Why can't I stop binge eating?

Four slices of vegetarian pizza on a cutting board
Why can't I just eat 2 pieces and be done?

Why do you eat any food more than you should?

This is one of the most-asked questions I get from clients and students. And answering it is one of the first steps towards reclaiming your intuitive eating skills (you were born with them BTW).

Sound familiar?

Jess is a busy mom with two kids. She works full-time, tries to eat healthy, and works out to keep her weight in check. Recently, she's noticed that her weight has been creeping up and she's worried about her health.

She loves pizza. It's convenient to order in on a busy weeknight or after a long week of putting out everyone else's fires. But since she's worried about her health and weight, she tells herself, "I'm only going to eat 2 pieces and have a salad on the side."

Sounds reasonable, right? Sure, and you probably know what happens next.

One of two scenarios. Jess doesn't just eat 2 pieces, but a handful of pieces (forget the salad) stopping only because she knows her kids will be disappointed if they don't get pizza for lunch the next day.

Or she restrains herself to the 2 pieces then follows them up with a pint of ice cream in front of Netflix after the kids are in bed. Either way, Jess feels guilty, ashamed, and determined to have better control the next time she allows herself to have pizza - key words control and allow.

What's really going on here? Why is it so hard to only eat 2 pieces of pizza with a salad?

Here's why. Diet culture-infused messaging and habituation, are what make or break having a healthy relationship with pizza, or any food that you deem unhealthy or junky.

A bowl of potato chips
You gotta have more chips not less to make peace with them

I used to do the same thing back in my dieting days. Pizza, trail mix, granola, cookies, chips, chocolate, were my gotta-watch-it foods because I was taught that they'd make me gain weight.

But what I've come to understand, personally and professionally, is that there's nothing seductive or addictive about food - any food. It's the act of restriction, physically or mentally, that causes the inability to stop when you think you should.

Researchers have tried to understand what are the additive qualities of highly palatable foods like pizza, chips, cookies, candy, etc. Diet culture says it's the sugar, fat, and salt that's addictive. But the research isn't as clear.

It's true that the pleasure center in your brain lights up when you eat the delicious food you don't eat all the time the same as it does when you see a friend you haven't seen in a while.

But, here's the kicker. It's not actually the food or the friend that is lighting up that neuro-pathway, it's the fact that you were restricted from the food or the friend for whatever reason that makes them more pleasurable.

Restriction is the keyword here. What research has shown, through studies with mice and mice chow, is that when the mice are given continuous access to the chow, they eat what they need and go on about their day.

However, if the researchers restrict the amount of chow the mice get, like when you go on a diet, then they eventually give the mice unlimited access to the chow, the mice eat non-stop, ignoring fullness and satisfaction signals.

What's this have to do with you and pizza? The minute you decided that you should only have 2 pieces of pizza or should only have pizza a couple of times a month, your brain shifts into restriction mode.

Then when you do order the pizza, (based on neuroscience) there's no way you're going to only eat 2 pieces and have a salad to be good! Your brain will be screaming, "this is amazing, give me more pizza, screw the salad! Who knows when I'll have pizza again!"

On the flip side, if you make a habit out of eating pizza weekly or even 2, 3, 4 times per week, you're less likely to get the same thrill out of eating it.

I know. I can already hear you saying, "wait, a dietitian is telling me to eat unlimited pizza, what about my health?" I hear you. This is where trust and practice come in.

Your body has to learn to trust that it will always have access to pizza and as much as it needs. It has to trust that you won't all of a sudden freak out about health or weight changes and cut off the pizza supply. Your mind has to trust that there will always be enough of the pizza or any food, whatever it is.

Once you establish that physical and mental trust by creating a habit out of eating pizza, you'll no longer lust after it. You'll eat it when you feel like it. Have as much as you're satisfied with. And look forward to having it again whenever you want. This is called habituation.

Woman and man standing together on a beach at sunset
Sparks fly when I hear "I Love You" for the first time

Another example. Remember when you were first dating your partner, spouse, or significant other? Remember the first time they said I love you? Thrilling wasn't it. Remember that first kiss...aha!!! Fireworks, tingling throughout your body, heart racing. And you probably couldn't leave each other alone (think Jamie and Claire on Outlander).

Fast forward after a few months, years, or decades of being with the person, and hearing I love you or getting a smooch on the way out the door isn't as thrilling. Hopefully, you still like the person and probably still love them. But because they've been a consistent part of your life for so long, that rush of excitement isn't there. That's habituation.

If you want to stop compulsive or binge eating beyond fullness and satisfaction, you need more pizza, chips, candy, ice cream, mixed nuts, whatever not less. You have to make those foods a habit. Your body and mind have to trust that the food will always be there and that you'll allow yourself full permission to eat them - without making a plan to compensate the next day (not eat as much or doing excessive exercise).

Habituation is an essential first step to savoring food without guilt and creating a peaceful relationship with food and your body. It's 1 of the 6 strategies I teach in my free download, Six Strategies to Savor Food Without Guilt. You can download the strategies here and start making peace with all foods and your body today.