Have you ever wondered why diets don’t work? Why you can’t stop binge eating? You may be tempted to think that you just lack self-control and need to work harder, but understanding the neurobiology of binge eating can provide us with more nuanced answers.
The brain is incredibly complex. Consisting of approximately 86 billion brain cells that operate like a spider web of networks, research shows that there are three key networks likely involved in eating.
For the average person heading home from work on a friday night, the hunger network in their brain begins to fire informing them yep, they are hungry! This triggers their reward network letting them know that they would really like pizza tonight, and they pull out their phone and order UberEats.
As they eat their pizza while watching a movie, their self-control and planning network takes over, checking in with the other networks, and suggests that this should be their last piece. The hunger network recognises fullness cues, the reward network activity reduces (along with reduced activity in the emotional centre of the brain – the amygdala), and leftover pizza is placed in the fridge.
It’s hard enough for the average person to not take another bite, but for those who struggle with binge eating disorders, in some ways your brain is working against you.
Research shows that for those who have binge eating disorders, the reward network (striatum and orbital frontal cortex – see the diagram for the brain structures involved if you are interested) fails to dial down, and the self-control and planning network (frontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) remains underactive. Therefore, even though someone with binge eating disorder is not hungry they continue to eat.
Additionally, the emotional part of the brain (amygdala) stays active, which is likely the cause of continued emotional eating.
Unfortunately, it gets harder. Ghrelin is a key hormone that regulates hunger and food digestion, and when we eat this hormone reduces, helping us know that we have had enough food. However, for those with binge eating disorders, this hormone does not reduce, making it harder to stop eating.
Further, what makes it even harder? There is the greatest activation in the reward network and further underactivation in the self-control and planning network following a period of dietary restraint – so dieting makes it worse.
So, if you are wondering why you can’t stop binge eating, neurobiology makes it clear: it is not a lack of willpower, laziness, or lack of self-control. There is a neurobiological basis for binge eating disorders and evidence-based strategies to help move toward recovery. Here are some brain based strategies to help get you started:
- Stop dieting – dieting causes greater activation in the reward network in the brain and under activation in the self-control and planning network in the brain.
Practical skills: regular eating
- Get started on increasing your ‘attunement’ to hunger and fullness signals – listening to your hunger network about what your body’s metabolism is communicating.
Practical skills: mindfulness of body sensations, logging hunger and fullness
- Strengthen the self-control and planning network – through building skills in managing emotions, problem solving and cognitive flexibility
Practical skills: realistic thinking, problem solving, emotion regulation skills
Handouts to assist with these can be found here.
Research shows that working with a psychologist has the strongest evidence for overcoming binge eating. If you would like to understand further about how to overcome your binge eating please contact Dr Carmel Harrison at BodyMatters.
Ely, A., Berner, L. A., Wierenga, C. E., & Kaye, W. H (2016). Neurobiology of Eating Disorders: Clinical Implications, Psychiatric Times.
Ely, A., Cusack, A. (2015). The Binge and the Brain. Cerebrum, Sep-Oct, 12-15
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Ely, A., Wierenga, C. E., Bischoff-Grethe, a et al. (2017). Response in taste circuitry is not modulated by hunger and satiety in women remitted from bulimia nervosa. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 126 (5), 519-530.
Monteleone P, Martiadis V, Fabrazzo M, Serritella C, & Maj M. (2003). Ghrelin and leptin responses to food ingestion in bulimia nervosa: implications for binge-eating and compensatory behaviours. Psychological medicine, 33 (8), 1387-1394.