Why We Overeat And What To Do About It
There are a multitude of reasons why we might overeat or make poor food choices. We’re confronted with an abundance of delicious, high-calorie foods wherever we go, and how we feel physically and mentally can significantly influence what and how much we eat, as can various lifestyle factors, such as the proximity of fast-food outlets to home and how much eating out in restaurants we might do. Below is a list of some of the common reasons why we overeat and what to do about it. For the festive season, also check out my latest blog post ’10 Tips To Avoid Overeating At Christmas’.
Tiredness is a key factor for why we overeat. If we go through an episode of late nights or generally poor sleep, this can disrupt appetite hormones and make us crave food, causing us to grab the nearest sugar hit. It’s easy to overlook the link between poor sleep and weight management, but it’s so important to get a good night’s sleep. We can end up craving carbohydrate foods when we’re tired, such as chocolate, biscuits, cakes, sweets, pizza or crisps, potentially leading to all-day grazing or large portions. If you’re regularly finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep, it’s important to explore why. Do you need to avoid caffeine later in the day, perhaps you’re worried about something, or your mind and body is stressed and unable to switch off? It’s vital that we get enough sleep if we want to eat in a balanced, healthy way.
Stress is another key factor for why we overeat or make poor food choices. The stress hormone cortisol has really important functions in the body, but when we’re constantly on the go, excessive levels of cortisol can cause cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Some people find that when they’re busy and stressed they lose their appetite, but others find that when they’re under constant stress they feel hungry or experience food cravings. Stress management is crucial for physical and mental health. Here are a few tips to help you manage your daily routine and give the mind and body a break:-
- Periods of rest are key to restoring balanced cortisol levels. Don’t feel guilty for having ‘me time’!
- Try to get a good night’s sleep – lack of sleep is stressful for the body
- Calm the mind before bed- turn off devices. Blue light inhibits melatonin production (which helps us to sleep). Have a wind-down ritual, for example read a book, meditate, do some yoga or stretches, have a bath instead of being on your phone, decide to deal with a problem tomorrow, not tonight
- Spending time outdoors in nature can help our minds to slow down
- Go out without your phone- it can feel liberating!
- Be aware of shallow breathing when you’re stressed. Become aware of your breath and breathe more deeply- this helps to relax the body
- Prioritise tasks and don’t give yourself too much to do in one day- create spaces between tasks
- Recognise when you’re feeling stressed- take it as a warning sign and take a break
- Work on being less of a people pleaser by saying ‘no’ a bit more often.
If we skip meals or undereat (such as going on a restrictive diet or not eating due to illness), our bodies will start nudging us to eat. The body is very good at deploying survival strategies! If we go several hours or days without eating, we start craving food because grehlin, the appetite hormone is activated, stimulating the urge to eat. So don’t starve yourself and don’t skip meals because sooner or later you’ll be overly hungry and end up overeating. Some people really prefer not to eat breakfast and that’s fine, but just as long as skipping meals earlier in the day doesn’t cause you to overeat later in the day.
To keep your blood sugar levels balanced, avoid blood sugar crashes. Aim to always eat some protein and/or fat with every meal and snack. For example, a piece of fruit with some nuts or a piece of cheese, or try some savoury oat cakes/rye crackers with peanut butter, houmous, pates or spreadable cheese. If you enjoy chocolate, try eating plain dark chocolate (at least 70%) as this contains more fat (including ‘good’ fats) and less sugar than milk chocolate. If we eat protein or fat-rich meals or eat them with carbohydrates, we will feel fuller for longer as fat and protein take longer to digest so they stay in the stomach for longer than carbohydrates. Many people experience an afternoon ‘slump’, and this can be due to blood sugar levels dropping if they’ve eaten a carbohydrate-rich lunch such as a jacket potato, rice, bread or pasta.
Although dietary fat contains more calories, because it tastes good and takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, fat satisfies the appetite really well, and therefore we need a smaller portion of it. Because carbohydrates are digested easily, our stomach empties faster and we can eat a lot of them without feeling satisfied, hence it’s very easy to overeat carbohydrates! Try to opt for the healthier fats (the Omegas) that are found in oily fish (eg mackerel and salmon), avocados, nuts, seeds and their oils. If you’re going to eat carbohydrates, opt for slower-releasing ones such as oat-based foods, rye bread and reduced sugar versions rather than white flour-based, high sugar products.
Watch Your Sugar Intake
The more sugar we eat, the more we tend to want. Eating sugar produces ‘feel good’ brain chemicals such as dopamine, making us want more. Food manufacturers know how to produce foods that achieve the ‘bliss point’, that is, they contain a certain ratio of carbohydrates to fat, making them delicious- we’re hardwired to love combinations of fat and sugar, which is why we overeat them easily. So either try to cut down on how frequently you eat these foods, perhaps substituting them at times for other foods, or take some of that food and then put the packet away. Moderation is often better than complete avoidance- when we deprive ourselves of foods we enjoy, we’re likely to crave them more. The good thing is that we can wean ourselves off a high sugar diet- the less you give the body, the less it will demand. Go for whatever strategy works for you as we’re all different.
Mindless eating is another reason why we overeat. When we eat mindlessly, it’s very easy to overeat and to make poor food choices. Today’s hectic living and abundance of tasty, cheap foods means we need to adopt mindful eating practices more than ever. When we’re busy it can be hard to focus on eating healthily- it can often drop to the bottom of the priority list. Mindful eating can help us to adopt a more moderate, flexible, ‘middle-way’ approach to eating, enabling us to ‘self-regulate’ and feel in charge of food. Mindful eating enables us to enjoy food in amounts our body needs, and balance nutrition with pleasure. Examples of mindless eating:-
- Eating when you don’t feel hungry; continuing to eat when you’re full
- Eating quickly and when distracted
- Eating something you don’t really enjoy
- Eating to cope with or soothe emotions
- Not checking the calorie content
- Eating whatever is lying around /nearby
- ‘Grazing’- popping food into the mouth throughout the day
- Putting little thought into what food to buy or prepare.
In contrast, mindful eating includes:-
- Slowing down and considering your options to make wiser food decisions
- Taking smaller bites and chewing
- Ditching autopilot and engaging the brain; appreciating your food
- ‘Tuning in’ to your body’s needs and thoughtfully choosing what, when, where, how much to eat, and whether to eat
- Having a dialogue with yourself (for example, Am I hungry? Will it taste as good as it looks?)
- Feeling less guilty about certain food choices
- Focusing on what you’re eating in the moment but also anticipating future eating events and considering how you will approach them, or how you will feel after eating something
- Becoming aware of any crooked thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and values you may have in relation to food, eating, nutrition and dieting
- Recognising your different types of ‘hunger’
- Being more selective/discerning when it comes to food choices; making food decisions in your own best interest
- Giving yourself permission to eat any foods, but eating those foods mindfully.
TV is commonly a cause of mindless overeating. If you find that when you get home from work you spend several hours in front of the TV, have a think about how you could spend your evenings more constructively by cutting down on TV time and doing other activities you enjoy or which give you a sense of achievement.
The ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset is a really common issue for many people and is responsible for why we overeat. Notice how much you might deal in absolutes when it comes to your own eating behaviour. With an ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset we can swing between being ‘good’ and ‘bad’, for example, being ‘on’ or ‘off’ a diet. If we adopt extreme, strict, unrealistic behaviours that are different to our usual habits, we’re unlikely to stick to them- willpower only lasts so long! What’s the point of doing something well for two weeks, only to give it up? Examples of an ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset:-
~ “I mustn’t eat any of them- if I eat one I’ll have to finish the packet”
~ “I’ve got to do this diet perfectly or it’s not worth doing”
~ “I’ve just eaten a piece of cake- I’ve blown my diet!”
~ Weekday restraint and weekend overindulgence.
A key approach to tackling overeating is to adopt a more ‘middle-way’ mindset. Try to ditch the dieting mentality of being ‘on’ or ‘off’ a diet. This can be done if we adopt a more flexible attitude.
Socialising And Hosting
Some people use social events as excuses to overeat or eat ‘junk’ food. The trouble is, many of us have social events throughout the year. When we’re the hosts, it’s also tempting to buy too much food rather than not have enough. If you cook for people or host events regularly, try not to provide too much food to avoid being stuck with lots of leftovers. If you have an ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset, you might end up overeating with the intention of getting ‘back on track’ on Monday. The occasional indulgence is fine, but if you socialise regularly you need to be mindful of how often it causes you to overeat or make poor food choices. Take a look at some of the tips on mindful eating above to see how you might be able to moderate your eating whilst socialising.
Remember too that significant amounts of alcohol can stimulate appetite and skew our judgement when eating during and after drinking. Try sipping your drinks more slowly.
Emotional Eating And Mood
Emotional or ‘comfort’ eating and our mood is another common reason why we overeat. It can be triggered by certain people, places or situations. For example, I’ve worked with single people who overeat at home because they’re lonely. We might eat because we’re bored, sad or angry, or because we’re seeking some pleasure or mental stimulation. Food is easily available, so it’s easy to reach for food. I hear many people say that they tend to graze at work because they’re bored or in the evenings in front of mindless TV. Some people do ‘reward’ eating because they feel they’ve had a hard day or because something has upset them. It’s ok and in fact normal to do some comfort eating, but it’s when it becomes a regular thing that it can become problematic. In order to combat excessive comfort eating, you might like to try some of the following:-
- Summon the courage to confront your feelings- you can’t afford to ignore them or hide them away- they will ‘show up’ in other ways (for example, through comfort eating)- get curious, as increased self-awareness is the key to positive change
- Feelings are really useful messengers- they’re telling you there’s something you need to act upon, they’re an indication of unfulfilled needs or frustrations or a reflection/by-product of negative or self-limiting thought patterns or beliefs
- Try to let go of any anger or guilt that you might be holding onto from the past- don’t let the past affect your present by keeping you stuck, preventing you from achieving your full potential or from being truly happy
- Address any negative, deep-seated beliefs you hold about yourself (harsh inner critic); work on self-love, self-compassion, self-care. Remind yourself of your strengths, don’t just focus on ‘failures’ or what went wrong
- Watch out for any misinterpretations you might make about other people’s behaviour towards you- what’s the reality of the situation?
- Identify what gives you fulfilment in life, what makes you happy, what really ‘fills you up’
- Identify and communicate your needs or frustrations to others; get support from others.
When we learn how to mindfully manage our thoughts and emotions, we’re more able to stop ourselves from reaching for food because we feel more calm, centred, and we have more insight- we can start to think rationally too. If we eat because we’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s an indicator that we might need to look at our lifestyle, our stress levels, or how we generally approach situations.
Another reason why we overeat is lack of planning. When we don’t plan meals we can end up buying something ready-made that might be lacking nutrition and calorie-loaded, and perhaps not even filling, causing us to want more food soon afterwards. Many clients I work with struggle to plan their meals, but when they start doing so, they start eating more healthily and they feel more in charge of their overall eating. Try eating three meals a day to prevent you from grazing on snack foods- you can end up consuming more calories than you think when you graze.
Having personal ‘rules’ can give you the clarity you need to eat less and make healthier choices. For example, aiming most of the time to have 2 courses not 3 in a restaurant, sticking to a couple of squares of chocolate rather than eating the whole bar, limiting desserts to weekends, have a few alcohol free days, eating breakfast to stop you getting overly hungry mid morning, limiting large milky coffees to twice a day or sticking to 2 snacks per day. Having some personal rules can also help you when you’re out of the routine. Be prepared by packing lunches for work, carry healthy snacks with you, plan meals, write a shopping list and stock up the fridge and freezer so that you have a variety of dinner options available.
Too Focused On Weight
The weighing scales can be a double-edged sword. If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to keep checking the scales to see how much weight you’ve lost. Many people have a compulsion to weigh themselves daily. If we don’t lose weight, this can be disheartening and potentially cause us to think ‘what the heck, I might as well eat’ due to a sense of ‘failure’. Try to make your number one focus to address any problematic eating habits, not weight loss. Too much focus on weight loss can distract us from improving our relationship with food- once we improve our relationship with food, weight loss can be a positive by-product. If you want to weigh yourself, don’t do it more frequently than once a week.
There are many factors involved in overeating, and each person is different, with their own needs, preferences and individual challenges. Try to pinpoint your own particular overeating triggers but be patient with yourself- don’t take on too much at once, just choose a couple of things you’d like to focus on. The only way we can make long-term changes is to be consistent and realistic, and to keep practising new habits- there’s no point trying something new and doing it really well for a couple of weeks but then going back to old habits! Try to get support from others too. The key to change is self-awareness, both in terms of our eating and our lifestyle. When we’re more aware of what, why and how we eat, as well as how we’re living, we can identify personalised strategies to help us improve our relationship with food.