We’ve all been there: You aren’t hungry, but you find yourself reaching into the fridge for a snack. Or you open a big bag of potato chips to munch on during a movie, only to find that you’ve absent-mindedly finished off the whole bag before you’re halfway in.
For most of us, hunger is only one reason to eat. We might also eat our favorite foods when we’re bored, stressed, or just craving a certain flavor. Overeating occasionally is normal, but for some people, overeating becomes compulsive.
If you’ve ever thought, “Help! I can’t stop eating!” this is the guide for you. Here is what you need to know about compulsive overeating, and some tips to help you stop.
Why Can’t I Stop Eating?
There are many different reasons why people overeat, and overeating occasionally is normal. For example, you might have a few slices of pie too many during Thanksgiving dinner, or finish off a pint of ice cream when heartbroken. Many of us find emotional comfort in food, and that isn’t necessarily a problem.
But often, people who compulsively overeat do so even when they don’t want to. They may find temporary comfort in food, but be consumed with feelings of shame, regret, or guilt afterward. When overeating becomes compulsive, it can reflect a deeper mental health issue.
What is binge eating disorder?
Some people who compulsively overeat have an eating disorder called binge eating disorder. People with a binge eating disorder go through periods of time (usually around 2 hours) when they feel like they can’t control their urge to eat. During this time, they eat a lot more (and, usually, a lot faster) than they usually do.
After these periods, people with binge eating disorder are filled with regret and shame. They may try to diet afterward to compensate for their binges, only to go through another period of compulsive eating. This is when overeating becomes a problem; when it’s completely out of your control and starts to affect your emotional life.
Many things can increase your risk for binge eating disorder, including being heavily influenced by “diet culture.”
Often, people with a binge eating disorder fall into a cycle of dieting, binging, and repenting. They may have negative thoughts about the shape or size of their body, and pressure themselves into staying away from specific foods. This creates an allure around these “forbidden” foods, which leads to a binge eating episode. The shame and regret that come after a binge leads the person to return to dieting — and on and on it goes.
Other reasons for compulsive overeating
But not everyone who eats compulsively has a binge eating disorder. You may also find yourself overeating because of:
- Overwhelming emotions
- A mindless habit, like eating while distracted
Many people engage in what’s called “emotional eating.” This is when you seek comfort in food when you’re feeling a painful emotion like loneliness or anxiety. Other people may engage in emotional eating when they’re feeling happy, or use food as a reward.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with emotional eating — it’s okay to find comfort in food. But when emotional eating becomes compulsive overeating, it may lead to health consequences.
You don’t need to go through binge-eating episodes (eating a large quantity in a short amount of time) to struggle with compulsive overeating. For example, you might overeat regularly throughout your day, instead of all at once.
Again, overeating sometimes is normal. It is when it’s accompanied by painful emotions like shame or guilt that it becomes a mental health issue. Additionally, overeating on a regular basis can lead to serious health concerns like an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
How to Stop Overeating
Although compulsive overeating can be a hard habit to break, it’s definitely not impossible. There are ways you can become more mindful of your eating habits and eat in a way that feels nourishing, not shameful.
Note: Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health condition that requires specialized treatment. Although behavioral tips may help you curb binges and compulsive eating habits, you may also need to seek eating disorder treatment. Learn more about the residential eating disorder treatment program provided at The Center • A Place of HOPE.
But if your overeating habits don’t fall within the realm of binge eating disorder, then it may be a matter of building more discipline so that you can have more self-control around food.
Here are 11 tips to help you stop compulsive overeating.
1. Practice mindfulness
Many people find they overeat when they’re distracted. For example, they might be watching a TV show and mindlessly snack on whatever is in front of them without paying attention. One way to combat this type of overeating is by building a strong mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally and non-judgmentally paying attention to each present moment. We often associate mindfulness with meditation, which is certainly one way to practice. During mindfulness meditation, you are invited to sit still and stay present with each moment, including any discomforts or distracting thoughts.
But you can practice mindfulness in every moment of your life. In fact, mindfulness is transformative when you can become mindful while you’re doing everyday things. This includes eating.
When you strengthen your mindfulness practice, you become more likely to be present in each moment (whether or not you’re meditating) — and less likely to eat absent-mindedly.
You can also intentionally practice mindfulness while you eat. Every time you sit down for a meal, try to stay present with every mouthful. Put your fork down as you slowly chew each bite. Notice the food’s smell, texture, and flavor.
You may also want to stay present with how your body feels as you eat. Often, we keep eating because we’re so distracted that we don’t even notice when we become full. Pay close attention to your body during meals. After each mouthful, notice how full you are. You may find that it becomes easier to stop eating just by noticing that you’re already satisfied.
On a related note, limit all distractions during meal times. One review found that when people were distracted during meals, they were more likely to eat more (and consume more calories). Turn off the TV, put away your phone, and simply eat.
2. Keep a food journal
Studies have suggested that monitoring what you eat every day may help you become more conscious of your food choices, overeat less, and lose weight (if that is a goal for you). 
On top of keeping track of the foods you eat, try noting what you were doing, and how you felt, both before and after you ate. This can help you notice which moods or situations tend to trigger overeating for you. It may also remind you the emotional comfort that overeating brings is temporary.
Keeping a food diary may also help you become more mindful of what you eat. Often, we overeat when we’re distracted, and we may not even notice how much we’re actually consuming. A food diary can bring your attention to the times when you eat a lot more than you were intending to.
3. Know your triggers
Are there certain foods that cause you to overeat? Maybe you have a sweet tooth, and once you have one cookie you just can’t stop. Or maybe you’re more likely to polish off an entire bag of potato chips.
Whatever it is for you, knowing what your “trigger foods” are can help you avoid them and make food choices that are less likely to cause overeating.
This doesn’t mean that you need to deny yourself your favorite foods. But when you eat these foods, try to enjoy and savor them — in other words, approach them like special treats. Measure out a reasonable portion, and taste every bite. This is less likely to lead to overeating than reaching for these foods every time you pass them in the kitchen.
4. Reduce stress
High stress is one of the main reasons why people struggle with compulsive overeating. Instead of eating unhealthy foods when you’re feeling stressed, try using evidence-based stress reduction methods instead.  These include:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Diaphragmatic (deep) breathing
- Physical activity and aerobic exercise
- Autogenic training
- Guided imagery
It’s also important to keep an eye on your stress levels every day, not only when stress is overwhelming you. By engaging in these activities on a daily basis, you can prevent stress from rising too high to begin with.
Not only can stress reduction prevent you from overeating, but it’s also linked to other health benefits, like a lower risk for heart disease and protecting against mental illnesses like depression.
5. Take a pause
If you can remember to do it, one way to combat compulsive overeating is by taking a pause and checking in with yourself whenever you’re about to eat.
Ask yourself: “Am I hungry?” If the answer is no, check in with yourself about how you are feeling — are you feeling bored, stressed, restless?
Once you’ve identified how you feel, think of healthier ways to cope with this feeling. For example, if you’re bored, what’s a fun activity you can engage in? Can you call a friend or turn on a funny movie? If you’re stressed, can you go for a walk or take a hot bath?
Of course, it can be challenging to remember to check in with yourself before you start overeating, but building a strong mindfulness practice can help with this.
6. Remove temptations
Once you know your trigger foods, you can take action by removing these foods from your reach. For example, if you already know that ice cream triggers overeating for you, then don’t stock it in your freezer.
Again, this doesn’t mean that you can never enjoy the foods you eat. But having to go out for an ice cream cone, instead of having a large amount easily accessible in your home, can help you stick to one serving of your favorite treat rather than compulsively overeating until you feel sick and ashamed. On top of that, going out for an ice cream cone (or another favorite food) may help you enjoy the food more as a special treat.
7. Plan ahead
Some people overeat because they don’t have a plan for their meals. This may leave them vulnerable to giving in to cravings and the temptation to overeat simply because they don’t have any other food around.
Create a meal plan for your week. You don’t necessarily have to prepare your meals in advance (although some people find this helpful) — just writing down what you’ll be eating every day can keep you accountable to eating healthy portions of nourishing foods instead of giving in to every craving that hits.
Make sure to plan ahead for snacks and cravings, too. If you fill your meal plan with “healthy” meals you don’t actually enjoy, you’ll likely still overeat the foods you’re missing.
8. Measure your portions
Try to avoid eating directly out of containers. For example, don’t eat potato chips straight out of the bag, or ice cream straight out of the carton. Eating out of containers can trick you into thinking you’re eating a lot less than you actually are.
Instead, measure out an individual, healthy portion of the food. Put a reasonable portion of potato chips in a sandwich bag, or measure out a scoop of ice cream into a bowl. This ensures that you only eat a healthy portion of the food you’re craving, rather than going overboard.
9. Avoid strict diets
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is essential for both physical and mental health. But buying into the culture of dieting or going on very strict diets can make you more vulnerable to overeating and increase your risk of eating disorders.
If you can, try to avoid tying your self-worth to your weight, body image, or ability to stick to a certain diet. And don’t deny yourself of your favorite foods. Not allowing yourself to indulge in food you enjoy may train your brain to think of these foods as “forbidden fruit.” This may lead you to overeat when you break your diet and you allow yourself these pleasures.
If you’re really craving something, even if you know it’s not “healthy,” it may be best to allow yourself a small amount to prevent the craving from becoming bigger and bigger. Again, though, know your trigger foods — and be extra-mindful if you know you’re likely to overeat the food you’re craving.
10. Practice self-compassion
Part of why compulsive overeating can become a mental health issue (and eating disorder) is because of the emotions involved. Many people, especially when they have binge eating disorder, are consumed with feelings of shame and guilt after overeating. These feelings may lead them to continue in the restriction-binge cycle. It may also contribute to depression and low self-image.
Try to be compassionate with yourself when you overeat. Pay attention to the way you talk to yourself after an overeating or binge eating episode. What kind of self-talk are you engaging in? Whenever you notice negative thoughts about yourself, gently challenge these thoughts and replace them with more helpful ones.
For example, if you notice yourself thinking:
“I’m such a pig. Why do I always do this? Why can’t I have any self-control?” Change this thought to something like: “I ate more than I meant to, and that makes me feel bad about myself. But I know my eating habits don’t define me, and I will keep trying to build discipline.”
Almost all of us have an emotional connection to food to some degree. Breaking the habit of compulsive overeating is hard. Be kind to yourself during this process.
11. Seek support
If your compulsive overeating is extreme, comes with painful emotions, or is getting in the way of your life, then you may be facing an eating disorder.
Eating disorders like binge eating disorders are clinical mental health conditions and usually require treatment. Although eating disorders are serious, they’re also highly treatable. With the right help, you can recover from binge eating disorder (and other eating disorders) and build a healthy relationship with food and your body.
Eating Disorder Treatment in Washington
If you’re ready to tackle compulsive overeating head-on, our team is waiting to hear from you.
The residential eating disorder treatment center at The Center • A Place of HOPE is located in Edmonds, Washington, with a beautiful view over the Puget Sound. All of our residents live in condominium-style housing with private kitchens and patios. Our facility has over three decades of experience helping people like you recover from disordered eating.
We use a unique Whole-Person Approach to eating disorder treatment. We know that, although the eating disorder may be what is bringing you the most pain, it’s not the whole story. Our team treats you as the unique person you are, and focuses on healing every area of your life: physical, emotional, nutritional, relational, psychological, and spiritual.
Get in touch with us for more information about admissions and financing.