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Ask Dr. Linda: Why do I Overeat?

By Linda S. Mintle, Ph.D.

Question: I know that when I overeat, I gain weight but I can’t seem to stop. I hate how I look and am embarrassed to have people see me in a bathing suit. Why do I keep overeating? I don’t want to be fat but I can’t get control.

Dr. Linda: First of all you’ve got to stop saying you can’t stop. You can. It just takes a lot of hard work. An eating problem is not like a drug or alcohol problem. You can’t abstain from food and you aren’t physiologically addicted when you eat. But food can become a psychological addiction.

Let’s face it. Food is soothing and tastes good. Some people feel there is nothing better than food! It is always available, not illegal, can’t talk back, provides immediate gratification, gives pleasure, smells good, tastes good and is enjoyable.

People overeat for many reasons. A small percentage of people have medical problems that relate to overeating and obesity. Most people, however, overeat out of emotional distress. You may eat when you are bored, stressed, sad, depressed, anxious, angry, hurt, happy or for any other emotional reason. Food can be a way to celebrate or soothe and numb you from a bad experience.

Many of my clients overeat when they face conflict and don’t
know how to handle it. They are unassertive and swallow their upsets. They might agree to a resolution but secretly be unhappy or upset. Their low self-esteem leads them to believe they can’t handle problems or stress. Sometimes they lack the skills necessary to do so.

Sometimes people overeat to protect themselves from trauma. If they have been raped, sexually hurt or deeply rejected, eating may be used to cover up the wounding or ward people off. Perhaps when they were thin, someone traumatized them and now they associate thin with trauma.

Men and women sometimes overeat to deal with sexual impulses. Unconsciously, they may be afraid that if they had a trim body they would act out sexually, or be the target of sexual advances. Fat can serve as protection and is often blamed for other undeveloped parts of our self. For example, maybe I’m a critical person and that’s why people stay away from me. As long as I’m fat, I can blame their avoidance on my weight.

Most people aren’t aware they use food to cope with emotional issues. When I ask, “Why did you overeat”, the typical answer is, “I don’t know.” If you think about it hard and long enough, there was a reason for overeating.

Next time you find yourself overeating, think about what happened before you overate. Were you upset, angry, bored, excited? See if you can identify an emotion that may have led to overeating. The first step in breaking a compulsive pattern is to recognize what sets it off. Then force yourself to substitute some other activity for eating.

© Linda S. Mintle. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bio:
Dr. Linda Mintle not only specializes in the treatment of food, weight and body image, but is also well-trained in marital and family relationships. Her training includes two post graduate externships in marriage and family therapy—one at the Family Therapy Practice Center in Georgetown with internationally known therapist, Marianne Walters; and the other at Eastern Virginia Family Therapy Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Learn more at Dr. Linda Helps.