Compulsive Overeating and How to Stop It
Think back to the last time you ate so much you felt absolutely stuffed. Were you tearing into a huge cake to celebrate a friend’s birthday? Loading up on turkey and sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving? Or were you at home alone, maybe at the end of a tough day? How did you feel afterward — simply annoyed that you gave yourself a stomachache? Or were you tormented by guilt or shame?
Eating too much every once in a while is normal. So is eating for emotional reasons. “From the moment we’re born, we’re nurtured with food, rewarded with food, and so emotional connections to food are normal,” says Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.
People who compulsively overeat, though, may use food as their only way of coping with negative emotions. As a result, they often feel that their eating is out of control. They think about food all the time and feel guilty, ashamed, or depressed after eating. “That’s very different from what someone feels after, say, eating a big Thanksgiving meal,” May says. “You might feel full, and you might regret having had that last slice of pie, but you’re not consumed with shame.”
Not everyone who overeats is a binger. You might eat a lot of food throughout the day, rather than all in one sitting. And you might not do it regularly, but only when you’re feeling stressed, lonely, or upset.
How does it start?
In some cases, people simply overeat out of mindless habit, like always sitting down with a bag of chips in front of the TV at night. But oftentimes, it’s the result of underlying emotional problems. Having a negative body image can play a big role.
The cycle can be hard to break. “Even people who say they’re not on a diet often have ingrained ideas about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods,” says Marsha Hudnall, president of Green Mountain at Fox Run in Vermont, a center for women who struggle with overeating. “But when you have a substance that is naturally appealing and soothing and comforting, and you make it off-limits, it just becomes more attractive.”
Can people be “addicted” to food?
In recent years, food addiction has become a popular idea among some scientists. Those researchers say that certain foods high in fat, sugar, and salt are addictive, causing changes in the brain similar to those made by drugs. Studies in animals have shown that rats that binge on sugar, for example, can develop signs of dependency.