We would need food, and we would eat it. However, food can be simply delicious. It can smell wonderful, look beautiful, and taste amazing. It is no wonder that almost everyone gives in to temptation from time to time and eats just a little too much. Sometimes, the wonder of food is really hard to resist.
But there are some people who eat too much on a regular basis. When these people start eating, they simply cannot stop. People like this can face very real consequences due to their overeating habits, and they can also face very real cultural stigma.
As Psychology Today points out, modern culture associates overeating with contempt. People who can control their behaviors and cravings are considered good and virtuous, while those who cannot do so are thought of as lazy or expendable. That is particularly true for men, as modern culture expects men to be strong, capable, and in charge at all times. Men who cannot even handle their appetites might be viewed in a negative light as a result.
That view of overeating has very little to do with reality. In fact, most teenage boys and adult men who have overeating issues are dealing with factors that are far beyond their control. Research is just beginning to bring this very complicated, and very important, issue to light.
Is It an Addiction?
The tasks associated with eating are typically handled by the mouth, throat, stomach, and intestines. But the brain has a role to play in the selection of food and the initiation of the eating process. Some of the changes the brain goes through, both before and during an overeating episode, could make overeating compulsive or addictive.
In a study of the issue, highlighted by Scientific American, researchers point out that the brain releases a pleasurable chemical (dopamine) in response to food that tastes good. That chemical release works like a bookmark, so the brain can take note of activities that feel good and therefore might be good for the body. People who eat a great deal can take in a great deal of dopamine, researchers suggest, and that could make them more likely to overeat again.
The brain is designed to react to a specific amount of dopamine, researchers say, and when it is provided with a dopamine signal that is too big, changes can result. The brain can turn off dopamine receptors, to muffle the next overeating onslaught, and that means people might eat even more during the next session. Dopamine feels good, and a rush feels wonderful. People who want that rush might need to eat more to get it.
This is the same cycle of dopamine flood and response seen in people who take drugs like heroin or OxyContin. These people also need to take in more to feel the same rush, and these people find it hard to stop taking drugs. Similarly, people with a long history of overeating might also find it hard to stop, due to the brain’s changes. These people are not making the choice to overeat. They are dealing with damaged brain cells.
This is a relatively new concept, but it is one that researchers are excited about. As one researcher writing for the American Journal on Addictions points out, thinking about overeating as an addiction, and treating it as such, could help to both prevent and treat obesity. It could help people to gain a new understanding, and that could help them to stay healthier.
Addiction models are not the only models researchers use in order to understand and explain overeating in men and teenage boys.
There are other parts of a man’s mind and his history that could influence his behavior at the table.
Is It Caused by Obesity?It is easy to understand how overeating on a regular basis could help to boost a person’s size. The body needs only a certain amount of calories every day in order to handle its work, and when the person takes in too many calories, they are stored in the body, and they contribute to changes in size. Researchers now think that those changes in size could actually prompt people to continue to overeat.In one study of 124 people, published in the journal Appetite, researchers asked people to rank their cravings for specific types of food, and answer questions about the way in which they ate. Men who were considered overweight had a higher craving for foods laden with fat, when compared to men who were not overweight. This seems to suggest that something about the men’s overall shape or size had an impact on the types of foods they wanted to eat.This study is small, so it is not wise to make overarching statements about what the research means. More work must be done before that connection becomes clear. But it seems at least possible that people who are on the top end of the spectrum of size might be prompted to eat more, and more foods high in fat, than people who are a little smaller. They have bigger cravings, so those urges might be harder to control.In a similar path of research, published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers examined the impact of starchy foods. These foods, researchers said, tend to cause hormonal changes within the body. When people eat starches, the body has to go through a great deal of chemical work in order to keep blood sugar levels in check.
In time, all that work can tax the body to such a degree that vital organs simply become worn and ineffective.
But people who eat many of these foods may find that they are simply hungry within an hour or two of a meal, due to the speed with which the body has to process that food.
Researchers in this study seem to suggest that this is a particular problem for obese people, and it could stand behind overeating. People like this eat starchy foods, and they feel hungry very quickly, so they eat again. The organ damage and the body’s processing are to blame.
Is It Caused by Something Else Altogether?While addiction and/or obesity could stand behind an overeating issue, there are other avenues of interest to researchers. For example, some researchers think that people of specific personality types are more likely to overeat.In a study of the issue in Appetite, researchers split people into two groups. One group had what researchers called a high negative affect, and the others had a low negative affect. People with a negative affect typically experience negative emotions, including:
They tend to have a poor sense of self-control. In this study, people with a high negative affect were more likely to overeat than people with a low affect. Those people with high negative affect scores were more likely to eat a tasty treat offered to them, when compared to people who had low scores. That was especially true when researchers provided some sort of negative prompt. A bad mood or low feeling made the people with high affect scores more likely to overeat.
Research from a separate study in Appetite points out that a personality trait cannot directly influence eating behavior. Thinking about the world in a certain way is not the only trigger people need in order to feel the urge to overindulge in food, but a personality trait could make people more likely to eat with abundance in order to handle a difficult emotion. So for men with these personality traits, overeating could be an issue.
Ideas to Try
Reading up on the chemical, physical, and emotional triggers that could spark an overeating issue in men could certainly be helpful, but that knowledge is only part of what men need in order to gain control over how they eat. Men will also need to gain very real skills in order to feel better about the way they eat. The approaches families take can vary, depending on the age of the person in question.
Young men, for example, might benefit from a little coaching from parents. Nemours suggests encouraging young boys with overeating issues to:
- Find other activities to occupy the mind, like exercising or chatting with a friend, when the urge to snack hits and the boy isn’t hungry.
- Put food in a bowl or on a plate, rather than eating out of a box or carton.
- Sit at the table during a meal.
- Avoid televisions, electronic readers, and other distractions while eating.
These are tips young people can follow in order to get control over the meals and snacks they plan for themselves. When they sit at the table, parents can continue the coaching as the formal meals progress. In time, with this guidance, young men may learn how to identify feelings of hunger and satiety. They may begin to understand when they should both start and stop eating, and when they need to do something else to address the emotions they are feeling.
Adult men with overeating issues might also benefit from these tips, but adult men also have more control over the meals they eat. Unlike teen boys, who may not buy groceries or make meals, adult men might be responsible for all things involving meal purchase and prep. So the task list for men might be longer and a little more comprehensive.
The Harvard School of Public Health recommends:
- Choosing small portions in restaurants, or making smaller meals at home
- Skipping desserts in favor of fruits
- Using snacks and appetizers to dull the appetite before a big meal
- Eating slowly, chewing every bite, to allow the body to feel full
- Stop eating before an extreme feeling of fullness appears
Men with years of overeating behind them may struggle with some of these tips. They may no longer be aware of what a feeling of hunger is like, and they may not know just how to push away from a table when there is still food waiting to be consumed. Daily practice could help a man grow more mindful of his habits, and if he changes a little bit every day, he could go a long way in time.
A binge takes hold when a man eats a great deal of food in one sitting, and during that episode, he might feel completely cut off from the act of eating. He might not be aware of eating at all, as he’s dropped into a trance-like state during the meal. Or he might be aware that he has started to eat, but unaware of how to stop.
If these tips do not help, or a man or teenage boy finds that bingeing is an issue, professional help might be required.
These are signs of binge eating disorder (BED), and it is much different than an overeating issue. Men with BED have a psychiatric trigger that stands behind the binge, and they may not be able to control the behavior with simple tips. Men like this need psychiatric help in order to address the trauma that stands behind the binge, and then they’ll gain the control they seek. That is something they will find in BED treatment program.
Help Is Available
It is really easy for anyone to overeat. Most people simply eat because the food is available. In fact, in a study quoted by ABC News, researchers automatically filled soup bowls of study participants. Those people with larger bowls ate 70 percent more than those with smaller bowls. When the food is there, we seem to want to eat it.
Teen boys and adult men do not have to succumb to overeating. By following a few tips, and getting help if those tips do not provide the assistance that is required, men can gain control over their eating. And they can stay in control, for good.