Most people can think of a time they tried a meal so delicious, they ate a second serving. Perhaps they were tempted with a third even though they felt full.
Or when you attend a family event where your grandmother has made a nostalgic dish – you may feel like you could eat the whole platter!
Eating multiple servings or a large portion of a meal or snack on occasion is normal and something most people do.
However, some people may feel that they cannot control how much they eat in one sitting and are unable to stop eating.
In other circumstances, some people find they feel that they cannot say no when near or offered food. This may lead to them eating more than what feels comfortable in their body.
Reasons You Feel Out Of Control Around Food
There are many reasons why someone may feel out of control around food. Let’s explore some of the most common reasons:
Restricting and dieting can cause obsessive thoughts about food (1). The “binge-restrict” cycle is something many people fall into when eating ‘clean’ or ‘being good’ becomes the focus of their dietary choices (2).
Some healthcare professionals use the analogy of a pendulum to explain the binge-restrict cycle. At one end is extreme restriction and the other is extreme overeating. The pendulum (eating habits) wants to balance in the middle when left to its natural state (2).
Restriction can include limiting how much food you eat, what foods you allow yourself to eat, and/or when you eat.
Restrictive eating patterns or behaviours may look like following an extremely low-energy diet or struggling with an eating disorder.
The loss of control, overeating or binging that occurs alongside restrictive eating is sometimes perceived as lack of willpower. Regardless of ‘willpower’, their body will fight against the restriction by ‘losing control’ around food at some point. This is the body trying to protect itself against starvation.
Social media and diet culture may also encourage feelings of guilt and shame after breaking food rules and ‘losing control’ (e.g. cheat days or meals).
Feelings of guilt cause individuals to restrict more to compensate for any rule breaking, leading to further binging in the future (1).
Linked to the binge-restrict cycle is all-or-nothing thinking and behaviours.
One half of this thinking is being committed to one behaviour, while the other half is the complete opposite. When related to food, it can look like either following a strict ‘healthy’ diet or having no control around diet at all (4).
If someone breaks their ‘good’ behaviour they may feel like they have failed so may as well continue before resetting.
For example, someone may decide to stop eating ice-cream entirely as part of a ‘healthy’ diet:
Their favourite ice-cream is on special at the supermarket.
After restricting for some time they buy a large tub of ice-cream and eat the whole thing to the point of discomfort.
There are many different food rules. Some common rules are:
- Eliminating particular foods or food groups from the diet.
- Only eating at certain times or in certain places.
- Consuming a set amount of food/a particular food.
- Categorisng some foods as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’
Often, food rules are made when people are following a particular diet or trying to make a ‘healthy’ change.
Food can be more than just a source of energy; it is part of socialising, celebrating and can be comforting in difficult times for some people.
Uncontrollable eating may be used as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable feelings.
For example, the feeling of being out of control around food may be triggered by feelings like sadness, anger, or being overwhelmed.
Food and eating can cause physiological responses that increase happiness (7).
Similar to emotional eating, feeling stressed can trigger someone to eat larger than comfortable amounts of food. In this instance, food may be used as a way of coping with the feeling.
This is due to a hormonal response to high levels of cortisol in the body; cortisol is released as part of the fight-or-flight stress response. This spike in cortisol can cause increased motivation including motivation to eat (8).
Not eating enough during the day
In the same way that intentional restrictive behaviours can cause bingeing, unintentional restriction can do the same.
Unintentional restriction during the day often occurs to busy and time-poor people who struggle to find time in their schedule to eat regular meals and snacks.
If you do not eat enough as the day goes on, you may find that you experience a lack of control around food when arriving home at dinner time. This is your body’s reaction to being unintentionally put in starvation mode when you haven’t eaten enough during the day.
Poorly planned meals
While you may be eating meals or snacking throughout the day, only eating certain foods will not satisfy your body’s nutrient needs. This may lead to overconsumption later.
For example, insufficient protein intake will leave the body feeling unsatiated and cause cravings or feelings of uncontrollable bingeing if ongoing.
Taking back control
Relationships with food are personal and unique but feeling out of control around food is often the result of not eating enough/restrictive behaviour around food and uncomfortable emotions.
To take control of feelings around food, it is important to identify the reason why you may feel out of control.
Managing emotions and stress:
If your food behaviours are influenced by uncomfortable emotions, it may be helpful to discuss these feelings with a healthcare professional.
Working with a dietitian and/or psychologist can support your relationship with food. They may provide advice on how to gain control of the emotions you experience and other ways of coping with them that are not food related.
Other coping mechanisms that do not revolve around food include going for a walk, reaching out to a support person, or building distress tolerance. Keeping a food and mood diary can also be helpful in helping you reflect on how your emotions and eating behaviours are related.
Gaining food freedom
The online dietitians at the PNW Clinic can provide strategies and support to help remove food rules and restrictions that are not supporting your health from your diet.
Some actions that may be helpful include:
- Identify your food rules by writing a list. Having any rules written down will help clear your mind and make them less overwhelming to tackle.
- Make small changes, one at a time. Totally changing your diet can be overwhelming and make changes harder to stick to.
- Use positive language around food. Rather than labelling some foods as ‘bad’, ‘unhealthy’ or ‘junk’, think of how including a range of foods in your diet is part of ‘balance’ and it is okay to enjoy different foods. Another mindset that may be helpful is considering how different foods are ‘nourishing’ to your body and support long-term health.
For the busy-bee:
If you find you are time-poor and this is why you often miss out on meal time or snacks, there are many ways to make time in your day to eat.
Setting an alarm on your phone is an easy way to remind yourself to take a lunch break. An alternative to this is having a time blocked in your calendar every day to create a period where you have no other commitments.
Setting up meal time with someone else can hold you accountable for taking a break. For example, you might make arrangements to have lunch with a colleague at the same time each day.
Another tip for busy people is to meal-prep or cook large portions. This way you always have something ready-made and easy to grab when you are on the go.
This could be cooking extra dinner to eat as leftovers the next day, or spending time on a particular day each week prepping ingredients to be easily put in a container.
Knowledge is power
Working with a dietitian like our team at the PNW Clinic can also be helpful if you need inspiration for meals and snacks that will nourish your body.
A dietitian can create a meal plan with foods that support your health and will leave you feeling satisfied. They can also provide information and resources to empower you to build satisfying and nourishing meals yourself.
Eating more than you feel like you should or feels good in your body is something many people struggle with.
Feeling out of control around food can be caused by many things. Most have the core theme of food as a way to cope with difficult emotions or not eating enough and/or the right foods to satisfy your body’s needs.
Each individual’s relationship is unique. Identifying the cause of your food behaviours is the first step in working on feeling more free around food.
Strategies for regaining a sense of control can vary depending on why you feel out of control to begin with.
Healthcare professionals can provide support and guidance if you are looking to work on your relationship with food.
The PNW Clinic’s online dietitians offer free 15-minute discovery calls. These are a great place to start if you would like to find out if a dietitian is the right person to support you.
Written by: Student dietitian Lilee Lunney
Reviewed by: PNW dietitian Jade Wrigley