3 reasons for ‘out of control’ eating and how to stop it

You head to the cupboard for a chocolate digestive biscuit thinking, ‘Just one will do, to satisfy the sweet craving’. But before you know it, one biscuit has become five, along with a packet of crisps and a cereal bar. You don’t think that you are in the least bit hungry, but it feels impossible to stop eating once you’ve started. A sense of overwhelming despair and hopelessness floods over you, as you sit on the sofa feeling physically sick. You’re utterly fed up with food ruling your life and wrecking your body image, with a possible overeating episode hovering quietly, ready to pounce and knock you off course at any point. You wonder, ‘Why can’t I just stop eating?’.


Dietary restraint

Out-of-control eating is usually rooted in dieting behaviours. This can involve not eating enough quantity of food and restricting calories; delaying eating or avoiding food groups, such as carbohydrates. We know from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment[1] that when human beings are starved of food, the urge to binge and obsess around food becomes significant. By not eating enough, you are going against your body’s physiological need to live and it will do everything it can, to ensure survival and restore the balance.

If you genuinely want to stop overeating episodes, then you need to work to balance blood sugar, through regular eating (every two-three hours) and including all the food groups. This can feel scary and difficult, particularly if you’ve been restricting for a while. It’s worth acknowledging though that the urge to overeat will not disappear, without addressing this vital part. Even when you are not engaging in ‘out of control eating’ but continue to restrict, your level of food preoccupation will be domineering and distracting.

Diet mindset

Your mindset around food plays a significant part in overeating episodes. If you view foods in black and white categories (good/bad; healthy/dirty; clean/unclean), then there will be inevitable judgment lurking, when eating anything that is not considered wholesome. This leads to powerful negative thoughts such as, ‘I’ve blown it, I might as well eat the whole packet’ or ‘I’m a greedy pig for eating the biscuit’. Emotionally, this will be understandably upsetting, and anxiety-provoking with the negative thoughts then unconsciously driving the ‘out of control’ eating behaviours.

Instead, work towards food neutrality, where no food is deemed as incredibly special or ‘bad’ to consume. When a cake, is just a cake, rather than a forbidden, naughty treat, it then takes the emotional seductiveness out of the eating experience. You haven’t blown anything for allowing yourself to enjoy a biscuit or two and permitting these foods is an inoculation against overeating. Think ‘Yum, yum, that was so tasty,’ – a thought that brings contentment, rather than criticism.


Focus on changing restrictive eating patterns before you tackle emotional triggers, as it’s almost impossible to be emotionally resilient when you are preoccupied with food; you’re feeling cold, tired and irritable. Once you are sure that restrictive eating is not driving the behaviour, begin to tune into your emotional world. Food is a soother, comfort and short-term effective distraction and emotional balm. Of course, it doesn’t fix though and ultimately creates further problems.

Next time, you’re at the cupboard door, mindlessly searching and seeking out food, stop and take a pause. What is it that you need right now? Are you feeling anxious, upset, lonely, angry or perhaps you don’t know? It can take time and practice to identify your feelings and to begin to listen to them. Often your needs might be better met with other strategies, instead of food.

Breaking out of a cycle of ‘out of control’ eating can feel hard. You might need to get some support with this. Sooner than blame and chastise yourself for this eating, understand that certain triggers do drive the behaviour. Get curious and compassionate in understanding what might be triggering this for you.

This article was written by Harriet Frew.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cambridge, CB1
Written by Harriet Frew, MSc; MBACP Accred
Cambridge, CB1

Harriet is a counsellor, writer and trainer working in eating disorders.
Instagram: @the_eating_disorder_therapist; Podcast - The Eating Disorder Therapist

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