Why Can’t I Stop Binge Eating? (Hint: Check Your Stress Levels)

Hey–FYI, triggers ahead. Read at your own risk.  

I’m not a stranger to stress.

In fact, if you know me, you know that’s a bit of an understatement.

Type-A, overachieving, blah blah blah. You’ve heard it before. You’ve probably lived it before. I know too many people like me.

And that’s because we’re all living in a world full of chronically stressful #firstworldproblems. Our jobs are killing us. Our diets are causing us inflammation and disease. We sit all day. Our commutes are too long. Our fitness regimens are too demanding (or nonexistent). Our finances are messy, our kitchens are messy, our thoughts are messy.


My thoughts are messy.

I’ve been battling stress a lot more than usual lately (commuting 4 hours a day, work stress, freelance stress, chronic pain, lack of sleep, etc.)…and ED’s started rearing his very ugly head.

As I sit here, post-binge, uncomfortable, confused, and a little sad, I realize that I can’t solve a problem until I understand it. And so I write:

Let’s start with stress. If you’ve been hanging around the Paleo-sphere (internet, podcasts, etc.) then you’ve heard the word “cortisol” thrown around a lot as of late. It’s more than a buzzword: it’s a hormone. You may have heard of it as the “fight or flight” hormone, i.e. the hormone that spikes when you’re being chased by a lion or swerving to avoid a car accident–and while it definitely serves the purpose of helping you avoid death by acute stressors, it does much more than that.


Cortisol works with melatonin to balance your circadian rhythm. It works with insulin to balance glucose. When you’re chronically stressed (with your cortisol levels out of whack), your sleep suffers and your insulin sensitivity suffers. Lack of sleep can cause people to overeat carbohydrates, overeating carbohydrates can lead to insulin resistance, and insulin resistance can lead to weight gain and, for disordered eaters like myself, even in recovery, can cause a heck of a lot more stress. (Cortisol also causes abdominal fat storage, which is why many people who over train in the gym–who subject themselves to excess stress on a chronic basis–can’t seem to get rid of that roll of belly fat.)

On top of all of that, constant stress can lead to preference for high-energy foods (again, highly palatable carbs and fats) because the body perceives your need to be able to constantly run from a threat. AND the inability to calm down the stress response, can throw off the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can lead to increased depression, anxiety–and pleasure-seeking, compulsive behaviors. (And when you combine an increase in addictive, sugary/starchy or hyper-palatable fatty foods with compulsive behaviors…well, things spiral downward pretty quickly.)


Stress = (need for sleep x desire for food)

Stress + not-sleeping = more stress + not-sleeping.

Not sleeping = stress + desire for more food, or (need for sleep + desire for more food2)

(And I’m not a mathematician, but basically what this equals is a big mess that causes more stress.)


All of this to say: there’s a reason why “comfort foods” exist. There’s a reason why binges happen. When you’re stressed and not sleeping, your body craves solace. It also craves carbohydrates. When you’re hormonally imbalanced, you can end up in a positive feedback loop that keeps your levels of stress chronically elevated until your body eventually just burns out.

On those nights (or days or weeks or months) when you’re inexorably drawn to the kitchen cabinet, when your cravings literally drive you out of the house at all hours in search of the very thing you don’t want but can’t seem to live without–be it Twinkies or vegan chocolate fudge or coconut butter–compulsion doesn’t discriminate based on your dietary identification–on those nights, know that it’s not your fault. It’s not about a lack of willpower. It’s not about being unable to maintain a diet or a commitment to yourself or whatever excuse you’re using to mentally beat yourself up for this perceived inability to stop desperately seeking cereal or chocolate, etc.

Your body is literally unable to process the binge as anything but the required evolutionary response. Your brain and your body are just trying to do right by you–keep you alive while whatever metaphorical lions chase you down–they’re not trying to cause you more pain, even if that’s the actual end result.

So you can forgive yourself.

You can forgive yourself, and with the knowledge of what’s going on, you can start to break the cycle.

If that means yoga or meditation or learning to tell your boss “no” or shutting down the computer an hour early or leaving a bad relationship or reconciling with a family member or taking steps to eliminate whatever is causing you to exist in a constant state of stress…then that’s where the work begins.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of being stressed. I’m there myself. I know what happens when I sleep too little, bite off more than I can chew, and stop going to yoga. It’s up to me to do the work to start calming the stress response down. That’s the part that won’t be easy. But it starts with forgiveness and ends with committing to doing positive work.


And it’s time to start working out of that negative place. You don’t have to be in the throes of an eating disorder to feel these effects–but it’s important to break free from any disordered eating patterns before you imprint them (and the negative self-talk that follows the behaviors) on your psyche.

So, I don’t have a big “aha” moment to leave you with…just a quiet call to action: join me this week. Join me in un-stressing. In committing to do just one thing to bring the stress level down this week. It’s partially a selfish call to action because I need help with this too. So keep me accountable & also share your tips.

What will you do to forgive yourself and unstress this week? Leave me a comment below or tweet at me with the hashtag #unstress.

Stay hungry,


7 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Stop Binge Eating? (Hint: Check Your Stress Levels)

  1. I do not have any tips to give…:-(
    As I struggle myself with stress, just want to let you know that I enjoy and appreciate very much your writing.
    Much love ( and calm…:-) to you.

    • Thank you! I’m heading into this week with a clearer head and a commitment to holding onto as much inner peace as I can! I hope that the same holds for you as well–Happy Monday to you, my friend! 🙂

  2. Hang in there! You are such an inspiration, and I know you will be able to unstress. I don’t have many tips, except that when I’m at my stress level breaking point, I like to lay outside and look at the sky (preferably at night, when I can see the stars). It reminds me of how small we are, in comparison to the universe. It also reminds me of the infinite possibilities that the world holds for us, if we are open to them.
    Also, this week, I will forgive myself for not being superwoman, for having to slow down every once in a while, for having limits. Because no one person can have everything, and I’ve come to realize that that’s a good thing. If we could have everything, there would be nothing to reach for. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! (Sorry it’s taken me about five years to reply. Apparently getting buried in email means I miss the important things…)

      I love the idea of laying outside and looking up at the sky. I’ve been trying to find ways to connect with nature a little better lately…When I lived in Florida I used to go to the beach at night to think, but it’s been almost a year and a half since I’ve done that. I think I’m going to have to take your advice.

      And I’m glad that you’re forgiving yourself for not being superwoman. Because, frankly, I think you’re a pretty super woman (haha), and you don’t need red, white, and blue spandex to prove it! 🙂

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  4. Thank you! What a kind and inspiring article. Over the past few weeks I’ve been having uncontrollable cravings, all due to stress, and giving into those make matters even worse. Doing yoga has been a great help and I finally made the decision to choose for me; to do what’s right for me and not what others expect or want. After all, my health and body are worth it to be taken good care of and no one else will do so but me.
    Un-stressing and forgiving yourself are so important to take as first steps.

    • Thanks, Marinka! You’re right–we’re the only ones who will take care of us–and we definitely owe it to ourselves to be as kind as we can. Yoga is a great way to do de-stressing thing–I’ve found that I’m at my happiest and calmest when I have a regular practice. And making the choice to care for yourself can be one of the hardest things in the world to do…but as Sarah Fragoso of Everyday Paleo put it, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first! 😀

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