Ask Alistair – Overeating

Dear Alistair, I have struggled with what I think is termed “compulsive overeating”. I have been too ashamed to seek professional help and wonder if you could throw some light on what might cause me and others to engage in this self-destructive behaviour.

As with most people suffering with this eating disorder you are probably overweight and are aware that your eating habits are abnormal. And you are probably quite aware that you are at risk for a heart attack, high blood-pressure and cholesterol, kidney disease and/or failure, arthritis and bone deterioration, and stroke. And yet knowing all of the above probably does not make it any easier for you to stop this behaviour. So what are some of the reasons that might play a role in compulsive overeating?

Firstly, we eat for many reasons, including hunger and appetite, but also to celebrate, to be social and to relieve boredom. It is likely that these and some of the following factors all play a role.
Hunger – The physical sensation that you need to eat. Hormones initiate and end eating, and thus play a major role in determining when we eat. These hormones include ghrelin, which seems to trigger hunger, and leptin, which reduces it. The physical sensation of hunger, or its absence, is tied to these hormones. The time of day, timing of meals, emotions such as stress or contentment, and even the types of foods you eat all affect these hormones.

Appetite – The desire to eat. Problems with appetite regulation can be mild and contribute to gradual changes in weight, or they can be severe. Appetite problems may be caused by disease, medications and psychological / emotional issues.

Satiety – The condition of physically feeling full. Feeling full turns off hunger and appetite. You can feel fuller longer by eating solids over liquids, not skipping meals, choosing high-volume and low-calorie foods (vegetables and fruit), and substituting whole grains for refined grain products.

“Mindless” eating – Eating in response to factors other than those above. This is a term that is often used for all of the other reasons that individuals eat and engage in compulsive overeating.
One of these other reasons includes having what might be termed a (psychological) “addiction” to food, using food and eating as a way to hide from or avoid unpleasant emotions, to fill a void one feels inside, and/or to cope with daily stresses and problems in one’s life, i.e. to self-soothe.

Another related reason for compulsive overeating may be to “hide” behind one’s physical appearance, using it as a “safety barrier” between oneself and society (common in survivors of sexual abuse). Such individuals often feel guilty for not being “good enough,” shame for being overweight, and generally have a low self-esteem. They use food and eating to cope with these difficult feelings, which generally leads into the cycle of feeling them ever more intensely and trying to find a way to cope again.
It might be wise to pay your GP a visit in order to rule out possible physiological causes… and then take it from there.

Ask Alistair