Can't stop eating? Here's five reasons why

If you’re like one of the many people I work with, you feel like you just can’t stop eating, there are a number of reasons for this. In this article, I am letting you know about five big reasons I see in my clients.


It's not just about willpower

You might feel like you have no willpower, and no self-control. I’m here to let you know: if you can’t stop eating, it’s unlikely because of willpower. In fact, you probably have high willpower. Think about how much energy you put into thinking about food, and into not eating everything you want.

The reasons you can’t stop eating are not moral failures. You can’t stop eating for very real reasons. Some of which I’m going to let you know about. 

Let’s get started…

1. You’re simply not eating enough

You might scoff reading that. You may have clicked on this article because you want to eat less, not more. But hear me out.

As an eating disorders specialist, I work with a lot of people who simply aren’t nourishing themselves enough. This includes:

  • Not eating enough calories - do you have a number in your head that you shouldn’t really go over?
  • Not eating enough of every food group – are you skimping on carbohydrates or fats?

Your body needs fuel. If you’re not eating enough then it will start to cause physical and mental sensations that ultimately end in not being able to turn off thoughts of food.

This leads to increased cravings, feelings of hunger, and thinking about food obsessively. There’s a saying: “under-fuelling leads to over-thinking.”

A key consideration is to ask yourself if you are under-eating on purpose, or by accident. The first reason might be that you are in need of nutrition counselling support. The later might be that you need to work on the practical side of eating.

2. You are coming off a time of restriction

Congratulations! You’re moving away from a point of restriction. Depending on how long you’ve been restricting, your body is now accustomed to a state of worrying about food. Moving away from this takes a little bit of time, especially as you change your thought patterns and behaviours. It can take anywhere between three months and two years for your body and mind to heal.

Perhaps you’re wondering if you even were restricting? I work with a lot of people who don’t identify as being “restrictive” - that’s ok, the label doesn’t really matter.

Some signs of restriction include:

  • Being “careful” about what you eat. Such as feeling like you shouldn’t eat more than a certain number of calories or above a certain amount of food.
  • Ignoring or dulling your hunger signals by drinking water or coffee, or by clock-watching and eating at a later time.
  • Commenting that certain foods are bad, and only eating them when you’re having a cheat or a bad day.
  • Only exercising when you’re trying to lose weight or change your body.
  • Hopping on and off new diets or healthy eating trends.

While all of these are normalised, they are all signs of restriction. If you have done any of these (and remember, this list is non-exhaustive) then your body and mind are likely still healing.

I urge you to stick with this time. Moving away from restriction is so difficult, but you need to figure out your “why”. Why do you want to stop? What will you gain from nourishing your body properly?

3. You’re trying to make up for calories from binge eating

I won’t be a broken record about restriction leading to obsession. But the binge-restrict cycle is very real. This is when trying to cut down calories leads to your body increasing hunger hormones, therefore your body is even more hungry.

If you’re struggling with binge eating, you might have noticed that trying to eat less makes things worse. It makes your brain think about food more. Is this your experience?

The feelings of guilt and shame around food can feel really isolating. This might feel even worse when you can’t stop thinking about food. You might feel like you’re lacking self-control, but trust me: You don’t need more self-control to stop binging.

If you follow up binge eating with eating less or being “healthy”  then your body sends signals that alter your hunger cues. This is coupled with mixed messaging about food and whether you’ve eaten enough, and increased stress on the body.

This really is a “perfect” storm that centres on a poor relationship to food. Support is available, such as with me. Do reach out if you feel like you need one-to-one support.

4. You’re not tuning in while you eat

We all eat while watching TV sometimes, or eat a desk lunch. But being mindful and present when eating allows you to tune into thoughts and feelings around food. 

It also gives a dedicated time to think about food and how it makes us feel. Rather than being a thought we’re pushing away all the time we’ve got a designated time to work through it. And tuning in when we eat can help us see when we’re satisfied.

Here are three ways to tune into what you're eating:

  • What does the food taste like, what does it smell like? What is the texture?
  • Finish your mouthful and pause, are you starting to feel full?
  • Does this food have any emotional connection for you - is it a comfort food?

This can help reduce food obsession thoughts because your brain actually has a nice eating experience. It makes sense, right? If you eat while distracted all of the time, your brain never feels like it’s had a chance to really taste and enjoy food.

You might take a few breaths before starting eating, put your laptop away, or take a pause mid-meal to have an enjoyable eating experience.

5. You need to find more ways to enjoy yourself than just using food

This might bring you food for thought (no pun intended…). Food might be the thing that makes you happy. Using food as your main source of enjoyment can be likened to “a canary in a coal mine.” It can be a sign that your emotional needs aren’t being met on a deep level.

Using food as a source of enjoyment isn’t wrong. Food may be a big part of your culture, or social life. It’s normal to enjoy food - humans are hardwired to enjoy it because it keeps us alive. But when food becomes your main source of enjoyment it might be time to reflect.

Here are some reflections to help:

  • Do you have other things that bring you pleasure or stress relief, other than food? 
  • Are you using food to patch a hole from something else? 
  • What are the foods you deem pleasurable? Are these followed up with guilt and shame?

Enjoying food is important. But food being your only source of happiness means your brain will think about it a lot. I recommend focusing on filling the gaps that food fills, and explore your relationship with food more.

Let's recap

The five reasons you can’t stop thinking about food might include:

  1. not eating enough
  2. you’re healing from restrictive eating or mindset
  3. you’re binging, so you’re trying to make up for food elsewhere
  4. you’re not taking time to tune into food
  5. food is your main pleasure

Ready to work with a professional?

Shannon is available for one-to-one support. Shannon is the founder of a specialist eating disorders and disordered eating clinic, Ease Nutrition Therapy. Shannon and her team are available for virtual support for all types of relationships with food.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Edinburgh EH1 & London SW1W
Written by Shannon Western, Eating disorder & disordered eating, nutrition therapy
Edinburgh EH1 & London SW1W

Shannon is a nutritionist who specialises in helping people recover from eating disorders & disordered eating. She supports people with a person-centred approach that combines nutrition science, counselling tools, and Non-Diet support.

She is the founder of Ease Nutrition Therapy, a team of online disordered eating nutritionists & dietitians.

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