Some call it a food addiction. Others refer to it as compulsive overeating. No matter the label, researchers and doctors agree on one thing: fat, salt and sugar can alter the brain chemistry, making it more difficult to resist eating more.
In his book, “The End of Overeating”, former FDA commissioner David Kessler, MD explains that there are similarities between an individual who struggles with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, and someone who struggles with an addiction to food (or overeating). The key is to find the driving force behind the behavior and learn how to change it.
Factors that may contribute to overeating
Feel good foods: Foods high in sugar, fat and salt release a “feel good” hormone in the brain. Essentially, this reaction associates eating unhealthy foods with pleasure. For some people, this is where the addiction to food begins: eat more of these foods, feel more pleasure. Unfortunately, as the body adapts to these foods, it becomes less satisfied, leading to eating even more in order to get the same effect.
Food, comfort care: Our culture associates food with comfort and care. When a friend experiences a loss, we show up with a homemade casserole. When a new baby is born, we celebrate with the new family by offering food. Parents offer ice cream and other treats as part of a system of reward for good behavior. Eating is often tied to emotional occasions, whether we are grieving or celebrating.Many people turn to food as a comfort or coping mechanism when they are feeling sad, anxious, angry, stressed, or depressed. Typically, eating to cope with one of these emotions becomes a mindless activity. Whether it’s a hamburger and french fries or a box of cookies, we can overindulge and overeat in an effort to feel good. When emotional eating becomes a mindless hand-to-mouth action, it becomes dangerous. It can result in eating an excessive amount of food (binge eating), which results in guilt. To cope with the guilt, we some will turn to excessive exercising, obsessive dieting or even purging.
Overeating/binge eating and biology: Binge eating (eating large amounts of food in a short period of time) and overeating can be linked to genetics or other biological causes. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain designed to control appetite. If it fails to send proper messages about hunger and fullness, the individual may continue eating simply because he or she is unable to recognize they are full. It is also thought that serotonin, a chemical in the brain that affects mood and compulsive behaviors, is linked to binge eating.
Understand why you eat. Before you jump up to grab a bag of candy or step into the kitchen to prepare a meal, take a moment to evaluate why you are eating. Are you eating because you are depressed, anxious our stressed? If your answer is yes, consider an alternative method of coping. Find an activity that can replace negative emotional eating as a means of coping. Exercise is a great choice, because it produces “feel good” endorphins in the body. Talk to a friend or turn to a doctor for help. Go for a walk outside.
Make eating a mindful activity. If you are prone to mindless eating, chances are, you will eat too much, and end up feeling guilty and then looking for a means to cope with that guilt. Eating should be a mindful experience. When you sit down to eat, take a moment to soak it all in. Enjoy the aroma of your meal. Remove all other distractions so you can focus on eating. Turn off the television and put away the book. When you eat, make eating your sole focus. When you do, this instance of eating, even if it is emotional, will be far more satisfying. In the same way, you will also be more mindful of the amount of food you eat, and better able to avoid overeating.
It’s important to remember that unlike a substance addiction, a compulsive overeater cannot simply stop eating. Food is necessary to live, and it can therefore be difficult for binge eaters to change their behavior because they can’t stop eating altogether.
If you or someone you love suffers from overeating or binge eating, seek the help of a professional. Psychologists, nutritionists and other trained professionals can help an overeater understand why he or she eats, and help them learn and adopt healthy eating habits. Individuals who struggle with compulsive overeating or binge eating disorder should not be afraid or ashamed to seek help. Working with doctors who are trained in treating overeating, binge eating and other eating disorders can help an individual manage weight, eating and emotions associated with their eating disorder.