I Cant Stop Eating

Start by eating just one meal without distractions each day. Sit at the table. Focus on the food and your feeling of fullness. If you can, increase this habit to two meals or more each day. You may eventually get better at recognizing your body’s signals that you’re full and stop overeating.

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.”

Some people who overeat have a clinical disorder called binge eating disorder (BED). People with BED compulsively eat large amounts of food in a short amount of time and feel guilt or shame afterward. And they do so often: at least once a week over a period of at least 3 months.

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.

For many people, compulsive overeating is part of a cycle that starts with a restrictive diet. May calls it the “eat, repent, repeat” cycle. You might begin a diet because you feel bad about your weight or size but find that it’s too hard to stick to — especially if you use food as a coping tool. Eventually, you hit a breaking point and binge on “forbidden” foods, and then the guilt and shame set in, and the restrictions begin again.

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.

But the idea of food addiction is controversial. For one thing, the standard treatment for addiction is abstinence, and that’s not possible with food. Also, “dieting is a very strong component of the binge eating cycle,” May says. “From that standpoint, it’s counterproductive to label certain foods as negative.”

There’s no doubt that eating can stimulate the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, Hudnall says. “But that doesn’t make food an addictive substance. There’s evidence that it’s actually the behavior — the restrict/binge cycle — that causes the signs of dependency, not the food itself,” she says. Some researchers have even stated that the term “eating addiction” is a more accurate term than “food addiction.”

How can I control compulsive eating?

Seek help. It can be hard to stop overeating on your own, particularly if there are deep-rooted emotional problems involved, says Robin B. Kanarek, PhD, professor of psychology at Tufts University. Working with a counselor can help you uncover the psychological triggers — like a negative body image — that may be driving your behavior.

Avoid labels. “Understand that you’re not a bad person doing bad things,” May says. “Labeling yourself can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of continuing the cycle.”

The same goes for labeling foods. “Food is food — it’s not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” Kanarek says. “It can be hard to get over those deeply held beliefs, but research shows that if you eat what you deem a ‘bad’ food, you’re more likely to overeat afterward.”

Take a pause. When you feel like eating, pause for a moment and ask yourself: Am I hungry? “Sometimes people get so focused on what they want to eat that they don’t stop and ask themselves why they want to eat,” May says. If you use food as a coping tool, you may be out of touch with the cues that signal hunger or fullness, and it’s important to bring your awareness back to your body.

Change your environment. “A habit is very often simply a behavior that’s on autopilot,” Hudnall says. Making a tweak to your environment can return your focus to your behavior and give you a chance to make a more purposeful decision. For example, Hudnall says, “if you always sit in a certain chair to eat, move it to a different place in the room — or sit somewhere else entirely.”

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Give into cravings — in moderation. Banning foods can cause you to overeat them later on. If you’re really craving something — even if you’re not hungry — give yourself permission to have a small amount.

End restrictive diets . “Overeating and restrictive eating are often two sides of the same coin,” May says. “Deprivation can be a trigger for overeating just like stress, anger, or anxiety.”

Show Sources

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Understanding Compulsive Overeating.”

American Psychiatric Association: “Feeding and Eating Disorders.”

Michelle May, MD, author, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RD, president, Green Mountain at Fox Run, Vermont.

Robin B. Kanarek, PhD, professor of psychology, Tufts University.

Avena, A. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2008.

Hedebrand, J. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, November 2014.

Why Can’t I Stop Eating?

There are a number of reasons you might find yourself reaching for food. A 2013 survey reveals that 38 percent of American adults overeat due to stress. Of them, half say they overeat at least once a week.

Identifying your personal triggers for overeating is the first step toward changing your habits.

Again, you may eat for emotional reasons. Boredom could be another factor. Others overeat because they’re hungry and not filling up on the right foods. Once you identify why you’re eating, you may move on to following more mindful eating practices.

1. Don’t skip meals

You should be hungry when you go to eat a meal. If you’re starving, you may be more apt to overeat.

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. People who eat morning meals tend to eat less fat and cholesterol throughout the day. Research also suggests that eating breakfast can help with weight loss.

Anatomy of a healthy breakfast:

Whole grains Whole grain toast, bagels, cereals, waffles, English muffins
Protein Eggs, lean meats, legumes, nuts
Dairy Low-fat milk or cheeses, plain or low-sugar yogurts
Fruits and vegetables Fresh or frozen whole fruits and veggies, pure fruit juices, whole fruit smoothies

2. Pause before eating

If you’re eating at regular intervals throughout the day and still find yourself eating, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry. Is there another need that could be met? A glass of water or a change in scenery may help.

Signs of true hunger may include anything from headache to low energy levels, stomach growling to irritability. If you do still feel like you need a snack, start with small portions, and repeat the checking-in process once more before reaching for seconds.

3. Banish distractions

Change your location for meals, especially if you tend to chow down in front of the television, computer, or in another distracting environment, like in your car.

While work or school may not permit you time to have all your meals at the table, trying to sit and focus on your food can help with overeating.

Start by eating just one meal without distractions each day. Sit at the table. Focus on the food and your feeling of fullness. If you can, increase this habit to two meals or more each day. You may eventually get better at recognizing your body’s signals that you’re full and stop overeating.

4. Chew more bites

Experts recommend chewing each piece of food about 30 times. Chewing allows you to pace yourself. Your brain is able to catch up to your stomach. Not only that, but you may also better enjoy the flavors and textures of what you’re eating.

Try choosing a smaller plate to control the size of your portions. And if you start to feel full, resist the urge to clean your plate. Stop where you feel comfortable and wait 10 minutes before continuing. You may realize you’re too full to try to eat any more.

5. Keep track

You may have emotional or environmental triggers for overeating. Certain foods may also be triggers. Consider keeping a food diary to see what you eat, how much you’re eating, and when and where you tend to eat.

You can keep a simple diary with paper and pen or use an app, like MyFitnessPal, if you’re typically on the go.

Keeping track of your food may help you notice patterns in your habits. For example, you may find you prefer eating chips or chocolate, so you can try keeping those items out of the house. Or maybe you tend to consume most of your calories in the evening while watching television.

6. Address stress

Identify your emotions before you eat, especially if it’s not at a regularly scheduled meal time. Again, it may be helpful to keep a food diary and record this information so you can look for trends in time of day or activity. Consider if you’re feeling:

  • worried or stressed
  • sad or upset
  • angry or isolated

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel, but checking in with your emotions may help you discover if they are at the root of your hunger.

Take a deep breath and try engaging in another type of activity before eating, like taking a walk, doing some yoga, or any other self-care measure.

7. Eat at home

Restaurant portions are large. If you eat out frequently, you may be overeating and not realizing it. Over time, large portions of calorie-laden foods may feel like the norm, making overeating struggles worse. At least one study has linked restaurant eating to obesity in the United States.

Consider having half your meal packed up before you even start eating. Better yet, skip restaurant meals altogether or save them for special occasions.

Research shows that cooking meals at home contributes to healthier food choices overall. You can find a number of healthy and affordable recipes on websites like the United States Department of Agriculture’s What’s Cooking.

8. Choose wholesome foods

Empty calories from added fats and sugars pack a caloric punch, but foods high in these ingredients don’t necessarily quell hunger. You may eat more to fill your stomach as a result.

Instead, bulk up on whole foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as stomach-filling fiber.

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Consider these “smart swaps”:

Sodas and sugary drinks Water, herbal tea, coffee
Sweetened cereals Whole grain cereals with fruit
Ice cream Low-fat yogurt with fruit
Cookies and packaged desserts Popcorn, fruit kebabs, homemade low-sugar granola
Chips Fresh veggie sticks with hummus

9. Drink more water

Hunger may mask dehydration. Other signs of mild dehydration include feeling thirsty and having concentrated urine.

The Mayo Clinic suggests men need 15.5 cups of fluids per day. Women, on the other hand, need around 11.5 cups to stay hydrated. You may need more than this basic amount depending on your activity level and other factors, like breastfeeding.

You don’t have to always drink water either. Sip milk, pure fruit juice, and herbal teas. Foods with high water weights are also good choices, like watermelon and spinach.

10. Find support

Reach out to a friend, especially if you tend to overeat when you’re alone. Chatting with a friend or family member on the phone or just hanging out can lift your mood and keep you from eating for comfort or out of boredom.

You may also consider attending your local Overeaters Anonymous (OA) group, which offers support specific to compulsive overeating. At OA you discuss your struggles and work to find solutions through a 12-step program.

I Can’t Stop Eating: Causes and What To Do

When the will to stop eating fails, there may be an underlying emotional cause. Can’t stop eating? Want to learn what to do? Keep reading for some great tips.

I Can't Stop Eating: Causes and What To Do

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Are you hungry all the time? Can’t help but raid the fridge in the middle of the night? Do you eat more than you would like and then feel guilty? If you feel you can’t stop eating, your problem is probably emotional, or at least mostly emotional.

The feeling of not being able to control your intake can be distressing, since you know that you’re not only damaging your appearance, but also your health. Despite knowing this, you just don’t know how to stop. In any case, the solution is to change your relationship with food. Here’s what to do about it.

Why can’t I stop eating?

Eating is an essential function for survival. It’s how the body obtains the nutrients it needs to function on a daily basis. The problem begins with the amount of food ingested and, especially, with the foods you choose to eat.

Those who have difficulties eating with moderation frequently opt for products with low nutritional value and high caloric index. But what leads to such harmful behavior?

Disconnection from one’s own body

One of the reasons for overeating is the inability to identify one’s own body sensations. At birth, each person is programmed to recognize the signs of hunger and act on it; in that case, crying for food.

However, as time goes by, the connection with these interoceptive sensations gets lost. This happens for several reasons. First, because food becomes associated with meetings, companionship, and interaction with others. Eating is becoming a social and pleasant act beyond its nutritional value.

On the other hand, today’s fast pace of life and stress doesn’t let us stop and listen to our body. Therefore, we start losing the ability to recognize when there’s actual hunger or when we’re actually just bored and want to share that moment of social connection.

Emotional hunger

Another aspect that makes it impossible to stop eating is emotional eating. This concept refers to using food to regulate our emotions. Have you noticed that you eat more when you’re anxious, sad, overwhelmed, or disappointed?

This has an explanation. Certain foods stimulate the brain circuit that corresponds to pleasure, since they release several neurotransmitters that produce pleasant sensations. Consequently, when ingested, relief, satisfaction, and happiness are perceived.

But, unfortunately, it’s a transitory state and not an effective or permanent solution at all. Soon after, pleasant effects disappear and unresolved emotions come back, added now to the guilt for having eaten without any self-control.

Restrictive diets

If you’ve been struggling with your food issues for a while, you’ve probably experienced this paradox: dieting too restrictively can increase the urge and desire to eat unhealthy food.

Embarking on an overly rigid eating style, in which food is forbidden, leads to increased anxiety about eating. Because of this, it’s impossible to follow the diet without falling into compulsive eating behaviors.

Soon after finishing this diet, you may even regain the weight you had lost after so much effort. The body is asking you for what you have taken from it and restricted so radically.

What can I do to stop eating?

Obviously, eating is essential to survive. Therefore, it’s not an activity you can avoid, as you could probably do with other types of addictions. The solution in this case is to modify your relationship with food by acknowledging its nutritional function and eating more consciously.

To do this, it’s essential to reconnect with your body and learn to listen and interpret the signals it sends. In other words, it’s about recognizing when there’s real hunger and when it may be emotional hunger due to stress or anxiety.

On the other hand, it’s important that you acquire and develop useful and effective coping strategies to deal with your negative emotional states.

The goal is to stop using food to regulate your emotions – you have to learn other ways to manage them. Emotional venting, therapeutic writing, or practicing meditation are alternatives that may be useful.

Lastly, establish a healthy relationship with food. This means that you have to stop seeing it as an enemy or as a comfort. Remember that food is only the fuel your body needs, and learn to select it based on your nutritional needs.

Eat in a healthy and balanced way, without prohibiting or demonizing any food group. Eat with moderation and, above all, while being aware of what you’re doing.

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  • Sánchez Benito, J. L., & Pontes Torrado, Y. (2012). Influencia de las emociones en la ingesta y control de peso. Nutrición Hospitalaria, 27(6), 2148-2150.
  • Rodríguez, S., Mata, J. L., & Moreno, S. (2007). Psicofisiología del ansia por la comida y la bulimia nerviosa. Clínica y Salud, 18(1), 99-118.

The contents of this publication are for informational purposes only. At no time can they serve to facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult with your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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