Can’t Stop Eating? The Psychology Behind Binge Eating

Everyone has witnessed the aftermath of a binge. Whether the substance was alcohol, food, or shopping, binging happens to the best of us, and in retrospect, it’s hard not to feel guilty and ashamed. With pressures on physical appearance and a heavy dose of stress, binge eating is one behavior that more and more people are dealing with either regularly or sporadically. Like anorexia and bulimia, binge-eating disorder is an eating disorder that impacts a person’s physical health and is often caused by psychiatric issues dealing with low self-esteem, stress, or dysfunctional thoughts. However, while almost everyone has heard of anorexia and bulimia, binge eating is less known and yet, the most common of the three. Binge eating disorder impacts about 2% of men in the U.S. (3 million), compared to 3% to 5% of women (5 million), according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

You may be a regular binge eater who overindulges nightly or you may occasionally lose control and get a little too crazy with that bucket of ice cream. Regardless of your situation, help is available. There are organizations dedicated to informing and helping binge eaters, support groups, therapists, and helplines that understand the vicious cycle and know how to help. To get started, take a peek at how your emotions and certain situations can lead to this behavior. Curious? Read on.

Aiming for perfectionism

stressed out man at work

Perfectionism can set you up for failure. |

Everyone wants to be better, but some people make it their goal to constantly strive for perfection. If you are a perfectionist, you may wake up and make it your goal to run faster than yesterday, eat fewer calories, blow everyone away with your work presentation, and surprise your partner with the most delicious homemade meal. It’s natural to want to be great at what you do, but perfectionists set absurdly high standards for themselves and therefore set themselves up for failure. Maybe your business presentation flopped, you cheated on your diet, or you forgot your partner’s birthday.

Whatever the case may be, when things go wrong, perfectionists sometimes inflict self-harm as punishment for not living up to their expectations. Enter binge eating. Binge eating is a way to escape feelings of failure or sadness. The experience of eating, smelling, chewing, and tasting is immediate and visceral. While the long-term impact is full of guilt and shame (leading to the cycle of overeating), in the moment eating has the power to seemingly banish a perfectionist’s troubles.

Counteracting a mental disorder

man binge eating a hamburger

Many people who binge eat have the tendencies of a perfectionist. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Depression is heavily linked to binge eating. Binge eating provides a way to manage and release unpleasant emotions like sadness, loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Food can temporarily make these feelings go away, leading people who are struggling with a mental disorder like depression to use food as a way to self-medicate. The relief is temporary and guilt quickly takes over, but that moment of instant relief can create a habit in people who are dealing with depression or other mental disorders. Many binge eaters have poor impulse control, trouble managing and expressing their feelings, and feelings of body dissatisfaction and poor self-esteem.

Filling the void

heavy weight man eating junk food

Binge eating can help some deal with emotional pain. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

For some, binge eating may be a coping strategy to deal with emotional pain. It can be a way for people to deal with a physical loss or more commonly, an emotional or intangible loss that impacts a person’s psyche. For some binge eaters, the habit is formed out of a lack of belonging, love, or being known and understood by those around them. This can go back to childhood feelings of abandonment, neglect, or rejection by a child’s parents or caregivers. That loss of love and security can lead to self-blame and hatred, which is where eating disorders can come into play. That missing attachment between child and caregiver can be substituted by a deep attachment to food in an unhealthy manner.

The reward cycle

person eating fried foods

Food helps some people deal with stress. |

Many overindulge in food because in the moment, it feels great. The brain releases dopamine, the “feel good” chemical in the brain, when you eat fat and sugar. As the brain secretes dopamine during food binges, food can become a physical addiction as you start to crave that rush. To get this high, food is often used as a reward. Particularly when paired with stress and anxiety, people will seek out rewards based on behavior and often these rewards are in the form of food. Food can be used to medicate after a particularly bad day. Thoughts like, “I deserve it. I’ve had a rough day” may enter the mind, and people may seek out their comfort foods as a way to attempt to mend and repair themselves after a stress-filled day.

Sociocultural pressure

Muscular man drinking a protein shake

Social pressure to look a certain way can cause binge eating to occur. |

Binge eating can also stem from social and cultural pressures to look a certain way. Binge eaters can be perfectionists who strive to eat less and exercise more in an effort to obtain society’s idea of a perfect body. They may eat cleanly and minimally all day only to experience a loss of control that leads to eating large quantities of food in a short period of time. Once the binge is over, binge eaters experience shame, distress, and guilt, which often leads them to resolve to eat even less the next day as punishment for their overindulgence. The cycle begins again the next day as the pressure takes over and binge eating occurs again.