Several possible causes may make a person unable to stop eating. These include disordered eating behaviors, emotional factors, or binge eating disorder.

For example, a person may feel like they cannot stop eating if they follow a very restrictive diet. Conversely, conditions such as binge eating disorder can also make it difficult to stop eating.

This article discusses five possible reasons why a person may not be able to stop eating, alongside treatments and support, tips for managing appetite, and when to contact a doctor.

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People may follow different restrictive diets by removing certain foods or reducing their calorie intake.

Calorie restriction is when a person reduces their average typical daily intake. Other people may restrict a certain food or food group from their diet, referred to as “dietary restriction.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests there are other possible signs of restriction, which may have negative implications. These include:

  • ignoring hunger signals by only drinking fluids
  • only eating certain “bad” foods on a “cheat day”
  • switching between diets or health trends

Risks of restriction

While moderate calorie restriction may have possible health benefits for some people, significant restriction over time can be harmful. According to animal research, cutting calories by 40% or more can impair the immune system.

It can also lead to people experiencing adverse health effects such as:

People who chronically undereat will often feel hungry. This may mean they can find it difficult to stop when they do begin to eat. Restriction can also lead to obsessive thoughts about food, which can be a sign of disordered eating.

Treatment and support

People can speak with a medical professional or dietitian if food restriction is negatively affecting their eating patterns and mental health. Early detection and treatment are important for a full recovery from the effects of disordered eating habits.

Treatment plans for eating disorders include one or more of the following:

  • psychotherapy
  • medical care and monitoring
  • nutritional counseling
  • medications

Older research from 2013 indicated that distracted eating resulted in a moderate increase in immediate food intake but increased later intake to a much greater extent.

For example, if someone eats while watching television or sitting at their desk, they may not consciously think about what or how much they are eating.

A 2017 paper discusses a concept referred to as “mindful eating,” which allows a person to focus on their sensual awareness of the food. The intention is to help individuals savor the moment and encourage their full presence for the eating experience.

Treatment and support

People can seek support from a dietitian for meal plans or guidance on being more attentive and mindful when eating. A dietitian can also identify possible triggers.

Anecdotal evidence suggests a person may also ask people in their close circle to eat with them to improve their eating schedules. These can be friends, family, or colleagues, for example.

Experts define overeating or nonstop eating as a response to emotions.

Some people may find they cannot stop eating to help them manage a particularly sad or stressful period. However, people may also associate positive emotions and events with eating more food.

When someone experiences emotional eating, they tend to eat in response to positive and negative emotions, not a physical need.

Possible theories have also explored alternative explanations, including:

  • Interoception-based theory: This refers to people who mistake physiological arousal for the emotions of hunger and, therefore, respond with eating.
  • Restraint theory: This states that some individuals who want to lose weight are prone to develop rigid dieting rules, and emotions might interfere with the cognitive control needed to uphold such strict diet rules.
  • The affect regulation model: This proposes that repeated pairing of negative emotions and eating results in an increased desire to eat in the presence of negative emotions.

Treatment and support

People may benefit from keeping a food diary or journal to identify possible triggers and patterns.

They may also wish to discuss any concerns and ways to manage their emotional eating with a therapist or nutritionist to help create more positive eating habits.

Learn more about stress eating.

Binge eating disorder refers to recurrent periods of excessive overeating. This disorder is often concerned with compulsion and control.

The National Eating Disorders Association diagnoses an episode of binge eating as eating a large amount of food in a discrete period of time and feeling a lack of control around eating.

Experts also associate binge eating episodes with three or more of the following:

  • eating more rapidly than usual
  • eating until uncomfortably full
  • eating large amounts even when not hungry
  • eating alone due to embarrassment
  • feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty

Treatment and support

Treatment for binge eating disorder tends to involve types of psychotherapy, such as:

Prescribed drugs that may also help reduce binge eating frequency include:

However, it is important to note that each of these medications has associated shortcomings and side effects.

Atypical eating behaviors do not always fulfill the criteria for an eating disorder, as they may be infrequent and less severe. However, they can still have lasting effects on a person’s health.

Healthcare professionals describe disordered eating as one or more of the following:

  • chronic dieting
  • control of food and food rituals are primary concerns
  • a limited range of preferred foods
  • cutting out a large number of food groups
  • an increased concern about ingredients
  • a desire to burn off calories
  • an excessive or rigid exercise regime

Past or active disordered eating behaviors increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Individuals may still have an unhealthy relationship with food beyond their initial disordered patterns, so it is important people receive the appropriate care throughout their recovery.

Treatment and support

Psychologists and medical professionals focus on the following as treatment options for eating disorders:

  • Physical recovery: This includes moderating weight and normalizing hormonal and electrolyte levels with suitable medical care and monitoring.
  • Behavioral recovery: This part aims to reduce or stop the disordered eating patterns.
  • Psychological recovery: This addresses the emotional and cognitive impact of body image and eating habits with counseling and psychological support.

Read more about different types of eating disorders.

Help is available

Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.

Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.

For general mental health support at any time, people can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24 hours a day at 1-800-662-4357 (or 1-800-487-4889 for TTY).

Many other resources are also available, including:

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People can seek support from a nutritionist or dietitian for the best way to manage their eating habits and appetite.

A person can help manage a healthy appetite by:

  • eating more protein, which can make people feel full for longer as it is more satiating than carbs and fats
  • avoiding skipping meals, as it reduces daily energy intake and may negatively affect health
  • eating more soluble dietary fiber, as it plays a significant role in appetite regulation
  • drinking water with food to help reduce energy intake
  • eating breakfast, as it improves appetite, satiety, and diet quality

A person may be unable to stop eating due to disordered eating behaviors, emotional factors, or binge eating disorder. Other causes include certain health conditions and medications.

With the right support and treatment, a person can have a positive relationship with food and modify their eating patterns. People may have psychotherapy to help with their eating habits, or a doctor may prescribe medication depending on the cause of overeating.

Tips for a person to manage their appetite include adding certain foods to their diet, such as fiber and protein, avoiding skipping meals, and maintaining hydration while eating.