How unhealthy is binge eating?

What happens to your body when you overeat, and what does a healthy portion size look like? Read our top tips to stop cravings and beat binge eating.

How unhealthy is binge eating?

Occasional binge eating is not the same as a clinical eating disorder such as anorexia, BED or bulimia. For more information on eating disorders, please see the NHS website

It can take a long time to understand why there are times when you might eat to excess and it requires motivation and resolve to do something about it. If you have been struggling for a long time, it is advisable to speak to your GP who can advise you of appropriate therapeutic services and support. 

The overwhelming desire to eat can happen at any time of day for any type of food. Some people are more prone to eating too much in the evening, or like to eat high sugar foods in front of the TV or in bed. Others give themselves the green light to eat as much as they like on the weekend or find that they just can’t stop at a buffet, when with friends or make poor choices in the supermarket. The common link is that they eat more than is needed and end up feeling guilty or ashamed. 

Why do we sometimes overeat?

Our urge to eat is triggered by the environment around us. Sights, smells and advertising can all lead us to eat, as well as internal triggers such as hunger, thirst, feelings, cravings and emotions all play a part. What’s important is to try and identify the trigger and think of things that are pleasurable to you other than eating. Try to stop and think before reaching for food – and ask yourself if you are really hungry. A more mindful approach to eating has shown to be a useful intervention.

Hunger vs craving
A typical craving lasts around 20 minutes. The first 5 minutes will be the hardest so try alternative distractions or things to do instead and see if the craving passes. Try making a drink or getting a glass of water, going for a walk round the block, phoning a friend, or looking up something online. If you are still hungry after 20 minutes or so, prepare something to eat that will be nourishing and satisfying. 

Portion sizes
Portion sizes have increased dramatically over the last 25 years which is likely to be affecting our weight. Plate size has increased by over an inch (in some cases up to five inches) which has led to bigger servings at home. Foods that we pick up in the supermarket are coming in ‘50% extra free’ bags and regular items such as sliced bread and bagels are now bigger than they used to be.

It is also important to take care when eating out. Fast food shops and takeaways can offer different sizes yet even the small or medium meal can be too large. Huge drinks (or free refills) may be providing more energy, sugar and fat than the meal itself due to the sheer size which is becoming normalised.

For more information visit the British Heart Foundation website and read their portion distortion report.

What happens to your body when you eat too much?

The stomach is the size of a fist, but can stretch to accommodate four times that amount. Certain foods induce different feelings if eaten in excess. The most commonly known is the ‘sugar rush’ – a period of energy often followed by a crash as sugar is rapidly taken out of the bloodstream. Large meals cause lethargy as they body focuses on digestion. Excessive overeating can disrupt hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin). Over time, some people become resistant to leptin, not recognising fullness – leading to further overeating and weight gain. 

It is much harder to overeat raw vegetables (e.g. carrot sticks) or fruit, as the high fibre content leads to feeling full more quickly. Including a source of protein and fat such as yogurt are also good choices as they slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream and help with feelings of fullness.

What does a healthy portion size look like?

These are some rough guidelines for the amount of food that is recommended to be eaten in one sitting - although these will vary depending on height, weight and energy needs.

  
Starchy carbohydratesSize of your fist
Fresh fruit & vegetablesOne handful (80g)
Dried fruitJust over a quarter handful (25g)
CheeseSize of a matchbox
NutsSize of a golf ball (30g)
Protein (meat/fish)Size of a pack of cards
FatsOne teaspoon (7g)

In addition, the NHS recommends that we don't eat more than 30g sugar (around 7 teaspoons) per day for those aged 11 and over.

Top tips for eating in moderation

  • Using smaller plates can help you to monitor the amount you're eating, and feel more satisfied with a smaller portion. As a guide, the plate should be the span of your hand. 
  • Eat a healthy breakfast, even if it is something small. This will help balance blood sugars and keep energy up until lunchtime.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks to keep blood sugar levels balanced. This will help prevent cravings and prevent you overeating later on in the day.
  • Wait 10-15 minutes from the first ‘craving’ – try to distract yourself with an activity and drink a glass of water to ensure you're not confusing hunger with thirst.
  • Switch the type of food you are bingeing on to healthier options - see the list below for ideas.
  • Anxiety and stress can cause cravings and overeating. Try to find an alternative method of coping with these emotions which doesn't involve food, such as socialising with friends, an exercise that you enjoy, or treating yourself to something relaxing like a hot bubble bath or massage.
  • Instead of eating all that remains in the pan, or eating everything on your plate at a restaurant, put some aside for another meal or lunch the next day. If you are in a restaurant, ask if you can take a 'doggie bag' of leftovers home.
  • Keep a food diary to highlight times when you are likely to overeat and help you break out of negative habits.
  • Make the foods that you tend to binge on more difficult to get hold of by keeping them out of your home or office. This will prevent 'mindless' overeating just because a palatable food is in front of you.

Satisfying snacks to try

Cinnamon cashew spread with apple slices
A small handful of nuts
Lemon & coriander houmous with vegetable sticks
Pepper & walnut houmous with veggie dippers
A small bowl of healthy soup
A small pot of low-sugar yogurt
A few squares of dark chocolate
Homemade popcorn

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This article was published on 2 November 2016.

This article is not intended for those suffering from diagnosed anorexia, binge eating disorder (BED) or bulimia, but for those who have a disordered pattern of eating, including blow outs at the weekends, eating too much in one sitting, overeating at unusual times of day or using food as an emotional or physical reward.

Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) registered with the UKVRN.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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