Uncover the root causes of binge-eating and how to overcome it

Binge eating can be a difficult disorder to overcome and is often caused by a complex range of factors. If you or someone you know suffers from this issue, it’s important to understand the underlying causes so that you can find ways to work towards finding an effective solution. Here are some tips to help you get started on your journey to overcoming binge eating and taking back control.


What is binge eating?

Binge eating is a disorder characterized by episodes of uncontrolled and excessive eating. People who suffer from this condition often eat large amounts of food in a short period of time and feel out of control during these episodes. They may also feel guilty or ashamed after a binge.

Symptoms of binge eating

People who suffer from compulsive overeating often experience the following symptoms:

  • eating large amounts of food in a short period of time (usually within two hours)
  • eating when not hungry or even full
  • eating rapidly
  • eating alone or in secret
  • feeling out of control during episodes
  • feeling guilt, shame, or distress after binging

Causes of binge eating

Binge eating is complex and is influenced by many factors. This article will describe the common psychological, environmental, and biological factors that can cause binge eating.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors can play a role in binge eating. These include feelings of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, stress, and other emotional issues. People who have difficulty managing their emotions may turn to food as a way to cope with their feelings.

The use of food as a coping mechanism is understandable when we consider our early experiences with food. Consider how food was used in your life to reward good behaviour, soothe emotional distress or to demonstrate love and we can see why our attachment to food runs deep. People with certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem or a perfectionist streak, may be more likely to develop an eating disorder. Perfectionists can often have unrealistic expectations of how and what they 'should' be eating and see small deviations in catastrophic terms, leading to further self-judgment and criticism and further binge eating.

Environmental triggers

Environmental triggers can also play a role in binge eating. These include things like dieting, being around certain foods, or feeling pressure to eat.

Although all genders are susceptible to eating disorders, the societal pressures that many women feel to fit beauty standards undoubtedly have an influence. Women are exposed continually through social media, TV and advertising that 'thin is better' and the pursuit of being in a smaller body can lead to rigid, restrictive eating patterns and/or exercise addiction. Stress and ill health, such as chronic pain, can also be common triggers for binge eating.

Biological factors

Biological factors can also contribute to binge eating. For example, people who have a family history of eating disorders may be more likely to develop one themselves. It’s not clear why some people have a genetic predisposition to developing eating disorders. But these diseases are often linked to anxiety disorders and depression, which also have a genetic component.

Some studies suggest that a period of extreme dieting or excessive exercise may trigger binge eating in people who are genetically vulnerable. This may be due to the effect that dieting or restricting calories has on the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is involved in regulating mood and appetite.

The weight loss industry oversimplifies what is needed to lose weight and states a 'calorie deficit' will support your goals.  The weight loss industry doesn't seem to recognise or care, however, that when a person is consistently eating below their body's energy needs, the likelihood of a compensatory binge is high. A typical weight loss plan may support controlled eating for example Monday to Friday, with a reward of a 'cheat meal' at the weekend. This pattern is normalised in the weight loss and fitness industry but may for some be laying the foundations for disordered eating patterns and habitual binge eating.

Other factors that increase risk of binge eating include:

  • being overweight or obese
  • having a history of trauma or abuse
  • experiencing stressful life events
  • abandoning an extreme diet
  • other types of eating disorders, like anorexia

Strategies to overcome binge eating

Binge eating can be difficult to overcome, but there are strategies you can use to help you. These strategies include lifestyle changes, self-care practices, cognitive behavioural therapy, nutrition counselling, and medication. With the right support, you can learn how to manage your emotions and make healthier choices without relying on food as a coping mechanism.

1. Lifestyle changes

Making lifestyle changes can help you overcome binge eating. This includes things like eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day and engaging in physical activity to support your overall sense of well-being. Regular and consistent eating is important to ensure that your blood sugars and energy levels remain consistent throughout the day. Not eating enough during the day or low blood sugars can trigger overeating.

2. Self-care practices

Engaging in self-care practices can also help you manage your emotions and cope with difficult situations without turning to food. This can include things like meditation, journaling, and spending time outdoors. If you recognise that stress is a common trigger in binge eating, engaging in daily self-care practices is crucial. This can be difficult if you are a perfectionist or a people pleaser as you may have a tendency to look after other people's needs before your own, but try to make it a priority.

3. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy has been found to be an effective treatment for binge eating disorder. Studies have shown that CBT can reduce binge eating episodes, reduce body dissatisfaction, and improve psychological functioning. Additionally, it can help individuals develop more adaptive coping skills to better manage their emotions and stressors.

CBT also focuses on identifying and changing unhelpful thought patterns that may contribute to binge eating, such as negative self-talk or perfectionism. By working with a therapist, individuals can learn to recognize their triggers and create healthier habits and behaviours to replace binge eating behaviour.

4. Nutrition counselling

Working with a nutritionist or dietitian can help you develop healthy eating habits and learn how to make more supportive choices.

5. Medication

In some cases, medication may be recommended to help manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions that may be contributing to binge eating.

Seeking professional help

It's important to stress that there is no 'one size fits all' solution when it comes to binge eating disorder. If you are struggling to overcome binge eating on your own, it may be helpful to seek professional help. A therapist or dietitian can provide you with personalized strategies and support to help you reach your goals. If you are seeking professional help, it is important to check that the professional has appropriate training and experience in working with eating disorders.

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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