Emotional Eating, Part 3: Common Food Binging Cycles

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 10:31am

By Kathleen Goodwin, RD

1.   The “feel good” binge

Not only are we bombarded with social, environmental, and emotional cues to overeat, but our basic biology can work against us as well. Research has proven that certain foods produce “feel good” chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in our brains that can literally be addictive. High sugar and fat combinations (e.g. ice cream, chocolate, doughnuts, cakes, and pies) can boost endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are our body’s natural pain killers; they produce a feeling of relaxation and even euphoria. Foods high in refined carbohydrate (e.g. white breads, pastries, chips, sodas, and candy) cause an increase of serotonin production in the brain. Serotonin provides sedation and calmness. Unfortunately, these “quick fixes” are brief. And over time – just like in other addictions – we may require more and more of the “substance” (high sugar/fat foods) to produce the desired effect.

  • Stressed → Eat high sugar/fat food → Endorphin/serotonin release → Feel relaxed, calm, better (temporarily) → Feeling less relaxed/more stressed again (actual stress is never dealt with effectively by eating) → Eat more to suppress negative feelings and stress.

2.   The “sugar high” binge

Another cycle that wreaks havoc with our bodies is the cycle of sugar highs and lows. Binge eating on sugary foods causes a surge of glucose in the blood producing a sugar “high”, which is characterized by feelings of fullness, satisfaction, and calm. In response to a sugar binge, our pancreas produces more insulin, a hormone that rapidly takes up circulating blood glucose into our cells. This, in turn, produces a rebound “sugar low”, which can cause shakiness, lightheadedness, and an inability to concentrate. This process sends a false message to the brain that we need more food fast to perk up blood sugar levels. As a result, although we are not physically hungry, our cravings for sugary foods increase again. This leads to another binge, and another rehashing of this vicious cycle.

  • Sugar binge → Feel “sugar high” → Insulin takes up blood glucose → Feel “sugar low” → Brain signaled to eat more (despite lack of hunger) → Sugar binge cycle starts again

3.   The “forbidden food” binge

Psychologically-based, this cycle seems to be growing exponentially. It may explain why obesity rates are soaring. After an episode of binge eating, oftentimes the binger feels a loss of control, shame, and guilt. People feel pressure from society, the media, or family members to achieve bodily perfection. In their desperate quest to achieve an unattainable standard, they refrain from eating and deprive themselves often. Eventually, desires and cravings become too difficult to override, which usually leads to binges on unhealthy, fatty, sugary foods. The temporary aftereffect of this binge is a sense of relief; however, the subsequent feelings of shame and guilt lead to progressive drops in feelings of adequacy and self-esteem. There are many people who experience this cycle several times a week. Surprisingly, many of these people are perceived as very successful and attractive on the outside. However, internally they feel empty because restrained eating combined with binge eating has become their coping mechanism and obsession.

  • Restrain from eating to achieve thinness, “bodily perfection” → Feel deprived → Binge on “forbidden” foods → Short term feeling of satisfaction → Long term feeling of shame and guilt and incremental decrease in self-esteem → No good coping mechanism to effectively deal with these feelings → Binge again to stuff away uncomfortable feelings of “failure”.