“Why can’t I stop eating?”
You might be asking this question if you can’t stop eating, even when you know it’s hurting your health!
There are many reasons why people can’t seem to stop themselves from bingeing on food.
For me, I always knew that my out-of-control eating was a way to seek comfort in response to stress and dieting. But, just because I knew I was ‘comfort eating’, that didn’t really help me to understand why.
Only after years of mindful inquiry, therapy training, and self-study did I come to learn why. Why sometimes I wouldn’t be able to stop eating while other times I was just fine.
This blog post will discuss some of the potential causes for this problem. We’ll discuss psychological, emotional and other mental reasons that contribute to overeating.
1 – I’m Bored
Boredom is a very common reason why people keep on eating despite their best efforts. But why?
Boredom is not a feeling. Boredom is the LACK of a feeling. But we humans crave sensation. We have a difficult time with nothing.
Thus, we cannot tolerate boredom and, importantly, boredom snowballs into other negative emotions.
And it’s these negative emotions which cause us to keep on eating to make these negative feelings go away!
Boredom Gets Worse
Boredom can lead to a feeling of loneliness and low self-worth, which can in turn cause depression.
When someone is depressed, they’ll often eat more than usual because it’s the only thing that gives them any pleasure.
I’m sure you can picture someone who gets bored and scrolls through social media. In their boredom they now see pictures of every other person’s ‘amazing’ life!
This lends to comparison thinking where you think, “Here I am sitting on the couch and my life isn’t that great. Meanwhile my Facebook friends are busy doing awesome things.“
Do you see how boredom can quickly turn into loneliness?
Also, many people don’t allow themselves to feel lonely, but instead they feel angry or stressed.
It’s like an avalanche that starts with one small snowflake. Then another snowflake piles on. Momentum is building.
Every year people are buried alive and die because avalanches take them by surprise. Your emotions are no different.
You can be calm and collected. But then one thing goes wrong and sets off a chain reaction.
Key Takeaway: Negative emotions can cause a chain of reaction where worse negative emotions are created.
2 – It’s A Control Thing
When you cannot stop eating then there must be a lack of control.
You want to stop binge eating, but you cannot stop yourself though you ‘know you shouldn’t’. You want to be in control, but you aren’t.
Think about all those negative emotions that have now become an avalanche.
- Loneliness turned into low self-esteem
- Low self-esteem turns into stress thinking, such as that you can’t manage situations
- Stress thinking like this can turn into a need for perfection
- The need to be perfect can result in you being better in some ways, but you still might think you are not as good as someone else. Or you might not improve as much as you want. This is when people often feel shame and guilt.
Negative emotions are like a pot of boiling water.
Imagine you are boiling pasta in a pot of water for your family.
Soon the hot water is starting to bubble over! You don’t want to make a mess so you press the lid of the pot down firmly.
But you aren’t able to turn off the heat (aka, negative emotions) and things just get hotter and hotter. The water gets more bubbly and hot!
You are white knuckling and using all your willpower to hold the lid down. But eventually the top of the pot shoots off and you burn yourself (overeat, binge, can’t stop eating, etc).
In this analogy, releasing the heat is equal to binge eating.
Why Overeating Cools You Down
I know this might sound crazy, but a part of you loves to overeat, binge and gorge yourself.
Just think about all the temporary benefits you get when you overeat:
- Your anxieties are calmed
- You can forget about your weight loss problems
- Food can make you feel loved and accepted
- Food can make you feel full and stable
All these things provide a temporary relief from negative feelings. Of course these uncomfortable feelings will be experienced again after overeating ends.
Every time we eat to numb out, it becomes harder in the future to resist turning off bad feelings by eating! It’s like scratching an itch that never goes away.
In fact, eating like this can create more suffering over time. Because it can lead to shame, guilt and self-loathing.
3 – It’s A Habit
Think back to when you first started binge eating.
Maybe it was yesterday or last week. Or longer …
Many people that work with me report binge eating for years as they seek weight loss but keep on self-sabotaging.
They scratch their heads but for the life of them they cannot figure out why they keep on eating! It doesn’t make any sense! Or does it?
I agree that overeating might not make logical sense. For example, when you ‘know’ that eating donuts is bad for your diabetes. But if you keep on eating, then this might not seem logical.
Why do I eat when I ‘know’ it’s bad for me?
Habits Work 99% Of The Time (Except 1% When You Can’t Stop Overeating!)
Habits are an automatic part of your brain. They make your emotional brain want to eat, even when your logical brain thinks the opposite!
99% of the time habits help us navigate life and conserve energy. But sometimes habits get screwed up and we have difficulty breaking them!
Let’s take the example of driving to work. Do you remember the first time you drove to work?
I remember my first time driving 40 minutes to Cielo House for Eating Disorder Treatment. I was nervous as heck!
Heck, I probably looked down at my Google maps probably every 30 seconds to make sure I didn’t take a wrong turn. I had to think really hard about where to turn.
By the time I got to work I was mentally exhausted! Fortunately, I now have the route memorized. It’s now a habit.
Let me tell you a little secret … shhh … sometimes when I get off late at night I can hardly remember driving back home!
My brain went into ‘autopilot’ mode…
There are many benefits to your brain going into autopilot mode. 99% of the time you don’t have to concentrate as hard and you save mental energy!
Here are just a few examples of how habits help you save mental energy!
- Brushing your teeth – you just put the toothbrush in your mouth and swing it around.
- Tying your shoes – you can do it with your eyes closed!
- Exercising – you can listen to a podcast or watch TV while working out. You don’t have to ‘think’ about the actual exercise.
- Going to the bathroom!
You can see how habits can be beneficial for saving mental energy, but they can also cause problems when you are trying to change something about yourself like trying to lose weight, or breaking an addiction…
Cue, Routine, Reward
Habits are broken into three parts. These three parts explain why you can’t stop eating certain foods.
The cue is more than one simple negative feeling.
The cue is the cascading avalanche of negative feelings that quickly becomes overwhelming and that actually triggers overeating.
These feelings become overwhelming to the point where you cannot ‘keep the lid’ on any longer.
The routine is the actual overeating of certain foods.
And then you get the temporary rewards we mentioned above.
What Causes a Person to Constantly Eat?
You might say, “Oh, well that makes sense if you are really stressed out or on a diet. But I overeat or binge throughout the day and it’s not even when I’m upset!”
Well, believe it or not, the same pattern is happening.
Let me explain using my own struggles with food. Then next time you eat, see if you can spot the same patterns!
At first I would overeat because I was wrestling and had to be at a certain weight. I would lose so much weight so fast (like in dieting) and be so hungry that after the matches I would binge.
This taught me that if I was hungry and feeling miserable, then I could overeat to feel better.
Overtime, my brain made this emotional link to food and comfort.
My brain was just trying to save energy. Instead of thinking and focusing on my problem, it could solve the problem quickly by overeating.
Soon, if I got a bad grade on a test or if I got rejected in some social situation, then my brain and stomach would start to crave food. Even if I wasn’t hungry like in my wrestling days!
This was just my brain going through the cue, routine, reward cycle. But instead of hunger being the cue to eat, negative emotions became the cue!
More time went by and soon smaller stressors were causing me to reach for the bag of chips or candy. Sometimes just thinking about having to study or go to school the next day (a very tiny stressor in comparison to starving or getting a bad grade) would have me hankering for a chocolate bar.
Do you see how my cravings for food developed over time?
The strangest thing was I often would eat a candy bar or most of it without even realizing it!
My eating had become automatic in response to even the tiniest stressors!
This is why you constantly eat all day long even though you ‘know’ you shouldn’t!
Your brain has developed habits that get triggered by tiny bits of stress.
You might not be aware you are stressed! But make no mistake, if you find yourself eating constantly then there is some underlying stress and your brain is trying to calm you down (decrease stress) by eating.
4 – I Don’t Know How to be Happy Without Binge Eating
True or false: all emotional eating is bad.
The correct answer is ‘false’. We all emotionally eat. Every single person on the planet eats for emotional reasons!
Here are some normal and perfectly good reasons to emotionally eat:
- Your best friend is in town and it makes the perfect excuse to get together
- You just got a raise and your co-workers want to celebrate!
- It’s your niece’s birthday and she asks you to eat cake with her!
There’s a saying in Intuitive Eating, “Food can be a friend, but the problem is when food is your only friend.”
Your Brain Will Make You Eat To Feel Like You Are Happy
Want to know what the hardest thing in the world is?
Try to stop binge eating food if nothing else brings you joy in life.
You’ll find this to be impossible.
If food is your only friend (and for many people food is their only friend) then you will continue to overeat because this is the only way your brain knows how to be happy.
This is why depression and binge eating go together so frequently!
Worse, when you are depressed, then things make you less happy!
So a normal walk doesn’t give you the same amount of ‘happy’ chemicals like dopamine as a person without depression would get.
This makes you more reliant on food!
5 – Eating Helps Me Avoid Dealing with What’s Really Going on in My Life
Let me speak a brutal truth.
I was depressed, anxious and miserable; lonely and afraid and purposeless.
I was in an existential crisis with no easy answers.
When I ate, I forgot about all these existential problems. And the strange thing was that I wasn’t even consciously worrying about my life purpose.
It’s more in hindsight that I now understand food not only temporarily reduced my stress …
But food also stopped me from facing a terrible truth:
I was behind my peers in development. They seemingly all had friends and great careers lined up whereas I was thinking about dropping out of college and was not happy!
Who wants to feel like they are getting left behind and that they will fail if they try to catch up? Nobody!
It’s a terrible feeling to confront and we humans will eat all day to avoid pondering the existential crisis that our life has become.
This is why you can’t stop eating. Because deep down you are trying to avoid reality.
This has less to do with stress and more about the meaning of your life and the quality of your relationships.
Can’t Stop Eating – Final Thoughts
It’s not easy to stop overeating, but it is possible.
We’ve outlined some important mindsets in this blog post that can help you take control of your eating habits and break the cycle once and for all.
If you’re struggling with how to best deal with food cravings or want more information on what triggers them, be sure to read my other article about why people develop unhealthy relationships with food.