2020 has been a stressful year, and it’s not over yet, which may have you reaching for your favorite comfort food. A few Chips Ahoy every now and again is normal, but when we eat too much fatty, sugary fare, we enter binge eating territory.
It’s a vicious cycle: depressed or stressed…binge eat. Binge eat…even more depressed and stressed!
What came first: the depression or the binge eating?
The order doesn’t matter, but the root cause does. Because it’s not until we can identify why we overeat that we can break out of the binge-eating cycle.
We’ll get into techniques for busting out of a binge-eating pattern, but first, let’s figure out what happens in our bodies and brains when we overeat again and again.
High-carb, fatty, and sugary foods activate the reward center of your brain, triggering a cascade of feel-good hormones, hence the name comfort foods. Eating them really does make you feel good.
Especially when stressed. Stress elevates your cortisol levels, which changes your brain chemistry, knocking the chemicals that regulate appetite, motivation, sleep, and mood out of whack. Your body craves comfort food to try to help balance these hormones.
Highly refined, sugary foods raise blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as hormones that help us feel full and happy.
And the comfort food works…for a little while.
But it also increases cortisol and epinephrine, which triggers further episodes of overeating.
The more we binge eat fatty, high-carb, and sugary foods, the more the body adapts. Hunger signals become less sensitive. Studies show that regularly eating high-sugar foods lowers activity in the brain’s anorexigenic oxytocin system, which tells you when you’re hungry and when you’re satisfied!
To get that same sugar high, we need to eat even more food.
And when binge eating becomes a regular activity, it can both cause and exacerbate depression. Being out of control never feels good. And after an episode of binge eating, you might feel guilty or disgusted with yourself. This only increases feelings of stress and depression, which can lead to more episodes of overeating.
And on the cycle continues.
But there are ways to break it!
If you’ve found yourself more stressed out than normal and succumbing to compulsive overeating, then we have some suggestions for breaking out of that cycle.
1. Track it. What triggers a binge-eating episode? Do you tend to overeat at a certain time of the day? Do certain activities cause you to nosh on comfort foods? Is it in reaction to a particular type of stress?
Understanding the motivation behind your overeating can help you stop it before it takes hold.
For instance, if you know that watching Netflix late at night typically ends in you overeating, then either limit your screen time and grab a novel, or have some healthy, low-calorie snacks on hand.
2. Get rid of temptation. You won’t be able to reach for your comfort foods if they’re not there! Note your weaknesses and keep them out of your pantry! Stock up with well-balanced snacks to satisfy your urge to chew.
3. Hold off on the fad diet. If you’re consistently overeating then your relationship with food and your body is not solid enough to engage in the mental or physical demands of a restrictive diet. Wait until you’ve got the binge eating under control and have formed healthier eating habits. Then you can try your hand at an effective diet such as the keto diet or intermittent fasting.
4. Don’t trade one addiction for another. Overeating is a coping strategy. Transferring that onto another maladaptive coping strategy, such as excessively exercising or smoking, leads to an entirely new set of health issues. Strive for balance.
Binge eating disorder is a serious mental illness that affects approximately 3.5% of women and 2% of men. The American Psychological Association defines binge eating as eating excessively at least one time a week for at least 3 months.
You may be suffering from binge eating disorder if you have three or more of the following symptoms:
1. You eat a lot of food quickly.
2. You eat past the point of comfort.
3. You keep eating even when you are uncomfortably full.
4. You eat alone because you don’t want others to know.
5. After an episode, you feel depressed, guilty, or ashamed of yourself.
If you think you might have binge eating disorder, we encourage you to seek the assistance of a licensed nutritionist or mental health professional who can help you discover the underlying issue and cultivate a healthier relationship with food and your body.
A therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, or talk therapy, can help you identify triggers and develop new coping strategies and a nutritionist can help you approach your diet in a more balanced way.