Binge Eating & Work Stress: How to Regain Control of Your Life

by | Body Image, Personal Development, Success

Is work-related stress preventing you from taking control of your eating habits? Learn how to end compulsive eating by improving this area of your life.

Can Too Much Work Cause a Binge Episode?

Binge eating is a rather new phenomenon. But almost 3% of the general population experiences regular episodes of compulsive eating [1]. Yet the condition is not that well understood.

Current research suggests the issue is mostly psychological in nature. Psychologists suspect there’s a correlation between stress levels and binge eating disorders (BED).

Work is one of the biggest contributors to stress. Knowledge workers, especially busy entrepreneurs, face an increased risk of developing eating disorders. However, overwhelming workload is not enough to lead to a binge episode. There are other risk factors.

Compulsive Eating Risk Factors

Work-related stress can act as a catalyst. But it’s rarely the sole reason why you go crazy with food. Here are some of the most common precursors of eating disorders:

  • genes – some people might be genetically predisposed to develop certain behaviors
  • early childhood development – bad eating habits picked up from family members that can later evolve into more damaging behavior
  • low self-esteem and depression – food can become a coping mechanism for dealing with episodes of severe emotional pain
  • psychological stress – all kinds of stress can indirectly cause overeating (e.g. anxiety, depression, domestic abuse, etc)
  • poorly executed diets – very aggressive diets can backfire and make you susceptible to binge episodes
  • being overweight – some physiological (e.g. increased cortisol, cravings, etc) and psychological aspects (negative body image) of that state may lead to compulsive eating

A combination of 2 or more of these conditions increases the likeliness of developing a disorder. But remember these are only risk factors. Just because you’re dealing with an overwhelming emotion or physical condition doesn’t necessarily lead to binging.

There are a number of coping mechanisms we humans like to apply. Some can be pretty destructive (e.g. substance abuse). Others can be empowering and actually help us resolve the problems (e.g. getting in shape, meditation, etc).

Important: When it comes to genes, even if you have “bad” genes doesn’t mean you’ll express them. “Predisposed” to certain conditions doesn’t mean “predestined”. 

Overeating vs Binge Eating

It’s easy to confuse them, but they’re not the same [2]:

  • Binging is associated with elevated concerns with shape or weight. Overeating often occurs as an unconscious activity. Not realizing it or even caring.
  • Compulsive eating happens mostly during a discrete period of time, away from others. When it comes to overeating it’s rarely something the person tries to purposely hide.
  • Overeating is usually caused by initial hunger signals or cravings. Binge eating is usually triggered by an uncontrolled emotional reaction.
  • When going through a binge episode most people don’t consider the specific type or properties of the food consumed, mostly the amount. With overeating, taste matters a great deal.
  • Unlike binge eating, overeating is rarely associated with a total lack of control or guilt.

Overeating can be the precursor of different food disorders, including BED. That’s a possible result if food habits keep deteriorating over time. Usually, there’s also weight gain. That itself may turn into a source of stress. Physiological problems due to increased body fat can indirectly lead to compulsive eating.

How It All Starts in the Office

In a work setting, especially an office, overeating is a common problem. It starts by creating an abundance of convenient foods.

People begin bringing treats to express gratitude. Because of a special occasion. Or maybe it’s part of the office culture. Though a similar problem may occur even if you’re working at home and rely on quick snacks.

You have a very bad combination:

  • easy access to snacks
  • hectic schedule degrading normal eating habits
  • high-stress situations
  • sedentary culture

The environment itself doesn’t support normal (healthy) eating habits. It’s not hard for a person to engage in unconscious overeating. Food itself can become a coping mechanism to deal with stressful situations. The added calories and no movement will certainly affect your weight. This, in turn, deteriorates your health and adds more stress [3].

At some point your whole relationship with food changes. The deeper you fall into the rabbit hole, the more your physical and mental states deteriorate. Compulsive eating may be the end result of all this.

It’s unlikely for binge episodes to occur at the workplace. At least not until everybody has left and you’re by yourself ordering 3 large Domino’s pizzas. Though the behavioral changes that led to that may be the result of the poor food culture there.

How to Deal with Emotional Eating as a Busy Entrepreneur?

Here are the 3 main components of BED and how to deal with each one [4]:

  • psychological component: mood, obsessive-compulsive, impulsive disorders, etc
    • aggravated by your environment, other stressors, or certain mental conditions
    • solutions: emotion and stress management, therapy, outside help (social support, coaching, etc), or changing your environment
  • physiological component: hormonal fluctuations, gastrointestinal issues, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, etc
    • caused by abnormal bodyweight or specific diseases and physical conditions
    • solutions: improving general health (including eating and exercise habits), and/or dedicated medical treatment (including prescription drugs and surgery)
  • behavioral component: poor eating habits
    • overconsumption outside of a binge eating episode or emotional eating
    • solutions: self-education, working with a nutritionist or fitness coach, doing a challenge (e.g. “30 days no sugar”), or outsourcing your food prep

The goal is not rapid, but lasting changes. Quick fixes rarely work. Especially when you consider binge eating is often the result of many different problems that all need to be dealt with.

When you’re chronically stressed out, you may already be sick and overweight. If you’re in a particularly bad spot, you may need strong social support and professional help.

Least to Most Effective Solutions to Your Eating Disorder

Most BED treatments focus on different components of the problem. But you can combine multiple solutions. Though this doesn’t always lead to a notable difference in results [5].

Some treatment options may reduce the severity of binge eating episodes. But not affect how often they occur. That’s why your primary goal is to quickly decrease the number of binge instances [6].

Here are the most popular types of treatment:

Surgery

Bariatric surgery is usually used to treat weight gain. But it may also help with BED. There are several different procedures (see list below). The goal is to limit the stomach’s holding capacity and/or limit nutrient absorption.

  • Laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding (LAGB)
  • Laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (RYGB)
  • Open RYGB
  • Biliopancreatic diversion (BPD) with and without duodenal switch
  • Sleeve gastrectomy

However, surgery is not a recommended treatment for BED. It doesn’t address the psychological nature of the issue. Patients often continue to exhibit the same compulsive eating behavior. Though they often lose weight and reduce their food intake [7]. This may offer some indirect help.

Drugs

Some prescription drugs may be used to treat binge-eating. Those medications usually fall into one of these 3 categories:

  • antidepressants – generally used to treat major depressive disorders. In the case of BED, such drugs may help boost your mood. Considering binges usually occur when people experience negative emotions, antidepressants may help reduce those instances.
  • anticonvulsants – generally used to treat seizures, but also for bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. Such drugs suppress the excessive rapid firing of neurons and can act as mood stabilizers. That may indirectly help reduce binge episodes.
  • antiobesity drugs – used to control weight gain. The work by either limiting appetite or energy absorption. Not very effective against preventing binge episodes, but they may reduce the amount of food consumed and subsequent weight gain.

Some studies report medication treatment may produce short-term results, but the long-term effects and still unknown [8] [9]. Antidepressants are the most widely applied drugs as they help deal with the main (psychological) aspect of the problem.

The effectiveness of drugs is questionable. Especially when external risk factors (environment, work stress, etc.) remain the same. Also, prescription medications do come with the risk of side-effects. Some of which are not well understood.

Note: it is unclear to what extent positive results are caused by the actual drug or the placebo effect.

Psychotherapy and Structured Self-Help

Psychotherapy aims to directly deal with the core psychopathology traits associated with eating disorders. Psychological treatments are not always standardized. The exact approach used may differ. Though generally they can be divided into:

  • behavioral and self-help interventions: self-guided improvement utilizing publicly available information or paid resources. The focus is on creating lasting emotional and behavioral changes yourself. This approach is most effective in patients exhibiting lower psychopathological features.
  • psychotherapy – the use of standardized psychological methods with the help of an experienced professional and/or a social support group. The goal is to resolve or mitigate troublesome behaviors with the help of others. Some of the evidence-based therapies include:
    • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
    • interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
    • dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
    • behavioral weight loss (BWL)

If your disorder is caused or related to work stress, therapy is probably your best bet. This includes self-help and social support. The proper treatment will address the root cause of the problem. But also have the side benefit of helping you organize your work life better.

A substantial body of evidence points towards psychological treatments as some of the most effective ways to prevent, limit, and end compulsive eating [10]. Certain treatments focus mostly on direct behavioral changes (e.g. BWL). Others combine strategies that help regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors (e.g. CBT and IPT).

Effectiveness and Considerations

Psychotherapy and structured self-help based on cognitive-behavioral interventions are recommended as first-line treatment options [11]. They help directly target the psychological nature of the condition. That also involves solving the main cause of the problem which may be work stress or a busy schedule.

Such treatments are associated with most robust short- and long-term binge abstinence rates [12]. And they reduce the number of drop-out rates while improving the management of relapses [13] [14]. Note that combining such interventions with surgery or medication doesn’t always significant advantages [15]

Note: self-help and therapy are no guarantee for success. There are still a lot of things we don’t understand about compulsive eating. But psychotherapy offers the highest chances of improvement.

How To Finally Overcome Binge Eating?

Providing you with actionable steps to deal with your unique situation is beyond the scope of this article. But you should already have a clear idea of how severe your condition is. Creating awareness can help you get started.

Now all you need is to figure out the steps needed to solve the problem. Sometimes simple schedule and environment changes can do the trick.

Or maybe you realized you need an extra push. Someone with the expertise to help improve your eating habits. But if your situation is much more severe, therapy or drug treatment may be the best option.

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Until next time!

~Niki, Fitness Mastery Coach

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