Patterns of Overeating in Women

When one portion isn’t enough and you can’t stop at three, there may be something deeper than hunger at play for women.

Many articles have been written about women and eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, but little has been written about women and emotional eating, also known as binge eating. Everyone overeats from time to time: taking an extra helping at holiday dinners or overeating during periods of high stress, for example, when coping with work related problems or relationship and family issues. However, when overeating becomes a regular and uncontrollable pattern of behavior, it is usually considered an eating disorder.

Compulsive overeating, commonly called binge eating, is characterized by compulsively overeating while feeling out of control and powerless to stop the behavior. Binge eaters use food to cope with stress and to regulate negative emotions. Binge eaters are rarely hungry when they begin to eat, they continue to eat long after they are full, and they eat so quickly that they do not realize what they are actually eating or tasting. A typical binge eating episode can last up to two hours, however some individuals binge on and off all day long. The disorder is more common than bulimia and anorexia and affects a significant number of women. The key features of binge eating are as follows:

Frequent episodes of uncontrollable eating.
Feelings of guilt, distress or upset during and after eating.
No attempts are made to “undo” the consequences of overeating by vomiting, fasting, or over-exercising.


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Women suffering from emotional overeating or binge eating experience feelings of guilt, shame, disgust and depression. They excessively worry about their weight and emotionally berate themselves for their lack of self-control. Consequently, many binge eaters are embarrassed and ashamed by their eating habits and often hide their symptoms and eat in secret. 

There are many causes that contribute to compulsive overeating. Biological abnormalities, such low levels of the brain chemical serotonin and abnormalities in the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls appetite) by not sending out correct messages regarding hunger and appetite. Social pressures to be thin, the use of food by parents to comfort or punish their children, frequent critical comments by parents about their child’s bodies and weight, and emotional and sexual abuse all contribute to this disorder. Additionally, depression and binge eating are strongly associated and clinical depression is usually a concurrent disorder.

Overcoming compulsive overeating can be very difficult because, unlike other addictions, food is necessary for survival. Treatment for this eating disorder focuses on helping one develop a healthier relationship with food; a relationship that is based on meeting nutritional demands rather than emotional needs. Compulsive overeating can be successfully treated in therapy by working on developing strategies to fight the compulsion to binge, learn healthy eating habits, and develop effective stress-reducing techniques.

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A combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy is thought to be the most effective treatment approach. Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on the dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors associated with binge eating and involves education about nutrition, healthy weight loss, and stress-reducing techniques. Interpersonal psychotherapy examines the interpersonal issues that contribute to compulsive overeating. Understanding the underlying issues driving the binge eating behavior will help decrease the compulsion to overeat as well as decreasing the feelings of powerlessness associated with this disorder.

Below are some helpful tips for binge-eaters:

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1. Keep a food journal. Write down everything you eat in a single day. This should help you to become more aware of what you actually eat.

2. When you have binge-eating episodes, record in your food journal what you were doing and how you were feeling before and after each episode. This will help make you aware of the specific emotions and situations that trigger your emotional eating episodes.

3. Consider seeking professional help or joining a support group in order to help you develop the necessary emotional insight and skills needed for successful recovery.

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