Occasional binge-eating (as discussed in this article) is not the same as a clinical eating disorder, such as anorexia, binge-eating disorder (BED) or bulimia. For more information on eating disorders, please see the NHS website.


What is binge-eating?

Binge-eating involves regularly eating a lot of food over a short period of time, until you're uncomfortably full. Episodes of binge-eating are often planned in advance, usually done alone, and may include specific foods. Binge-eating can lead to complex, negative emotions, including guilt and shame. Both men and women of any age can eat in this way, but it usually manifests in your late teens or early twenties.

An overwhelming desire to eat can happen at any time of day for any number of different foods, but the evenings and high-sugar foods are the most common.

What is hunger?

Hunger is the feeling we get to motivate us to eat food. The sensation of hunger typically starts after only a few hours without eating and is generally considered to be an unpleasant feeling. Satiety occurs between five and 20 minutes after eating.

In contrast, a craving may last around 20 minutes – the first five minutes will be the hardest, so advice tends to focus on distraction techniques until the craving passes.

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Happy woman with spoon

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 including hunger, thirst, cravings, hormonal imbalances and our emotions.

If at all possible, try to identify your trigger. If you're seeking pleasure or comfort, it can be helpful to plan activities that are pleasurable to you, other than eating. Stop and think before reaching for food – and ask yourself if you are really hungry, or if your appetite is caused by something else that could be resolved without eating.

A more mindful approach to eating may be a useful intervention.

What happens when we eat too much?

The stomach is the size of a fist, but can stretch to accommodate four times this amount. Foods may induce different feelings when eaten in excess. The most common is the ‘sugar rush’ – a period of energy often followed by a crash as sugar from high-energy foods is rapidly taken out of the bloodstream. Eating larger amounts may also cause lethargy as the body redirects its resources to digestion.

Excessive overeating can disrupt hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin). Over time, some people become resistant to leptin, which means the body doesn't recognise fullness – leading to further overeating and weight gain.

How big should a portion size be?

Portion sizes have increased dramatically over the last 25 years, and this has undoubtably affected our perceived appetite. Even the size of the plates we eat from have increased by more than several centimetres, which has led to bigger servings at home. Huge drinks and free refills also provide more energy, sugar and fat than the meal they are supposed to accompany.

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

Handful of almonds

What does a healthy portion size look like?

For a rough guide follow these tips, but remember your specific needs will vary depending on your gender, height, weight and energy needs:

Starchy carbohydrates: size of your fist

Protein, such as meat and fish: size of the palm of your hand

Cheese: size of two of your fingers

Nuts and seeds: size of your cupped hand

Fats, such as butter: size of the tip of your thumb

Fruit and vegetables should be eaten alongside the above, with a minimum of five portions eaten daily.

For further information, read about how to eat a balanced diet and discover what counts as one of your 5-a-day.

Tips for beating the binge

  • Using a smaller plate can help you monitor the amount you're eating, and feel more satisfied with your portion. As a guide, the plate should be the span of your hand. Serve your food on the plate and don't go back for seconds – get into the habit of saving leftovers for another meal.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast, even if it's something small. This will help balance blood sugars and keep energy steady until lunchtime. As a food choice, eggs score well, being high on the satiety index (a measure of how filling a food is). Studies show that an egg breakfast is more sustaining than the equivalent calorie-counted carb breakfast and, what’s more, may reduce your calorie intake later in the day.
  • 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 or drink a glass of water to ensure you're not confusing hunger with thirst. Other distraction techniques include going for a walk, phoning a friend or looking up something online.
  • Anxiety and stress can cause cravings and overeating. Try to find an alternative method of coping with these emotions that 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 a massage.
  • Keep a food diary to highlight times when you're likely to overeat. It'll help you become more aware of your triggers and empower you to interrupt 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.
  • It's much harder to overeat raw vegetables (e.g. carrot sticks) or fruit, as their high fibre content leads to feeling full more quickly. Adding protein, such as yogurt, is also a good choice as the protein slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream and helps with feelings of fullness.

Last words

It can take a long time to understand why you eat to excess, and it will demand motivation and resolve to do something about it. If you've been struggling for a long time, speak to your GP, who can advise you of the appropriate services and support available.


Satisfying snacks to try

Stay energised throughout the day with these easy snacks:

Cinnamon cashew spread with apple slices
Pepper & walnut hummus with veggie dippers
Wild salmon & avocado triangles
Nutty chicken satay strips
Indian chicken protein pots

Want more healthy inspiration?

Sign up to our FREE healthy diet plans
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Am I overweight? How to check your weight is healthy
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More nutrition tips and tricks

This article is not intended for those suffering from anorexia, binge-eating disorder (BED) or bulimia, but for those who have a disordered pattern of eating, including blowouts 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 is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

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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