Psychological Aspects of Binge Eating: A Comprehensive Guide

It often begins simply – maybe with a little mindless snacking. But suddenly, you find your hand repeatedly reaching into the snack bag, almost without your control. What starts as a craving for just one more cookie quickly spirals into an overwhelming compulsion to keep eating, faster, often without even savoring the flavors. The rational part of your mind tries to intervene, but it's overshadowed by overpowering cravings.

Binge eating can overpower even the most disciplined people. During a binge, you feel driven purely by impulse, often eating anything and everything, seemingly without an end in sight. Caught in this cycle, overwhelmed by cravings to eat more and more, you might feel utterly helpless. It’s like watching yourself from a distance, unable to stop your own actions, feeling trapped and powerless.

Afterward, you're filled with shame and self-criticism as you look at empty wrappers and containers, wondering how you lost control once again. This self-reproach only deepens the sense of despair. You ask yourself,  “Why can’t I control this? What's wrong with me?”

If this resonates with you, there is nothing wrong with you. And, you’re not alone in this struggle of will versus temptation. Remember, there are ways to overcome this behavior, and with self-compassion and knowledge about the psychological aspects of binge eating, you can find your way out. 

Table of Contents

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Many people think they lack control or willpower or that they are addicted to food. They don't realize they have a diagnosable and treatable condition, Binge Eating Disorder (BED), which is actually the most prevalent type of eating disorder. 

BED, the most common eating disorder in the United States, is more than an occasional overindulgence. It involves repeated episodes of consuming large amounts of food rapidly. This disorder goes deeper, revealing significant psychological aspects of binge eating that drive the behavior. 

  • BED, short for Binge Eating Disorder, is not solely about the food you consume; it frequently manifests as a reaction to stress, anxiety or depression.
  • It is believed that around 3.5% of women and 2% of men will struggle with BED at some point in their lives.
  • Those who engage in binge eating often suffer in silence due to shame and guilt, which can exacerbate the compulsive eating behavior.
  • Binge eating can become a vicious cycle: stress or emotional discomfort leads to binge eating, which in turn leads to feelings of guilt, shame, and further emotional distress.
  • BED is more prevalent in younger people and is often linked with other mental health issues such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, or depression.
  • Treatment for BED involves psychological therapy to address the root causes of the compulsive behavior and strategies for managing emotional triggers.

Binge Eating Disorder is not about control or willpower. And, it's not even about food.  In this context, binge eating is a negative coping mechanism stemming from a variety of complex issues. It's often tied to feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, or any other difficult or painful emotional state.

From the perspective of psychology, binge eating often masks emotional turmoil, unprocessed grief, stress, depression or even low self-esteem. That's why focusing on food or going on a diet or exercise program will never work in the long run. Binge eating is a solution to a problem, albeit a problematic solution. 

By getting to the root issues and finding new ways to cope, you can stop binge eating. The first step to healing is recognizing that these eating habits are a means to cope with these emotions, not an issue of self-control. Understanding this from a psychological perspective is the first step to a healthy relationship with food.  

The Diet-Binge Cycle

The diet-binge cycle is a pattern of behavior often seen in those struggling with eating disorders, particularly Binge Eating Disorder (BED). This cycle is characterized by periods of strict dieting or food restriction followed by episodes of overeating or bingeing.

This typically begins with a decision to start a restrictive diet, often spurred by feelings of dissatisfaction with one's body or weight. During this phase, people may deny themselves certain foods or food groups, eat very little, or follow a strict eating regimen.

This level of restriction is usually unsustainable in the long term and can lead to intense cravings and feelings of deprivation. Eventually they ‘give in' to these intense cravings and end up binge eating, often due to an “all or nothing” attitude. They think, “I've blown it by eating a cookie, so I might as well eat all the cookies.”

After a binge, feelings of guilt, shame, and distress are common. You vow to start dieting again to ‘make up for' the binge, thus starting the cycle all over again. This pattern of dieting and binge eating it can lead to a range of physical, psychological, and emotional health problems.

The diet-binge cycle doesn’t reflect a lack of willpower or self-control. From the perspective of the psychology of binge eating disorder, we want what we think we cannot have. Deprivation or the anticipation of deprivation only makes us want something more, and that leads to binge eating.

Diets also focus our attention on what we're eating and not why. Diets can't help us identify our hidden triggers or find new ways to cope. That's why it's important to stop dieting and instead focus on the psychological underpinnings of binge eating instead.

The Psychology of Binge Eating Disorder

On those bad days, when you're feeling a little low or overwhelmed, do you find yourself reaching out for that extra bag of chips or an extra-large slice of cake?

The moment of biting into the food, the feel of it in your mouth is more than just satisfying hunger—it's about momentarily silencing the loud chatter of your mind. That's precisely what the psychological aspects of binge eating are about: identifying reasons behind why we binge. 

Often, we are so quick to turn to food to cope that we don't realize that we're actually being triggered. We may think we're being triggered by food but we're actually triggered by an emotion or inner conflict that we don't want to recognize.

Binge eating is an unconscious attempt to escape the discomfort of the emotion, intending to find comfort in the known, like the taste of your favorite comfort food. The irony here, though, is the aftermath—a sense of guilt or shame, which is an emotion in itself, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle. 

Delving into the Emotional Aspects of Binge Eating

Understanding the emotions linked to eating disorders, like binge eating, is vital for creating change.  Four emotions are common culprits when it comes to triggering binge eating : shame, loneliness, anger, and anxiety. Each of these emotions can act as a trigger to binge eating.

1. Guilt & Shame

With guilt, we feel we did something wrong, like forgetting an important date or missing a deadline. “I screwed up” sums it up. Guilt is about something we should have done or failed to do. It's about behavior, not our character.

Shame stabs right at our core identity – “There is something fundamentally wrong or bad about me.” It's insidious, attacking who we are, not what we did.

After an out of control eating episode, where deep shame lurks, you may criticize yourself harshly: “What's wrong with me?” Shame encompasses the entire self. It is the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with you, that you are flawed, broken, or unworthy. 

Feeling bad about yourself for binging is self-shaming. You're not just regretting what you did (guilt), but you're defining your entire self by your action (shame). Binging shouldn't define your worth. Instead, replace self-criticism with self-compassion. The most sustainable healing happens when we listen within first, judge less, feel more.

2. Loneliness

Experiencing loneliness goes beyond simply craving social interaction; it's about longing for a meaningful connection that goes deeper than just physical presence. Being in a crowded room can still leave you feeling isolated if you don't feel that sense of safety and fulfillment in your interactions. For many of us, this profound sense of emptiness and disconnection can lead to turning to food as a symbolic way to ‘fill up.' While it may seem like a solution, it's a far cry from a constructive one.

The real answer lies in embracing solitude. Solitude is about finding comfort in your own company, engaging with a nurturing and supportive inner voice that's always there to offer understanding and reassurance.

It's okay to feel lonely. It's a human experience that everyone goes through at some point. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step towards understanding and dealing with them. 

Self-reflection is a key component of solitude. Use this time alone to reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Journaling can be a great way to do this. It allows you to express your thoughts and feelings, gain insights about yourself, and track your personal growth over time.

Develop a self-care routine. This could involve physical activities like yoga or meditation, or mental activities like reading or learning a new skill. Self-care is about taking care of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. When you're taking care of yourself, you're less likely to feel lonely and more likely to enjoy your solitude.

3. Anger

Consider this: what if you couldn't get angry at yourself for the number on the scale or for finishing that whole plate of nachos? What if self-blame wasn't an option? Who would bear the brunt of those emotions then? Recognizing the true target of your feelings is key.

Acknowledging this doesn't always mean confronting someone; it's not always wise to lash out at, say, your boss. Sometimes it's more about admitting to yourself how you really feel and finding healthy ways to express those emotions. Food won't solve your problems—nachos are no solution for anger.

Ignoring, dismissing, or trying to ‘positive-think' your emotions away just doesn't work. The only way through feelings is to actually feel them. It's crucial to honor your annoyance, frustration, irritation, or rage–all of which are forms of anger. Talk it out with a friend, write in a journal, or channel it into a physical activity like kickboxing. Your feelings demand to be felt and expressed, not turned inward. 

Remember that feeling anger doesn't make you an angry person; it makes you a person who's angry for a reason. Give your emotions the attention they deserve, and skip the self-judgment.

4. Anxiety

Anxiety encompasses a spectrum of emotions, including fears, worries, and phobias, which many of us grapple with daily. It manifests in various forms: the fear of losing a job, the dread of rejection, envisioning the worst possible outcomes, or irrational fears like public speaking or flying. These anxieties often mask deeper fears related to feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability.

For instance, the fear of gaining weight goes beyond mere concerns about diet. It symbolizes deeper anxieties about feeling powerless and out of control in life. Similarly, a fear of flying often represents a deeper worry about losing control. In situations where control feels elusive, it's not uncommon to fixate on something like food, as it diverts attention from a broader sense of powerlessness.

Anxiety, often marked by worrying about future events, can lead to physical symptoms such as an accelerated heartbeat, sweating, trembling, or dizziness. But why does anxiety often lead to overeating? The discomfort of anxiety, coupled with the calming effect of food, can lead you to eat in an attempt to soothe and relax. This is particularly true if you find yourself drawn to carbohydrates like bread and pasta, which can make your body feel drowsier and more relaxed.

Instead of turning to food for relaxation, consider more constructive methods like exercise, stretching, guided meditation, or a relaxing bath. As you soothe your body, your mind tends to follow, helping to alleviate the underlying anxiety more effectively.

The Binge Cure Method

On your journey towards understanding and addressing binge eating ‘The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating is a useful tool you can look into. ‘The Binge Cure' is a comprehensive seven-step approach that combines psychodynamic theories and practical exercises to help you learn how to stop relying on food as a way to manage your emotions.

Developed by a psychoanalyst specializing in binge eating disorder, it is designed to help you understand the underlying psychological issues that trigger binge eating and offers strategies to help you break these destructive patterns.

One of the key aspects of ‘The Binge Cure' is that it encourages you to establish a deeper connection with yourself. By focusing not on the food but the feelings that drive the behavior, this approach empowers you to respond to your feelings in healthier ways, thereby breaking the cycle of binge eating. 

Wrestling with binge eating disorder can feel like an uphill battle. Still, with a willingness to delve deeper into your psyche, and tools like ‘The Binge Cure'  to help you, it is possible to liberate yourself from binge eating, take control of your life, and feel good in your body.

Wrapping Up: The Psychological Aspects of Binge Eating

Understanding the psychological aspects of binge eating is a crucial step towards relinquishing the grip this disorder might have on your life or the life of a loved one. Remember, this condition is far from being a failure or a sign of weakness; rather, it's a complex psychological struggle, deeply intertwined with your emotions, experiences and perhaps even past traumas

Your road to liberation may be bumpy, but that is true of every journey to create change. Every step towards recognizing, managing and eventually overcoming your harmful eating patterns is going to help you on your path to food freedom. It's important to remember that overcoming binge eating is less about food and more about understanding and nurturing your mindset. Embrace the process. Praise the progress. Stay patient, be gentle with yourself, and always reach out when you need help. You're not alone in this journey and there are resources to help you through. There is hope.

Frequently Asked Questions

Unraveling the psychological aspects of binge eating is like being a detective of your mind. While it can be challenging, looking for clues about the psychological mechanisms that trigger these eating habits is a huge step toward solving the mystery of “why” you’re emotionally eating and overcoming this disorder.

Binge eating is not really about food; it's a coping strategy that helps in some ways but ultimately harms us. Identifying the emotional triggers to binge eating helps you create healthier strategies to deal with them and eventually, cease binge eating.

1. What triggers binge eating psychologically?

The psychological triggers of binge eating often involve emotional distress such as loneliness, anxiety, or depression. External stressors like work pressure or personal relationships can also instigate a binge eating episode. Sometimes these triggers are unconscious and hidden from us, out of our awareness but not out of operation. Once we’re aware of the triggers we can take steps to cope in a different way.

2. What is the connection between emotions and binge eating? 

Binge eating is often used as a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions. Instead of confronting and addressing feelings of sadness, frustration, or anxiety directly, we turn to food to comfort, distract, numb, or displace these emotions. For example, we may eat to symbolically fill the void of loneliness or emotional emptiness.

3. Can therapy help me overcome binge eating?

Definitely. We cannot have an objective view of our subjective life situation. Therapy isn’t about being broken and needing to be fixed. Therapy, especially depth psychology or psychoanalysis, helps you understand yourself in a deeper way and cultivate new ways of responding to difficult life situations. When that happens, you stop using food to cope.

4. Why do I feel guilt and shame after binge eating?

 Guilt and shame are common emotions that follow binge eating. This is particularly true when it comes to diet culture and all-or-nothing thinking. If you break your diet rules, you feel guilty and possibly ashamed. Yet, these rules are simply constructs of the $60 billion diet industry and not actual food crimes. Identifying and challenging the rules that lead to guilt and shame is extremely helpful.

5. What is the role of self-care in managing binge eating?

Self-care plays a crucial role in managing binge eating. Self-care refers to taking care of all aspects of yourself, not just your physical self. It’s about attending to yourself in all ways, b it emotional, relational, intellectual, creative, or spiritual. Self-care boosts well-being, reducing the likelihood of binge eating as a way to manage stress.

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 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.

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