It can be easy to eat too much despite not wanting to and it makes losing fat tough. Here’s why it happens, and how you can stop it
Whether it’s a birthday, a holiday, socialising with friends or just a Friday night with a takeaway pizza, all of us at some point eat too much. But for some of us this happens more often than we’d like. Here we’ll look at some of the main reasons that can trigger over-eating, and then we’ll provide some really simple strategies you can use to overcome them.
Factor 1: Your prehistoric brain
The first thing to understand about overeating is that most of it isn’t your fault – at least, not consciously. Evolution has ensured that our brains pay a lot of attention to food; that our brains prefer sweet, fatty and savoury foods that are high in energy; and that we tend to eat more rather than less, in case a famine is around the corner.
This was a life-saving strategy until very recently in human history. But we now live in a world where food, especially processed food high in calories but low in nutrients, is tasty, cheap and accessible, and hard to quit eating once you start. Food manufacturers know what our hungry brains like and purposely make processed foods that appeal to them.
Factor 2: Your food triggers
We make hundreds of food decisions a day, but we aren’t aware of most of them. We rarely consciously choose what and how to eat. Instead, we tend to go on autopilot and rely on routines, habits and what’s easiest.
We eat in our cars, on the train, walking to work, at our desks and on the go, usually without stopping and thinking about it. When we see or smell food we just grab it and eat it, and we rarely slow down, sit down and experience it mindfully with full awareness. We’re often mentally or physically tired, which makes it even harder to make smart food choices, which is why achieving mealtime mindfulness is so important. And if you’re a woman your natural hormonal fluctuations may affect your hunger, appetite and ability to control your eating.
Factor 3: Your stress levels
Stress and emotional well-being are the two other big factors behind overeating. Most of us feel some level of stress in our lives, as well as difficult emotions such as loneliness, anxiety, guilt and fatigue. We may feel over-stimulated from stress or under-stimulated from boredom. Food is a very effective “medication” for stress, difficult emotions and over- or under-stimulation. At least, it is temporarily. Then, of course, we might feel more stressed or worse after we’ve overeaten. And so the cycle begins again.
Factor 4: Your self-imposed food rules
Many people try to “fix” overeating with a strict diet or eating rules such as “No food after 7pm” or “No sugar ever again”. Unfortunately, as you now know, these restrictions backfire. You soon resent following such rules, or feel deprived. If you’ve reduced what you eat dramatically, your body responds by turning up the appetite signals and attention to food cues, so food becomes really, really appealing. Eventually, people go right back to overeating and then they feel even worse. The cycle repeats, over and over, and each time it becomes harder and harder to break.
Factor 5: Your regular routine
We all have routines and for many of us, there are certain times when we are more likely to overeat. These are the most common…
Parties and other social events
After the kids have – finally – gone to bed
How to stop overeating!
Looking back over the list of factors above, two things jump out as the biggest causes of overeating on a day-to-day basis: eating quickly and eating while distracted. So there are two really simple first steps you could take to deal with these:
Slow down the speed at which you eat
Pay attention to the foods you are eating
Here are some other contributing factors and some strategies you could use to overcome them.
Contributing factor #1: You see “food cues” everywhere
Look at your environment and routines to see where you can adjust, control and/or eliminate those cues.
Make it easier to eat healthy foods and harder to get hold of unhealthy ones. So if you have a “trigger” food, don’t keep it in your house.
Contributing factor #2: You fall into automatic behaviours without realising
Slow down. Pause before you make choices. Ask yourself, “Is this the smartest choice I can make right now? What might be better?”
Sit at a table to eat and focus as much as possible on the actual act of eating.
Contributing factor #3: You always eat too quickly
Eat slowly and chew your food for longer.
Put down your cutlery between mouthfuls.
Take a breath between each bite.
Try to really taste and savour the food.
Contributing factor #4: You turn to food when stressed or emotional
Take a few deep breaths before you make a food choice or start eating.
Ask yourself, “Am I feeling hungry right now?” Pause and identify whether you might be thinking or experiencing another feeling.
Seek help with managing stress and emotions from a therapist or counsellor.
Contributing factor #5: You impose strict eating rules on yourself
Recognise that restrictive rules, or following a strict diet, is not a solution to overeating – indeed it may even increase and worsen your overeating habit in the long run.
It’s never helpful to label individual foods with rigid moral labels such as “good versus bad” or “clean versus cheating”. Instead use categories such as:
“Eat more often” or “eat less often”
“Works well for me” or “doesn’t work well for me”
“Makes me feel better” or “makes me feel worse”
Instead of using external rules, work on learning your own internal signals of hunger and fullness, and don’t feel failure, frustration or shame after an overeating episode: treat yourself with compassion. Look at each overeating episode as an opportunity to learn more about your triggers so that you can keep finding better ways to overcome them next time.
Start to ask yourself more questions about your daily and weekly routines and identify your triggers, then write down some solutions to overcome them. For instance, where and when are you less likely to overeat? What works well about those situations? Can you do or get more of that? Conversely, where and when are you more likely to overeat? How can you disrupt those situations or do something differently?
Keep moving forward!
As you learn to change your habits you’ll make mistakes. That’s normal! Changing behaviours takes time so if you do overeat don’t beat yourself up: this will only make it worse. Try to use these responses instead.
Stay positive! Focus on what you’re doing well and the positive choices you’ve been making. Most of the time, we’re doing better than we realise!
Recognise it’s normal. Many people struggle with overeating. You’re not bad or broken!
Keep learning, and notice what situations and factors make it easier for you to make wiser food choices.
Think like a scientist! Take notes about what caused you to overeat and what occurred when you did. Analyse that info and look for patterns to identify strategies for the future.
Reboot asap! Wipe the slate clean and start again, immediately. Every time will get a little bit easier.
The biggest factors behind overeating are speed, distraction and stress. So slow down, breathe and pay attention! Choose natural whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, which make you feel healthy, satisfied and energetic, and try to eat until sated, not stuffed! Take the time to listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness signals, and appreciate the simple act of sitting down and savouring every mouthful.