up to four million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. Binge eaters, who are usually but not always overweight, frequently and compulsively stuff themselves, often in secret, and feel ashamed afterward.
In the study, the researchers focused on a gene previously linked to obesity. Known as the melanocortin 4-receptor gene, it makes a protein by that name that helps stimulate appetite in the brain’s hunger-regulating hypothalamus.
The researchers considered 469 severely obese white adults, a quarter of them binge eaters. The disorder was much more common among the 5 per cent with the mutated gene.