What If I Can’t Stop Eating? 5 Things to Know if You Identify as an “Overeater”

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

Have you ever felt left out of conversations about not dieting because you don’t identify with having a “restriction” problem?

Have you ever wondered whether Intuitive Eating or similar approaches are suitable for you because you feel you need more structure, not less?

I get it: eating issues across the spectrum are usually lumped into two camps. Either you “under-eat” or have a restriction problem or you “eat too much” and have an over-eating problem, right? 

On the surface, it may appear that some people struggle to eat enough food while others struggle with eating “more than they need.” But the evidence actually suggests that all forms of disordered eating are restrictive.

Does this come as a total surprise to you? It might, especially if you’ve been told you “live to eat” and “love food too much.”

If you’ve grown up believing there’s no right, safe way to eat, conceptualizing binge eating or compulsive eating as a restriction problem can feel very new, very unfamiliar, and perhaps a little uncomfortable.

What if I can't stop eating? 5 things to know if you identify as an "overeater"

It doesn’t help that restrictive eating behaviours are idealized and celebrated in our culture. Other behaviours, like binge eating, emotional eating, and compulsive eating, are highly stigmatized. This is unfortunate because there’s no such thing as a “good” eating disorder and a “bad” eating disorder. All forms of disordered eating wreak havoc on our lives in different ways.

If you’re curious to learn a different take on “over-eating”, stay tuned because today I’m covering some of the biggest myths and misconceptions I hear about it:

  • But what if I’m not restricting food?: Eating all the things and still binge eating
  • What if nothing has worked? : Changing behaviours vs. Changing capacity
  • Don’t I just need a meal plan?: External vs Internal Structure
  • What if I “need to lose weight”?: Addressing primary vs. Secondary hungers
  • The inherent restriction in “over-eating,” “eating too much,” and “out of control”

But what if I’m not restricting food?: Eating all the things and still binge eating

This won’t come as news to any of you who’ve been following along for some time, but I define “restriction” very broadly. 

People usually think of restriction as simply “not eating enough food.” This is probably its most common usage. And this is totally valid! If you don’t eat enough food, you will set yourself up for deprivation-driven eating, or what we call binge eating or rebound eating. 

Imagine you’ve just emerged from the desert and you’re extremely thirsty. It will likely take a lot of water to quench your thirst, right? Or if you’ve been burning the midnight oil for the past few weeks and finally have the opportunity to sleep in and catch up on some much-needed zzz.

Our need for food works the same way. There’s a certain amount of energy we need to function and our systems will fight tooth and nail to make sure we’re taken care of. How brilliant. 

But food restriction can go far beyond simply not eating enough.

Deprivation isn’t just a lack of physical satisfaction, but about a lack of emotional and mental satisfaction. It’s totally possible for folks to eat enough but still struggle with binge eating if access to a variety of foods is limited out of a desire for weight control (or control over other things.) 

I’ve never seen a case of “over-eating” or binge eating where that wasn’t just a teensy bit of food restriction going on, whether the individual was aware of it or not (most people are not — which is part of why I do the work that I do.)

That said, even if you know restriction is the root of binge eating, it can be tough to see the ways we’re restricting on our own or to figure out what classifies as “restriction” and what falls under “body connection.”

What if nothing has worked? : Changing behaviours vs. Building capacity

Some people believe they’re simply “over-eaters” and have an over-eating problem because nothing has ever worked for them. 

I want you to know that there are a number of reasons why a product or service has not worked for you. Or maybe something worked temporarily but wasn’t ultimately sustainable. This is so incredibly painful and I’m so sorry if you’ve gone through something like this. When this happens, it can totally feel like something is inherently wrong with us and that our problem is un-solvable outside of using strong willpower or self-control. 

What I want to offer is this: there’s a tremendous difference between changing behaviours — “stop binge eating,” “stop eating past fullness” for example — and addressing issues at the root, or what I file under the umbrella of “building capacity.” 

Rather than focus on unwanted behaviours alone, I think it’s fundamental to address the deeper issues, such as internalized fatphobia, attachment style as it relates to food and the body, and your nervous system physiology. You don’t need to understand any of that mumbo jumbo I just spewed. The point I want to make is that you are a whole person — with stories, beliefs, and thoughts within you — that really matter when you’re trying to repair your relationship with food. Focusing on “not bingeing” isn’t the same as feeling safe enough in your body to stop.

When we focus on behavioural change, you might see some improvements initially. But if the drivers underneath are left unattended, it’s common to see symptoms like binge eating re-emerge. Trying to end behaviours without understanding the function of the behaviours will pretty much guarantee symptom cycling. We want to understand what the eating past fullness manages.

You also don’t want to remove a main resource, like disordered eating, without taking the time to build in additional resources that they can turn to when they feel out of control or dysregulated.

Promising or working toward weight loss while also trying to stop binge eating is not evidence-based practice and will not work over the long-term (how long will you be able to go without water once you come out of the desert, to return to one of my previous examples?) While some folks are able to get their “under-eating” under control while dieting, I want to be clear that this isn’t remission so much as it is just another form of disordered eating. Dieting is just a better-branded version of emotional eating. Recovery isn’t about control. It’s about connection.

Don’t I just need a meal plan?: External vs Internal Structure

Some people feel they just need a plan — a meal plan, to be exact — to tell them what and when to eat. 

You might struggle with questions such as, “Don’t I need more structure, not less? I’m already allowing myself to eat as much as I want! I’m not denying any foods!”

You’ll hear differing opinions about this, but I think it honestly depends. Having some structure in place initially can be helpful when it comes to stabilization (e.g. if you feel very out of control around food.)

It doesn’t mean that you need a rigid plan, though. The goal of meal planning in the work that I do with folks is not about weight loss or “exercising control”, but more about making sure you’re eating enough, getting a balance of foods, and feeling like “something is there” for you if you feel untethered without rules to follow.

My experience has been that we often look for structure on the outside when we don’t feel like we have it on the inside. The more out of control we feel inside, the more likely we are to want things figured out on the outside. This makes so much sense to me. Aren’t we all just doing our best to feel secure, comfortable, and grounded? But the way forward doesn’t have to be so black-and-white — either super controlled with food or out of control. Instead, working on building internal capacity can help us to move away from this painful pendulum swing and toward peace with food, our bodies, and our lives.

What if I “need to lose weight”?: Addressing primary vs. Secondary hungers

But what if I need to lose weight, Sarah? You’re saying this is all about restriction…but what about that?

The desire for weight loss is always a secondary hunger (shout-out to Rachel Cole for that term.) We don’t generally want weight loss in and of itself. We want what weight loss will give us. Maybe we want to take care of our health and have been taught that weight loss is the only or the best way to do it. Or we want to improve our mobility or have less pain. Maybe we’re hoping to meet a romantic partner and believe our chances would be better at a lower weight or that we can only be loved if we’re thin. Maybe we believe weight loss will help us to feel more confident, attractive, and interesting, which could set us up for a job promotion or a bigger social circle. 

While I’m not about to deny the role of thin privilege and fat phobia in our world — our culture knows how to objectify like nobody’s business — it doesn’t mean that weight loss or thinness will cure all that ails us. 

First of all, we do not have a method that helps people to lose weight and keep it off over the long term (only about 2-5% of folks who lose weight keep it off beyond 5 years, and these people generally develop disordered eating or a full-blown eating disorder to do it.)

Secondly, having a “valid” reason for weight loss doesn’t improve the efficacy of dieting. 

But all facts about weight loss aside, there’s so much that we can do to improve health outcomes outside of weight loss (which is not a behaviour.) In fact, many conditions can be managed with very subtle and sustainable changes and don’t require the extreme protocols that many in the wellness industry mandate. 

Secondly, weight loss in and of itself can’t get us a job if we’re not applying, can’t find us a partner if we’re not actively dating, or promise us a great group of friends if we’re not making plans to socialize and get to know other people.

The inherent restriction in “over-eating,” “eating too much,” and “out of control”

Terms like “over-eating” and “eating too much” insinuate that there’s a magically perfect amount of food we should get full and satisfied with. But the truth is, we need different amounts of food on different days depending on a whole cluster of reasons, such as activity level, temperature, hormones, stress, and more. When we decide there’s a line in the sand we shouldn’t cross, we’ll inevitably try to stay under it — which can then trigger us to go way over it. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t eating past fullness or are struggling to stop eating, but it does reflect some restrictive thinking in terms of what is acceptable vs what is unacceptable with food. 

I want to acknowledge that eating past fullness — beyond physical or psychological comfort — is very normal at the beginning of recovery. This typically occurs to correct nutritional deficits and restore you to the weight range your body naturally wants to be at. As Gwyneth Olwyn states in The Homeodynamic Recovery Method, “to reach remission you must allow your body its process of energy replenishment as it sees fit” and “re-feeding after a period of semi-starvation involves eating to excess for a period of time.” It doesn’t mean it will always be this way.

But understanding the ways we may be unintentionally sabotaging a peaceful relationship with food, addressing underlying forms of restriction, and getting to issues at the very root is key to repairing your relationship with food. 

What if I can't stop eating? 5 things to know if you identify as an "overeater"

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