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Sanford research aims to get to the bottom of binge eating

Studies at the Sanford Center for Biobehavioral Research are looking at how inadequate sleep is related to binge eating and how some people process images of food and body type relate to binge eating. Both studies are recruiting participants.

A man and woman smile for a photo while the man holds a dummy head with a cap on it.
Researchers Leah Irish and Jeff Johnson meet Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in an electroencephalogram laboratory at North Dakota State University. Johnson is holding a stand with a cap used to record brain activity.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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FARGO — Insufficient sleep can lead people to make poor decisions about what they eat. They’re more likely, for instance, to eat foods higher in fat and salt, and can be more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

For others, the gateway to an eating disorder can be a fixation on food or body size or shape to an unhealthy degree.

Researchers affiliated with the Sanford Center for Biobehavioral Research are conducting studies examining how both sleep and focus influence the development of binge eating with the goal of better understanding the underlying mechanisms at play.

Both studies are recruiting adult participants to help unlock some of the mysteries of binge eating, or periods of uncontrolled eating. The studies are supported by a research grant awarded to the Sanford center, in partnership with North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, by the National Institutes of Health.

Leah Irish, an associate professor of psychology at NDSU who is affiliated with the Sanford center, is conducting the study on sleep and binge eating. Her findings will clarify the relationship between sleep duration and binge eating and the possible relationship between binge eating, short sleep duration and weight gain among overweight adults.


“This is an observational study, which means that we’re not doing any kind of experimental manipulations,” said Irish, a health psychologist. “We’re just sort of observing people as they naturally are.”

Irish will be tracking her research subjects — overweight or obese adults 18 to 45 years old who engage in binge eating at least once a week — over six months.

“This is focused specifically on sleep duration,” she said. “It’s looking at sleep duration essentially as a predictor of both binge eating behavior and also weight outcomes, weight gain over time.”

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Sleep quality and its effects on eating behaviors is a growing research focus.

“There’s a very clear relationship between sleep and both healthy and unhealthy eating choices,” she said. “For example, we know that people who don’t get sufficient sleep tend to be more likely to eat high-fat foods or high-sugar foods or fewer fruits and vegetables. So there are some dietary choice factors at play.”

Sleep deficiency also can cause physiological and behavioral changes that disrupt the positive effects of exercise and a healthy diet, making it more difficult to keep the pounds off, Irish said.

“Insufficient sleep can work against you if you’re trying to lose weight,” she said.

Those interested in enrolling as participants are asked to complete a brief set of questions online and might be asked to come in for an in-person clinical interview. Weight and body composition measurements will be taken.


Over six months, subjects will participate in seven in-person visits and four in-home assessments. To measure sleep duration, they will wear a device on their wrist.

Irish hopes to better understand how inadequate sleep, binge eating and weight gain are related. “That’s one of the points of emphasis,” she said, “to focus on the mechanisms so we can actually do something about it.”

Jeffrey Johnson is directing a study examining another avenue leading to binge eating: paying undue attention to food, weight or body shape.

“That information is more likely to drive your future behaviors,” he said, “so you’re more likely to have food on the mind. And that’s likely to drive disordered eating behaviors, like purging or food restriction, things of that sort."

He will use brain scans and measurements of brain activity to determine which parts of the brain are involved when those who engage in binge eating think about food or bodies. Subjects will be shown a series of images — including food, body types and common objects — and researchers will examine how they register on the brain.

His supposition is that the region involved in suppressing or regulating behavior cannot compete with the region of the brain that responds emotionally to the images.

“Do they attend to all sorts of food images, or is it just high-caloric foods versus low-caloric foods?” he said. “So you imagine like doughnuts or pizza compared to cauliflower and carrot sticks.”

To monitor brain activity, participants will be given a functional MRI scan to examine blood flow to different regions of the brain. While participants are viewing images, they will wear a cap with electrodes measuring electrical impulses from the brain, a test called an EEG or electroencephalogram.


“We’re expecting to see a unique pattern of EEG activity and behavior in the eating disorder group,” Johnson said. His study will have two groups of adult participants, those who engage in binge eating and those who do not, for comparison.

“We expect to observe that the people in the eating disorders group will have less connectivity between these kinds of regulatory brain areas and the brain areas that are signaling the emotional significance of the stimuli in the environment,” he said.

Sanford’s radiology department will assist in Johnson’s study.

Stephen Wonderlich, a psychologist and director of the Sanford Center for Biobehavioral Research, said the National Institutes of Health grant supporting the studies is helping Sanford create a center of excellence in research and treatment of eating disorders.

The grant supports training of early-career research scientists and supports their research, he said.

The Sanford eating disorders center in Fargo is a rarity outside of big universities in major metropolitan areas, Wonderlich said. “We have a pretty solid eating disorder clinic,” he said. “We have a hospital program that draws people from all around the country. And then we have this new research program which complements all the clinical work.”

The center has expertise in treating anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. “We also have an interest here in outcomes after bariatric surgery,” Wonderlich said.

To learn more

Those who are interested in participating in the eating disorder studies can call Sanford at 701-293-1335.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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