The Real Cause of Compulsive Eating

By Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN
July 11, 2012


It's time to take the guilt out of eating. Sounds good, you say to yourself, but I have just fallen off my food plan and devoured several brownies, carefully cutting one after another until the whole pan was gone.

I often ask myself, why do I lose control of my eating? I am a very successful person in every aspect of my life until it comes to eating. I am frustrated by my lack of will power and I am losing my self-esteem.

People will say to just stop with one brownie, one cookie, or one donut. I laugh to myself, realizing sadly, that is impossible for me.

It's a matter of chemistry

The psychological approach to correcting obsessive eating suggests that I should identify my feeling before I take the first brownie. Am I lonely, sad, happy, or all of the above? Once I take the first bite, I am on the fast track to a binge.

The behavioral approach suggests savoring things in life other than food, such as a sunset, music, or a bird singing. I have realized that for me, nothing matches the rush I experience from that first bite.

As a nutritionist, I have heard people’s food struggles over and over for more than 20 years. Clients are frustrated with the answers they have been given from family members, friends, and even professionals. Nothing has helped this debilitating, guilt-ridden behavior that chokes away self-esteem.

The true solution to compulsive eating comes from understanding the biochemistry of your cravings, hunger, and addictive pattern of eating so you can finally put an end to the struggle. At the core of your being, an acceptance of your own personal biochemistry is critical. Once you take on personal responsibility for your biochemistry, you take charge of your cravings and compulsive eating.

Out of control blood sugar

Research has confirmed many people simply cannot eat sugar and grains without it leading to out of control eating. You can check this out for yourself. Examine the sensitive nature of your own blood sugar (the highs and lows): the cravings created and the physical, emotional, and mental response you have to both high and low blood sugar.

What happens to your blood sugar when you eat a high carbohydrate diet? It doesn't matter which processed carbohydrate food you choose, carbohydrates break down into sugar (glucose) in your body and go into your blood. Unbalanced blood sugar levels are a major cause of carbohydrate cravings. Because your blood cannot tolerate too much sugar, your body naturally produces the hormone insulin that takes sugar from the blood and deposits it into the cells. When you eat a high carbohydrate meal, your blood sugar rises to a dangerous level. Large doses of insulin rush to the scene and clear out the sugar. As a result of clearing, the opposite state occurs, called low blood sugar. You may be familiar with feeling low blood sugar—being tired, irritable or even shaky. To bring blood sugar back up, your body sends your brain a chemical message saying, "I need sugar, eat sugar." Hence you crave pop, bread, brownies, pasta, or anything with sugar. In effect, carbohydrate cravings are a biochemical response to low blood sugar. Cravings are not a lack of will power!

The sweet side of alcoholism

If you have traded an alcohol addiction (sugar) for a sweet roll addiction (sugar), you have gained little more than a lessened risk for a DWI. Biochemically, sugar and alcohol are the same thing. When you take in large amounts of sugar it sends your blood sugar high and releases a feel-good neurotransmitter called serotonin. The alcohol and the sweet roll both send your blood sugar high, but the alcohol is able to spike your blood sugar twice as fast. So if you have stopped taking in alcohol and replaced it with high sugar eating, you are setting yourself up for a relapse.

If you are ready to put an end to this cycle, you need to be eating balanced meals every two hours and taking some amino acids to help rebuild and heal your brain chemistry. Balanced meals should consist of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. For healthy protein, eat chicken, fish, beef, cheese, and steak. For fat, choose butter, olive oil, raw nuts, and cream cheese. For carbohydrates, choose fruits and lots of veggies.

Helping out the brain

For some people, compulsive eating is related to deficiencies in neurotransmitters. If you lack serotonin, dopamine, or one of the other essential chemical communicators in your brain, the resulting behavior is cravings for carbohydrates, especially sugar and bread products. Chips, because of the high sugar content of potatoes and corn, can become one of those high-sugar foods many people compulsively eat.

Your food plan should include a serving of protein the size of the palm of your hand at each meal and half of that at each snack. Animal protein will assist in the production of the neurotransmitters. The plan should also include sufficient Omega-3 fatty acids (brain nutrients) to assist chemical communicators. Wild caught salmon, sardines, and organic eggs are excellent sources of the Omega-3 fatty acids.

Antibiotics and sugar cravings

For others, the cravings and lack of control have a biochemical connection to the unhealthy condition of the intestinal tract. Have you noticed that you have more sugar cravings after a round of antibiotic treatment? Rebalancing your gut with probiotics can tame those cravings before they take over.

To achieve optimal biochemical balance, most people need the assistance of a professional who is versed in all aspects of biochemical imbalances.

A food plan that provides structure, designed to rebalance your own personal biochemistry, leads to the most successful results. Eating should provide the nutrients to create energy, physical well-being, mental alertness, and spiritual growth. Most people receiving this type of nutritional support achieve lasting success.

About the author

Darlene founded Nutritional Weight & Wellness. In her 25 years as a counselor and nutritionist, Darlene has helped so many people change their lives using the power of real food. She is a licensed nutritionist who earned the title Certified Nutrition Specialist from the American College of Nutrition, a prestigious association of medical and research scientists to further nutrition research. She has served on the Board of Dietetics and Nutrition Practice for the State of Minnesota.

View all posts by Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN


Sue Hess
Can you provide names of nutritionists in the Philadelphia area who work with compulsive eaters?
May 14, 2016 at 5:36 am


Hi there. I'm sorry we're not familiar with that area, but our nutritionists do consultations over the phone and Skype as well. 

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