Why Can’t I Stop Eating? Binge Eating, Compulsive Eating, and How to Help

Many eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED), are marked by episodes of compulsive eating or eating large amounts of food even when not feeling hungry or already feeling satisfied.

Author | Danielle Mauldin
Reviewed By | Bridget Clerkin

7 sources cited

Whether driven by emotional eating, used as a maladaptive coping mechanism, or caused by other factors, these episodes can be uncomfortable and, if repeated long enough, potentially dangerous.

But with the proper kind of help and attention, it is possible for people to overcome these disordered eating patterns and address any negative emotions that may be perpetuating their condition.

What is Binge Eating?

Binge eating, compulsive eating, and compulsive overeating are often used as interchangeable terms. They all describe the same basic set of behaviors involved in eating large quantities of food in a relatively short period of time.

Medically, the definition of binge eating is somewhat loose. Rather than identifying a specific amount of food that constitutes a binge, it describes a binge eating episode as eating an amount of food that is “larger than normal” over a specific period of time. [1]

Generally, doctors, therapists, and researchers use a two-hour window to assess food consumption. And the amount of food that is considered “normal” or “excessive” to eat during this time is based on a number of factors, including someone’s specific metabolic and physiological concerns.

It’s also possible for someone to experience occasional binge eating episodes without having a related eating disorder. But if someone partakes in a binge eating cycle at least once a week, over a period of three months or more, they meet the qualifications for binge eating disorder. [1]

What Are Binge Eating Episodes Like?

Eating a large amount of food in a short period of time is not necessarily an uncommon experience. Many holidays, celebrations, and other occasions invite participants to indulge in this type of feast-like activity.

But binge eating episodes are often marked by additional characteristics that make them stand out from these occasions, including: [2]

  • The loss of a sense of control over how much or what is eaten
  • Eating rapidly
  • Eating to the point of discomfort
  • Eating when not feeling physically hungry
  • Feelings of depression, guilt, or shame following a binge eating episode

Many people who compulsively overeat also tend to engage in these behaviors privately. They may eat small amounts of food in public but binge when they’re alone or during times of the day when others are asleep or not around.

Causes of Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating

There are a number of factors that can contribute to compulsive eating.

In many cases, someone’s relationship with food comes into play. Eating is frequently used as a maladaptive coping mechanism, with people learning, sometimes from an early age, to associate food with a sense of comfort. In these cases, someone may begin relying on food to help them deal with stress, anxiety, depression, or other unpleasant emotions, to the point where they rewire their hunger cues. [2]

Aspects of binge eating disorder have also been found to be genetic, with the mental health condition running in families. [3] Those with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are thought to have a higher risk factor for overeating, possibly due to the hyper-focus these conditions place on the subjects of food, diet, and eating. [3]

Indeed, diet culture, in general, has also been tied to the tendency to overeat. Studies have found that restrictive eating behaviors tend to lead to more frequent incidents of overeating. [4] The inherent comparisons and unrealistic standards perpetuated by diet culture can also encourage the kind of negative self-talk, poor body image, and low self-esteem that drive many binge eating episodes. [2]

Binge Eating Risk Factors

Many people believe that binge eating simply represents a lack of self-control or something people are calling “food addiction,” but that’s not the case. Aside from the above triggers, there have been a number of identified risk factors for binge eating behavior, including: [1]

  • Substance use disorder or other substance use issues
  • A history of trauma or abuse
  • High levels of perfectionism

Binge eating disorder also frequently co-occurs with other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. [1]

Certain foods are also thought to trigger binge eating episodes more, including unhealthy snacks that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. [6]

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Dangers of Binge Eating

When continued over a long enough period of time, binge eating can have a number of impacts on someone’s mental and physical health. Some issues that may develop over time include: [1]

  • Type 2 diabetes or increased blood sugar
  • Asthma
  • Heart disease or heart failure
  • Hypertension
  • Menstrual dysfunction
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Increased risk of certain cancers

Additionally, many people who struggle with overeating will attempt to compensate with unhealthy behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, fasting, or overexercising.

These behaviors bring a host of their own potential complications to the mix, including: [5]

Unfortunately, the longer someone struggles with overeating, the more likely they are to experience these unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects. That’s why it’s so important to seek out help.

Finding Help for Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating

Whether or not binge eating behavior is associated with a medically-defined disorder, it’s possible for someone to find help and stop overeating. Some of the most common types of treatment for these behaviors include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Among the most effective forms of psychotherapy for treating mental health issues, CBT works by helping individuals understand how thoughts underpin behaviors. Patients then learn ways to restructure negative or distorted thoughts so they are more productive and conducive to mental and physical health.
  • Medication: While medication is generally considered a secondary form of therapy, some people benefit from its effects, and several types of medication have been approved to help treat the symptoms of binge eating disorder.
  • Group and family counseling: Counseling in a group environment can increase the perception and experience of social support, the lack of which is a risk factor for many eating disorders. Family therapy can address issues like familial trauma or abuse that can contribute to the manifestation of an eating disorder. 
  • Nutrition counseling: A nutritionist can help provide evidence-based guidance on what constitutes healthy eating behaviors and how to manage symptoms like excessive cravings on a long-term basis.

If you or a loved one are struggling with binge eating, it’s important to seek out help.

Your therapist, primary care physician, or other trusted medical professional can help point you in the direction of treatment or a reliable program. If you’d prefer to ask for help anonymously, a number of eating disorder and mental health hotlines can offer additional information and resources.

Seeking help for disordered eating behaviors may feel scary, but it can be the first step toward a healthier and happier future.

Within Health offers personalized remote eating disorder treatment backed by years of experience.

Within’s IOP and PHP programs offer meal kit deliveries, a numberless scale, a convenient app to attend therapy sessions and view your schedule, and so much more.

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  1. Iqbal A, Rehman A. (2022, October 31). Binge Eating Disorder. National Library of Medicine. Accessed April 2023.
  2. Understanding Compulsive Overeating. University of Rochester Medical Center. Accessed April 2023.
  3. Definition & Facts for Binge Eating Disorder. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Accessed April 2023. 
  4. Elran-Barak R, Sztainer M, Goldschmidt AB, Crow SJ, Peterson CB, Hill LL, Crosby RD, Powers P, Mitchell JE, & Le Grange D. (2015). Dietary Restriction Behaviors and Binge Eating in Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder: Trans-diagnostic Examination of the Restraint Model. Eating Behaviors; 18:192–196.
  5. Bulimia Nervosa. (2022). National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed April 2023. 
  6. Gearhardt AN, White MA, & Potenza MN. (2011). Binge eating disorder and food addiction. Current Drug Abuse Reviews; 4(3):201–207.
  7. Treatment – Binge eating disorder. United Kingdom National Health Service. Accessed April 2023.

Last Update | 04 - 27 - 2023

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