Why We Overeat~The Psychology of Binge Eating


Ever ask yourself why you overeat? Despite repeated attempts to live a healthy lifestyle and treat your body well–do you find eating a moderate, balanced diet continues to be an ongoing struggle?

Can you remember the last time you ate to the point you were stuffed?

How did you feel afterwards? Ashamed? Guilty?

If this sounds familiar–don’t worry, you are in good company.

It is no secret that many Americans are overweight and obesity is an ongoing epidemic.

Even for people who are not overweight or obese, they may still struggle with binge eating.

If you are someone who overindulges occasionally–that is completely normal.

Who among us has not pigged-out from time to time? We all pile of the stuffing on Thanksgiving or eat that extra piece of cake on our birthday.

The problem is when overeating because our norm and not the anomaly.


Clients often tell me, “I eat when I am hungry, I eat when I am sad, I love to eat.”

What that is telling me is more is going on here than just a person who eats to satisfy hunger and be healthy.

With chronic binge eaters there are three characteristics usually shared:

1)A hard time resisting favorite foods (a lost of control)

2)A hard time stopping once eating begins (issue with satiation)

3)A preoccupation with food (often an obsession)

For some people reading this, you can’t even begin to relate to what I am saying at all. People who do not struggle with binge eating would not relate to these three characteristics. But for the many of us who struggle with overeating–this probably hits close to home. We yo-yo diet and struggle with keeping the pounds off. And it feels like it is beyond our control.


Where does this power that food has over us come from? 

1)Taste (the memory of your favorite food)

2)Anticipation of the taste

3)Our brains get cued by external stimuli (example you always go on a yearly  vacation to the beach and eat salt water taffy–the smell of the ocean alone triggers the craving)

4)Our brain’s amygdala is activated and wants us to get whatever it is we are craving (the brain stays active until we are stuffed).

A lot of this process is unconscious.

Part of the epidemic of obesity is arising from the growing addiction to food. 

We overeat fatty, sugary, salty foods because it changes how we feel.

As humans we respond to salient stimuli (which can be alcohol, tobacco, sex).

Food is most socially acceptable as an addiction (to be addicted to fat, sugar, salt).

For example, the norm for you may be to go out on a Friday night with your family to Applebees. You are used to ordering buffalo wings as one of the half-priced appetizers (a fatty food, that is fried in more fat, with red sauce, to be dipped in a white creamy sauce ie fat on fat on fat on sugar and salt with a LITTLE protein).

This type of food triggers the reward center in our brain.

A large part of the binge eating epidemic in our country is arising from our culture–portions have gotten out of control, the additives put in our food cause us to grow addicted, and there is a neurobiology to food addiction. Then factor in the cheapest food tends to be the unhealthiest and it is easy to understand this growing health crisis our nation is facing.

Even salads have become vehicles for delivering fat—we load them with bacon, cheese, croutons, dressing, and it is easily over 1,500 calories!

I know I love my salad covered in dressing with little mozzarella balls!

The reality is as a society we eat too much. We don’t know how to stop. Often how we socialize is centered around food.

Food is entertainment and it in our culture it has become socially acceptable to eat at any time.

Our psychology is a driving force behind our growing waistlines. Many of us deal with negative emotions by turning to food for comfort. We trade in our health for the momentary bliss that comes from indulging in sugar, fat, and salt. We get a spike of dopamine and feel a sense of euphoria. The worst part is every time we indulge we strengthen our neurocircuits to DO IT AGAIN.

On the day-to-day, we get cued, our brain is aroused by the salient stimuli, we get a reward by eating whatever IT is we are craving, and we release all the feel good chemicals in our brain that cause us to overeat again— more and more frequently!

If you are lucky, you are less receptive to dopamine-in a word dopamine makes us want (and crave). It is possible, you don’t get the dopamine surge that reinforces many people’s drive to overeat. Some people with the luck of genetics are less impulsive to this urge in general (not me, but that is what I researched. Lucky ducks).

This is a habit that often starts in childhood. Our parents use food to comfort us, reward us, and bribe us.

Clean your room and we can go get ice cream.

If you win this game, let’s go get pizza!

Even at an early age, we can see food is used as the carrot and stick to motivate us. A lot of our adult struggles with overeating stem from childhood experience and pass memories.

When we are craving something–the memory of the last time we had it and ENJOYED it floods our mind. These memories fuel our desire to eat the food and anticipate the reward we will experience from indulging in it.

Our psychological state impacts our relationship with food.

We overeat because we are often emotionally hungry.

Lonely, depressed, bored, overwhelmed, sad, angry, stressed, the list goes on and on.

Many brain neurotransmitters affect our mood and appetite. The more we indulge in overeating the worst the cycle gets.

We overeat because of external cues–watching tv, socializing, someone’s birthday at work, the vending machine at the office–whatever triggers the urge.

As a society, we are also mindless eaters. How often in life is our attention drawn somewhere else? Many of us eat in front of the tv or with our cell phone in hand or in our car as we speed to our next appointment.

In our culture, many of us are constantly going on and off diets. Dieting isn’t the solution. A change in lifestyle is the solution.

We need to shift seeing food as a reward.

Learning new ways to relieve stress is key-cortisol, the stress hormone that floods most of us on the daily, triggers an increase in appetite. Mitigating our stress is pivotal to changing our relationship with food. Modern day society with its fast paced lifestyle has resulted in elevated levels of cortisol among us all.  Being chronically stressed leaves us craving carbs and fats–particularly in the late day and evenings.

I know evening eating is a weakness of mine. Many of us eat from evening to bedtime–after all the stress from the day, the kids are in bed, food will be a nice, little reward–making us feel great for a few minutes (indulging in fatty, sugary foods activate the opioid circuitry). You feel great for a couple of minutes but then feel horrible after for breaking your healthy diet.

To overcome our struggles with overeating we need to identify our stressors. We need to replace bad habits with realistic alternatives–instead of downing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s find a pragmatic solution for how to deal with stress.

If you hate to exercise, replacing food with a walk will not work. Because you won’t want to do it. It will not be a viable replacement to binge eating. What you need to figure out are non-food ways to cope with stress.

It will be different things for all of us.

You need to new neurocircuitry to successfully stop overeating.

What circuits are we dealing with here? The learning, motivation, memory,and habit circuits.

When you are emotionally connected to yourself, you find you are less likely to feel the urge to escape through food.

How do you change your food addiction?
1)Having structure helps. Create a routine around eating. Plan out what you will eat during the day. Leaving it up to endless options=recipe for disaster.

2)We, as a society, need to change the social perception of overeating. Look at smoking–it use to be considered cool until we had what psychologists call a “critical perspective shift” where we as a society started to see tobacco as deadly and disgusting.
This perspective shift towards food has already started–at least as far as it relates to process foods and GMOs. Yet we can live without nicotine, but we cannot live without food.  Therefore it is a different type of shift we need here.

You need to change how you look and respond to food.


3)We need to work on balance. Look at 2-year-old. If they eat more at lunch, they eat less at dinner. They balance it out. Adults tend NOT to balance their meals (or days or lives for that matter).

Until we change how we look at food and figure out a balance in our lives, we will continue to struggle.


To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader in New Jersey):



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