While most Americans, including children, took part in the unofficial tradition of overeating this holiday season, a new study released by JAMA Pediatrics should give us pause. The study found that children’s overeating and binge eating habits, even if they do not cause weight gain, are predictive of future marijuana and other drug use. 

Researchers investigated the association of overeating (eating to excess but without loss of control) and binge eating (overeating with loss of control) with a number of negative health outcomes. Approximately 17,000 youth (ages 9–15 at enrollment) were questioned every one to two years about their health status and behaviors for more than a decade.

During this period, 41 percent started using marijuana and 32 percent began using illicit drugs. Youth who reported overeating were 2.7 times more likely to start using marijuana or other drugs, while binge eaters were 1.9 times more likely to start using drugs compared to their peers.

Binge eating—but not overeating—was also associated with the onset of persistent depressive symptoms and overweight/obesity. Interestingly, neither binge eating nor overeating was associated with binge drinking.

The latest substance use trend data for adolescents (the Monitoring the Future study) was also released in December, providing confirmation about the increase in marijuana use among our youth in recent years. Currently, 23 percent of high school seniors smoked marijuana in the past month, 36 percent smoked it in the past year, and 6.5 percent smoked daily. Attitudes toward marijuana, a predictor of increasing rates, are also a huge concern: More than 50 percent of high school seniors do not view regular marijuana use as harmful.

Might the new research on eating patterns provide another prevention avenue? The authors point out that previous research has shown binge eating to be responsive to intervention, and they encourage clinicians to screen adolescents for binge eating habits. Parents should also watch for overeating behavior in their children, even if it does not lead to weight gain. 

In a Reuters Health interview, Kendrin Sonneville, lead author of the eating pattern study, suggests that parents monitor their children’s and teen’s eating patterns, consult with a physician if they have concerns, and obtain the services of a dietician or therapist, if needed. “The earlier we can screen for who is at risk, the more able we are to prevent the onset of drug use,” she states. 

Does this research have any implications for your work with children and youth? Please provide any thoughts or comments you have below.*

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