Women Who Binge Behind the Wheel Court Danger

Who hasn't been stressed out while driving and pulled over at a fast food restaurant for a bite? But what if you couldn't stop eating in the car?

New research on eating behavior in the car shows that some people are actually bingeing and purging while driving — stuffing themselves with food and then vomiting it back up, all the while piloting their car through traffic.

It's a disturbing and potentially dangerous combination, a disorder that is just now beginning to receive attention from medical experts.

The study, administered by Dr. James Mitchell of the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute, shows that 73 percent of the participants — all of whom suffer from eating disorders — admitted to bingeing while driving.

Sixteen percent of those who binged said they follow it up by purging. Some pull over first; others vomit into a container, while keeping one eye on the road.

Mitchell, the lead author of the study Eating Behavior While Driving a Car, says there were only 26 participants involved in the study, but it allows researchers to get a sense of how common the problem is among people with existing disorders. The Neuropsychiatric Research Institute says Mitchell will continue the study and he is recruiting more participants.

Privacy on the Road

Dr. Walter Kaye, one of the nation's leading authorities on eating disorders and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, says he is not that surprised by Mitchell's study. After all, he notes, the car can be the perfect place for with bulimia or other eating disorders to hide their behavior.

"People who binge and purge are secretive about their behavior," says Kaye. They don't want other people to know that they are doing it and the car may be the most convenient place to be alone, because they afford a good degree of privacy.

Although the new study does not determine how many accidents may have been caused by "car bingeing," Kaye says it is certainly distracting — 20 percent of participants admit to unsafe driving due to their bingeing.

Junk Food and Genes

When someone makes frequent food stops and orders several servings, warns Kaye, it may be a sign that they are bingeing. Other signs include a loss of control in their ability to refuse food.

The development of eating disorders is often attributed to cultural influences on body image, such as those seen on TV and in magazines. But while most of us are exposed to images that glamorize slim people, Kaye notes, only a small percentage of women develop eating disorders.

Kaye and many other doctors believe there are underlying biological, and perhaps genetic reasons that put some women at risk for developing eating disorders. In this way it may be similar to obesity, which research suggests is linked to genetic factors.

New data show that women with bulimia nervosa have alterations in the serotonin pathways in the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe regulates mood and impulse control, and serotonin is linked to changes in mood or outlook. For people with bulimia, overeating may also be a way of regulating brain serotonin levels to reduce stress and feelings of discomfort.

Drugs such as Prozac can be used to regulate serotonin flow and may be of some use in treating eating disorders, say some researchers.