Why Can’t I Stop Binge Eating?
If you are a binge eater, emotional eater, or compulsive overeater, you probably spend a lot of time asking yourself this question. You are not alone.
Many overeaters are extremely accomplished in other areas of their lives but struggle to change their eating behaviors. They give the appearance of having their lives together but are actually miserable, constantly beating themselves up for not being able to control their eating. I’ve worked with many highly intelligent clients who refer to themselves using words such as lazy, fat, stupid and ugly. When I ask them if they would use any of these words to describe a friend who was struggling, they invariably say no.
Causes of Overeating
Why would an intelligent, rational individual continue to overeat despite the negative consequences both emotionally and physically? Overeating, which is also referred to as loss of control eating, has multiple causes. These include:
- Dieting/restrictive or irregular eating patterns
- History of significant weight fluctuations
- Depression, anxiety, other mood disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Weight stigma or bullying
- Problems with interpersonal relationships
- Grief or loss
- Emotional/physical/sexual abuse or neglect
- Drugs/alcohol addictions
Studies show that individuals with Binge Eating Disorder have the following traits: greater attentional bias towards food cues, decreased reward sensitivity, and altered brain activation in areas of the brain responsible for habit learning and impulse control (Kessler, Herman, & Potenza, 2016.)
Hormones play a role too. You may already be aware that stress can trigger overeating, but were you aware that stress also disrupts hormone levels, which in turn drives the urge to binge?
The Dangers of Dieting
In today’s weight-obsessed culture, everyone seems to be on a diet. Dieting is often promoted by well-intentioned friends, family, and professionals, but studies show that dieting actually triggers binge eating.
Dieting also contributes to increased stress levels. Counting calories, constant focus on weight and numbers, eliminating favorite foods, and walking on a treadmill under fluorescent lights at a gym (unless you enjoy this type of exercise) leads to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Studies show that elevated cortisol levels create a greater desire to binge on high-fat foods.
Dieting also impacts other hormones, such as ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite and helps defend the body against stress. Since dieting increases ghrelin, dieters develop a greater drive for food. Ghrelin also increases dopamine (which makes food more rewarding) which drives more overeating. Leptin, the hormone responsible for fullness cues, is also disrupted by diets. Leptin levels decrease during dieting which means it takes more food to feel full.
There’s also the psychological component to dieting. You feel deprived. You go to parties and have to eat off the veggie plate when you really want the macaroni and cheese. Deprivation is another stressor that inevitably leads to the next binge.
What Steps Can I Take to Stop Overeating?
There is no “quick fix” to eliminating overeating but there are some steps you can take to start the process. The first step is to acknowledge that what you have been doing is not working and to stop blaming yourself for something you cannot control.
Enlisting a therapist and registered dietitian with in-depth training on binge eating and overeating is critical. Your dietitian will work alongside you to develop a regular schedule for meals, teach you mindful eating skills, and create a plan that incorporates foods you enjoy. Your therapist will help you address the underlying causes and provide tools that will help you eliminate the overeating. The ultimate goal is for you to be able to eat foods you enjoy without bingeing – along with a significant improvement in your mood.
Stress Reduction & Self-Care 101
Stress-management and self-care are the cornerstones of recovery from overeating disorders. I don’t mean taking a hot bath. It means looking at your life through a new lens and honestly evaluating how to reduce stress.
In my experience, individuals with overeating disorders are caretakers and people pleasers who struggle with setting boundaries. Many are also perfectionists. They hold the responsibility of the world on their shoulders and food is how they cope with the stress. Learning to let go of the stress is a process that takes a lot of practice and persistence.
What about exercise for stress? It all depends on the rationale behind the exercise and whether or not you enjoy what you are doing. If you go to a gym strictly for weight loss or as a form of self-punishment, and you are totally miserable when you’re there, it is not doing you any favors for your stress level. What if you were to seek out movement that is enjoyable? Think back to your childhood. Did you like biking around the neighborhood, playing softball, canoeing, dancing in your room to loud music, swimming in the lake? Ditch the gym if you hate it and try something you actually enjoy.
Recovery from overeating is like climbing a mountain. It takes commitment and persistence. You will experience slips and falls along the way but the view from the top will far outweigh the challenge of the climb. You will find freedom from food, weight and body obsession and you will connect with your authentic needs, wants, and desires. All you need is the willingness. The rest will come as long as you stay on the path.
Did you know I wrote a book about Binge Eating? Click here to check it out!