How Overeating Can Be an Addiction

Overeating is a common problem. It can lead to numerous other problems, ranging from heartburn in the short term to obesity in the long term. It has also been found to be associated with many GI symptoms, including abdominal pain, particularly in the upper gastrointestinal tract; bloating; and diarrhea. Eating too much one time won't cause obesity, but it may cause discomfort, pain, and interference with sleep.

Although we might expect that these symptoms would discourage people from overeating, unfortunately, the body adjusts to overeating by releasing dopamine—a natural pleasure chemical that encourages us to eat even more. So even if overeating causes pain and discomfort, we may feel compelled to continue overeating. This is an important part of how food addiction develops.

So over a longer period of time, overeating on a regular basis, without adequate exercise can lead to weight gain.

When we eat foods we enjoy, the body releases dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure or reward, and it encourages us to eat even more. So even if overeating causes pain and discomfort, we may feel compelled to continue overeating.

And just to make the situation even more complicated, there is not just one type of overeating. It can happen as a result of how you feel, who you are with, and many other factors. Here are 10 of the most frequently cited ways that overeating can become an issue.


Binge Eating

Young woman at dessert table of resort buffet
Caroline von Tuempling / Getty Images

Binge eating involves consuming a large amount of food in a short amount of time and feeling out of control. Binges, by definition, require you to eat more food than people normally do, and more food than you need.

Binge eating can happen on a single occasion, or it can become a regular way of eating, leading to problems. Although binge eating in itself does not necessarily constitute a food addiction or eating disorder, binge eating is a symptom of Binge Eating Disorder and the eating disorder Bulimia Nervosa and can be problematic.


Lack of Portion Control

Supersize meal portions are commonly the extra-large portions of fast food or restaurant meal servings, whereby the food portion you buy is much larger than a normal meal portion.

Supersize meal portions are heavily marketed, particularly in North American culture. This can easily lead to consuming much larger amounts of food than necessary and, if eaten on a regular basis, can lead to obesity and poor nutrition.


Emotional Eating

Emotional eating refers to using food to cope with a variety of distressing emotions, including anxiety and depression, stress, and boredom. Commonly cited on shows such as Oprah, emotional eating is frequently referred to as a way that women, in particular, eat when they feel upset or unhappy.

The clichés of the girl eating a quart of ice cream after a bad breakup, or the middle-aged women bingeing on carbs when she has PMS, are examples of "emotional eating" stereotypes.

Unfortunately these stereotypes can lead to the very behavior they portray in people who relate to them. What's more, men experience emotional eating as well.

Stress eating, comfort eating, and boredom eating all fall under the category of "emotional eating."

  • Boredom eating is a mindless approach to food, in which a lack of stimulation in other areas of life leads to eating, just to feel something. Boredom eaters can be prone to binge eating, supersize portions, compulsive snacking, sugar addiction, and fast food.
  • Comfort eating is often to deal with distressing emotions, similar to stress eaters and emotional eaters.
  • Stress eating is more heavily driven by anxiety rather than depression, and may be a way of fueling overwork when the time is not taken for adequate breaks or meals.

Sugar Addiction

Sweet, sugary food is particularly addictive to many people. Some people who overeat binge on confectionary or other sweet foods, with chocolate having a particular allure. Research studies have shown that people tend to crave high fat and sugary foods, and those foods tend to be more addictive.

Parents should be vigilant that their children do not develop sugar addiction, as daily sweets consumption in childhood is related to emotional difficulties in adulthood, as well as obesity and tooth decay.



Although eating two to three snacks a day between meals is often considered healthy, constant grazing, particularly on unhealthy snacks, can lead to overeating, whether the grazing is in place of or in addition to regular meals.

Grazing is a common disordered eating behavior that tends to lead to overeating. Many overeaters fall into the trap of carefully planning three healthy meals a day but not including snacks in their calorie count, thereby inadvertently overeating.


Fast Food

People who rely on fast food often overeat. Fast food is designed to stimulate overeating, typically by using a combination of sugar, salt, and fat, all shown by research to be addictive. Although the ingredients of fast food may be poor quality and unappetizing, the addictive ingredients ensure a huge turnover of high-calorie food, which can lead to obesity and poor nutrition.


Social Eating

Social eating is a widely accepted practice and, in moderation, can be a healthy activity. But people who are constantly under pressure to eat socially, such as those who routinely wine and dine others, or people who meet over business meals, may be prone to overeating, particularly when the expectation is for large portions and high-calorie foods.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.