Think back to the last time you ate so much you felt like you were going to explode. How did you feel afterward? You might have felt some amount of satisfaction, but odds are that most of your feelings were guilt and regret. Some of us reach a point of fullness long before we stop eating, yet continue to binge on greasy, sugary, unhealthy foods. This not only creates the potential for an unwanted caloric surplus in the body (leading to fat gain), but also promotes other negative effects on the body that can, if occurring often enough, lead to issues like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a myriad of others.
Binge eating disorder (BED), as defined by the National Eating Disorder Association, is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort), accompanied by a feeling of a loss of control during the binge, and then experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards. Binge eating disorder is a severe and life-threatening, but treatable eating disorder. Common long-term effects of BED include functional impairment, suicide risk and a high frequency of co-occurring psychiatric disorders.
Why does this happen?
It turns out that although will power plays a role in this to some extent, there is so much more going on than we realize. Binge eating is associated with the neurosecretion of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that plays a role in reward circuits. For example, when a person is exposed to a pleasurable stimulus, dopamine is released, making the person “feel good.” Drugs like cocaine and amphetamines cause large releases of brain dopamine. When the brain of a binge eater is compared to the brain of a non-binge eater, the binge eater will release more dopamine in response to food (or even the smell of food) than the non-binge eater. In essence, food functions as a drug in the brain of a binge eater.
There’s also another class of chemicals called endorphins that are released in response to the consumption of fatty, sugary foods. Endorphin release in the brain is associated with a pleasurable experience. Heroin and narcotic pain medications simulate endorphin release. Thus, food acts like a drug in this context as well.
So, what can you do about it?
1. Avoid the vicious caloric cycle of restriction and overcompensation AT ALL COSTS
Over prolonged periods of time spent restricting calories, the body goes into what many would call a “mini-starvation mode”. In my experience, this can occur in as little as 4 to 5 hours of fasting (not eating), though I’m sure that some might even experience this in as little as 2 to 3 hours. The body’s natural physiological response to this is to raise ghrelin (the hunger hormone) levels in the body, increasing appetite in an attempt to remind and convince you to eat.
The problem with this is that, more often than not, humans will overcompensate by eating far too much food than what was necessary in the first place, putting them in a worse position than when they started, especially compared to if they would’ve simply eaten less calories spread out over that duration of time. Many people believe that to fight overeating, one can just eat drastically less food. However, our bodies have some pretty amazing biological machinery in place to make sure we never starve to death. Of course this is a great primal mechanism, one that’s kept us alive for millennia (hunger is what drove hunters to hunt, fishermen to fish, etc.) However, this mechanism also makes for a much more complicated process as far as fighting the compulsion to overeat goes.
2. Spread out your daily food intake for smaller portions, but more frequent meals.
Common mythology in the health and fitness world will often tell you that you have to eat 5-6 smaller portion meals every day to lose fat, and this is 100% FALSE. Fat loss inevitably depends on energy balance (i.e. calories in vs. calories out), so you can lose weight just as quickly eating only 1 huge meal per day, so long as that meal contains the same amount of total calories as the 5-6 smaller portion meals. BUT, just because eating 1 meal per day can cause the same amount of weight loss, doesn’t mean it’s as effective for the general population.
In fact, the reason that 5-6 smaller portion meals each day seems to prevail statistically is simply due to the constant suppressing of your appetite with frequent meals throughout the day. Not only that, but to build off of point #1, there’s also less time between meals (which can be seen as mini periods of caloric restriction), reducing the risk of overcompensation. That being said, if you struggle to fight hunger throughout the day, try to separate your meals into smaller portions, just make sure to proportionately increase your number of meals per day, as well as the frequency with which you eat.
3. Snack on healthy foods throughout the day to suppress your appetite
Each time you eat, your brain sends out signal to your body (via the hormone “ghrelin”) that you’ve received the nourishment and energy that your body requires to continue to function properly. Snacking on healthy foods throughout the day can send more frequent signals, allowing you to feel fuller AND less hungry (which are actually not synonymous believe it or not). Frequently suppressing your appetite with small quantities of healthy snacks can continue to remind your brain that it isn’t undergoing any prolonged time periods of caloric restriction, which will ultimately decrease the likelihood of a food binge later on in the day. Below is a small list of some healthy snack ideas that are relatively low calorie, and fairly filling.
✓ Dried Fruits
✓ Unsalted (or low sodium) Nuts
✓ Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
✓ Fresh Fruits
✓ Frozen Fruit Bars
✓ Greek Yogurt
✓ Sugar-Free Pudding or Jell-O
✓ Whole Wheat Crackers
✓ Peanut Butter
✓ Dry (low sugar) Cereal
4. Get enough sleep
Something that might help (and certainly won’t hurt) is to get enough sleep! In a study of 12 young men, sleep deprivation was associated with an increase in ghrelin levels, appetite, and hunger compared with when they slept 10 hours a night. There are tons and tons of benefits of getting sufficient amounts of sleep every night, but this is another to add to the list.
5. Avoid multitasking while eating
Think about the times you go to the movie theater and get a massive bucket of popcorn. Often enough, you’re so distracted by the movie that you forget you’re even eating in the first place. By the end of the movie, you wonder where all of the popcorn went, and you’re still left feeling hungry. Passive or distracted eating can lead to an undesired caloric surplus, which is the trigger for weight gain.
Take Home Message
One final piece of advice for those struggling with compulsive eating would be to begin trying to view food as a “fuel for living” rather than associating its taste with different emotions and states of mind. You know how you never want to name an animal you’re about to kill, because it makes things harder once you become emotionally invested? Yep, been there before (R.I.P. Bubbles). This idea kind of applies to food as well. We’re conditioned to associate food with feelings of pleasure, comfort, reward, as well as to alleviate sadness, boredom, loneliness, etc. Sometimes altering the way you view food will begin to disconnect some of the neural links generated over the years between food and emotions. The more you can emotionally disconnect the bridge between the two, the easier it’ll be to combat overeating.
From the moment of our birth, we’re classically conditioned to associate food with nourishment, happiness, and energy. By human nature, though, we often struggle to identify our limits of satiety and, as a result, we continue to eat beyond the energetic demands of our bodies. While compulsive eating is no doubt a cause for concern, it is by no means untreatable. There are a great number of steps that you alone can take to begin your battle against overeating. After reading this article, my hope is that you’ll begin to understand that a binge eating disorder goes far beyond just a simple matter of will power and discipline. It’s a complex psychological and physiological phenomenon that can’t be resolved just by simply “deciding to eat less” for 99% of people. If you’re one of the MANY people out there struggling with compulsive overeating, the first thing you need to know is that you’re not alone. There are tons of communities and support groups that you can become a part of, to interact with like-minded people who will support and encourage you as you face challenges together. It’s going to take a lot of commitment and hard work, but I guarantee nobody’s ever regretted making a change like that in their life.
Remember, FAT LASTS LONGER THAN FLAVOR.