We can’t say point-blank what triggers binge eating at any given moment. In a woman’s life, for example, there are times within her cycle when uncontrollable cravings are considered perfectly normal.
But what about other times, when it seems you’d devour every meal in sight? Reasons for binge eating can be plentiful, but the real question is this: can they be helped? In this article I tried to take a closer look at most common causes of compulsive eating and what we can do about them.
3 Whys of binge behavior
Binge eating is usually provoked by one of the following factors (or a combination of all three):
This includes various mental health disorders, like depression, or a bouquet of negative emotions (like boredom, anxiety, sadness) that may cause binge eating disorder.
It can be something that runs in your family and is often triggered by certain eating habits (when too much accent is placed on food or when it is used as a reward) that can be traced throughout different generations. In such case, researchers say, an unnatural behavior of hormones that control hunger and are responsible for blood sugar levels and body metabolism can be observed.
Unnatural food cravings can be a result of side-effects of some psychiatric and other medications, including certain hormonal treatments. Meds can provoke appetite or mess with a person's ability to sense when they are already full.
Here’s a closer look at the more specific and most common examples that can be guilty as charged when it comes to binges:
If you struggle with overnight binges, you may be skipping meals or not eating enough during the day. If it’s true, your solution is the easy one: just do your best to spread your food intake evenly throughout the day.
However, if you blatantly deprive yourself of certain foods, it will inevitably backfire. And when you finally get to that slice of pizza you won’t get away with just a bite, you’ll have one irresistible binge on your hands.
Strict diets, especially fads, might be what triggers overeating in the first place. Dieting that focuses on limiting or completely ditching certain foods (like those high in carbs, protein, fats and so on) can only provoke out-of-control cravings.
Having ‘cheat days’ is not helping either. It is just a different part of the same equation. It’s like you’re always saving your satisfaction with food for later. Restricted consumption of the foods you label as ‘bad’ during the week and then ‘going for it’ on a weekend only contributes to binge eating problems. You can just end up wolfing down way more than you need to feel full, and you’ll gain weight as a result.
What you can do to fix it
Don’t be too hard on yourself for eating that ice-cream with a whip cream topping. After all it’s not something you eat every day. It’s best not to tokenize certain foods as the ‘things you can’t have’. It’s in our human nature: the more ‘forbidden fruits’ you have, the more you want them.
Instead pay more attention to a large variety of healthy and delicious foods you get to include into your diet, and those ice-cream cravings won’t be there for long. Keep it fresh and interesting by adding a wellspring of nuts, berries, meats, dairy, veggies and fruits to your diet. It will put your abnormal longings to rest.
There can be a direct correlation between food cravings and your hormones. The latter are in charge of diverse processes in our body, including hunger and satiety.
Too much or too little of hormones such as leptin, ghrelin and CCK (cholecystokinin) can amp up your feeling of hunger.
Episodes of especially uncontrollable eating that lead to severe cases of indigestion and weight gain can often suggest that the above hormones had a hand in it.
- Elevated levels of ghrelin that controls your appetite and food intake can be often linked to binge eating, especially late at night.
- Leptin generally keeps appetite under control, unless its level in the body is dramatically low. Some researchers say, however, that obese people become less responsive to leptin’s signals even when they have an abundance of this hormone.
- CCK or cholecystokinin enhances digestion and suppresses hunger. Not having enough of it promotes compulsive eating.
How to deal with it
Hormonal imbalance can be reversed with a combination of the right diet and psychological help. Hormonal treatment may be also an order in more complex cases. In any case scenario, only your doctor is entitled to prescribe you an individual therapy often based on your blood work (called hormonal panel) and specific symptoms.
Emotional eating can be triggered by a variety of feelings, like solitude, irritation, monotony, tiredness, overall dissatisfaction, rejection, stigmatization, guilt, embarrassment, fear, depression, and other mental health conditions.
In short, every time we’re out of touch with our present feelings and physical sensations we run the risk of covering up all the negativity with yummy treats. Food is an affordable, easy to get and socially acceptable mood changer. In fact, many of us are used to escaping strong or uncomfortable feelings and things we’re unwilling to confront by gorging ourselves.
Also, there are many people who chase perfection which can be pretty demanding: having a perfect body, a nice car or a pretty house. And often when they can’t deliver they become anxious and upset. Which is when they start stuffing down their feelings of disappointment.
Find the right solution
To break out of this vicious cycle we need to become more mindful and aware of the reasons why we feel that food is a safe haven from the troubles of the day. Sort through your emotions and try to gently confront them.
Being aware of your feelings helps you deal with actual problems and not simply block the symptoms with the help of food. In fact, you already know that it won’t help you resolve your problems or make unpleasant situations disappear. Whatever you’re trying to run away from will not go anywhere after your splurge.
Another thing: stop going after perfection. Perfection is the biggest fraud of our times. Be kinder to yourself and take things slow. Don’t beat yourself up, even if you can’t deliver—you’re only human after all.
Remember that a healthy body is never the result of impossible restrictions and constant dissatisfaction with oneself. Living a content and joyful life means cutting yourself some slack and being grateful and present in every moment of your life.
The etiology of a binge eating disorder is still unknown. More often than not it is a sum-total of psychological, biological and environmental factors. It is treated as a medical condition when the episodes of eating abnormal amounts of food tend to reoccur on average two-three times per week during a period of six months. Eating disorders can lead to obesity which can entail feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction and promote further excessive eating.
These disorders can even be life-threatening when not addressed for too long. Figuring out what causes compulsive overeating is already the first step to prescribing a proper cure.
What is the right treatment?
Treatment of eating disorders include medications and psychological help. It’s individual and fully depends on the nature of a particular disorder and the symptoms involved.
Adopting a bunch of healthy lifestyle habits like regular exercise, enough sleep, proper diet, hobbies that fulfill you—all help you take a stand against the curveballs that life can throw at you.
Educating oneself about healthy eating patterns, a realistic relationship with food and cultivating a healthy body image can be your "How to Prevent Binge Eating" memo.
You don’t have to go through it alone either. There are support groups, the main purpose of which is provide people with a better understanding what they are dealing with, offer strong support and point at possible solutions.
Turn for support
If you suffer from disordered eating behaviors, please don’t put it off till tomorrow, instead seek medical advice or professional help:
USA: National Eating Disorders Association or call their helpline at 1-800-931-2237
UK: Beat Eating Disorders, 0345-643-1414 (helpline)
Canada: Service Provider Directory or 1-866-633-4220 (helpline)
Australia: Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders or 1800-33-4673
Online eating disorder support group: Eating Disorder Hope