We all overeat once in awhile, and we all do it for emotional reasons. From the time we’re born, food serves as a source of reward, of comfort, and emotional security.

However, food should never be someone’s primary way of controlling negative emotions. Once you begin the cycle—overeating out of sadness, then feeling sad about overeating—it can spiral out of control quickly, leading to a range of possible health complications and self-destructive responses. A massive amount of people in the United States are overweight or severely obese, and hundreds of thousands of normally heavy people use dangerous methods to maintain their weight, like vomiting, taking laxatives, or starving themselves for periods between binges. The psychological toll of binge eating is also huge. Binge eaters feel such intense guilt, shame, and frustration over their eating habits that it can be difficult to engage in, let alone enjoy, the hobbies and activities that used to occupy their minds. Most people kick themselves here and there for having just a little too much dessert, but they get over it. For binge eaters, it’s not so easy to move on.

Binge eating disorder is characterized by food binges—large quantities of food eaten in a short amount of time—followed by guilt and shame. For a clinical diagnosis, binges must occur at least once a week for a period of 3 months or more. It can be a difficult condition to diagnose, for obvious reasons. In the US, various socioeconomic factors have led to obesity rates that are higher than ever. However, these paradigms are probably just creating more food addicts, not overshadowing others.

Overeating is heavily stigmatized as a willpower issue, but most nutritionists disagree, since so much of the food industry in the United States engineers its product specifically to our strongest cravings—fat, sugar, and salt—and to be cheap and easily accessible. Research has shown that food addictions are similar to drug addictions, with similar chemical effects and consequences on the brain.

However muddled the data may be, you can determine whether you have a binge eating disorder by asking yourself whether you experience two or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • frequent episodes of eating what others consider to be too much food
  • frequent feelings of being unable to control how much you eat
  • feelings of depression, guilt, or shame after overeating
  • feelings of low self-esteem
  • a loss of sexual desire
  • eating more rapidly than most the people around you
  • eating when you’re not hungry
  • eating until you’re uncomfortably full

If you want to stop binge eating, seek help as soon as possible. Cutting the habit without professional assistance is seldom practical, since the addiction is so often rooted in emotional problems and triggers that only trained health care specialists know how to properly identify and handle. Remember: you aren’t alone.