These days, many people feel they are overeating. The so-called obesity epidemic is headline news and we think that it’s our fault. We eat too much. We don’t know how to stop. If only we could eat less, then all of our food and body challenges would disappear. But with all the science and research out there, there is still much confusion about how much we, as individuals, should actually eat on a daily basis.
If there were clear answers, we would have solved this problem by now. Instead, let’s explore 4 surprising reasons we overeat and what really lies at the core of the psychology of overeating.
4 Reasons Why People Overeat
1. Your Body is Confused
Today’s world is a busy place and we lead busy lives. We rush out the door and grab whatever’s convenient for breakfast, or maybe we don’t eat anything at all. We have meetings or errands to run so we eat lunch at our desks. At night we come home exhausted and eat takeout on the couch and catch up with whatever’s on the DVR.
Of course, this may be an exaggeration and your day isn’t always like this. But how often are you skipping meals, eating on the go, or eating while checking out? How does your body KNOW it’s time to eat? Without the correct signals, your body will not turn on the necessary digestive functions to digest your meal and assimilate nutrients. So when you do actually eat, your body will take longer to relay the neurotransmitter signals that tell your brain “Hey, I’ve had enough”, resulting in consuming more food than your body actually needs.
So instead of giving your body mixed signals, let your body know it’s meal time by creating a more regular eating cycle. Training your body to know when to expect food will create optimal digestion and fat burning.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “Eat Breakfast like a King, Lunch like a Prince, and Dinner like a Pauper.” Our bodies naturally have more energy early in the day and therefore have a better ability to digest and metabolize larger caloric intake. You wouldn’t start off on a long drive without a full tank of gas, and your body is the same: it needs more calories, especially protein, early in the day to sustain energy throughout the day.
As you move through midday and dinner, your energy needs decrease. That’s why eating a large lunch sometimes makes us feel sluggish by 2 pm. So experiment with eating a more substantial, protein-rich breakfast each day. Also, play around with the amount of food you are eating at lunch and dinner, and make sure you aren’t “starving” at any mealtime, which will create a natural desire to overeat. There’s a sweet spot between mild and ravenous hunger, so start to observe when this happens to you.
2. You Are Deficient in Nutrients
No matter how poorly we feed our body, it is incredibly efficient at extracting the nutrients it needs and signaling to you that it needs more. The problem is if you are eating a diet that’s too high in processed carbs and refined sugars, your body will continue to crave more of the same because it just doesn’t know any better. If you don’t ever eat spinach, your body won’t ever crave spinach.
So when you find yourself overeating, observe what it is you are actually eating. If you are consuming a box of Oreos, there are no essential nutrients to signal your body that it’s getting what it really needs. Our bodies need essential fats, complex carbohydrates, and high-quality proteins and amino acids. When the body receives these nutrients, it more readily signals the brain “I’m full, I got what I need, you can stop now.” If the food we consume is deficient in these nutrients, you will continue to crave and eat because your brain-belly connection is broken.
While it’s common to crave and overeat “carb” type foods such as pasta, bread, chips, and cookies, these cravings could be reduced by including more protein and essential fatty acids in your diet. So try a “crowding out” approach, which means putting greater focus on adding quality proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates (like vegetables, fruits, beans, and high-fiber grains) into your diet, and your cravings and desire to overeat will naturally fade. Sometimes we focus on what we don’t want, but instead, we can use the principles of Mind Body Nutrition to listen to what our body is really craving and focus more on what we really need.
3. You’re Measuring Food in the Wrong Way
Diet and nutrition experts have convinced us that we should be measuring our meals in ways that distance us from having a real connection with our food. The prevalence of food trackers and calorie counters has taught us that food should only be measured in calories, cups, ounces, fat grams, carbs and sugar.
All of these measurements can be important, but maybe it’s time you tried some new ways to measure your food. Start by focusing on the quality of your food choices. Even if you eat the exact same things but consume a higher quality version (like organic, local, or homemade), your body will digest it in a more optimum way.
Also, consider choosing food based on the aroma and taste. Allow your body to really take in the scents and smells – this will activate your parasympathetic response and start your digestive function before you even begin eating. Can you recall a time when your house smelled of a home-cooked meal being prepared?
How the smells triggered your belly to rumble and your mouth to water? Here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, we teach about the need for more Vitamin P, Pleasure, in our eating experience. We are wired to have a pleasurable response to food before it’s even consumed.
Embrace this need, and seek out ways to prepare and consume higher quality food. You may find that you reach that feeling of “fullness” with a lower amount of food.
4. You are Hungry for SOMETHING Other than Food
If, after you try these strategies, you still find you are overeating, then it may be time to dig a little deeper into your own Dynamic Eating Psychology and really explore the situations that surround your overeating experiences. Perhaps you are having a stressful day, or you’re in the middle of a major life transition, or maybe you are just really exhausted.
Perhaps you are fighting with your partner, so you pick up a pizza and eat it all because you feel confused or upset. Food is a wonderful symbolic substitute, but many foods, especially carbohydrates, increase the production of serotonin and tryptophan, allowing us to experience a much-needed, but temporary, feeling of calm.
In this case, your body is reacting to food like it’s a drug – it’s literally changing your biochemical reactions. Your body isn’t actually craving nutrients or calories; it’s craving comfort. It’s okay to let yourself receive comfort in this way from time to time, but relying on excess amounts of food to regulate your mood is a dangerous habit.
Ultimately, you will create a vicious cycle of depending on food to calm you, and your natural stress response system will stop functioning. So how do you end this cycle? First, add more Vitamin A, Awareness, into your life. Start with the simple act of noticing what is going on in your life when you overeat.
Look for the patterns, and for ways to interrupt them to create new neuropathways in your brain. Make a list of “non food” nourishing activities that can elicit the parasympathetic response and find ways to include them in your day, especially during challenging or stressful times. Examples include calling a friend, taking a short walk, deep breathing, reading a book, listening to music, or getting a massage.
Any of these activities can short-circuit the desire to overeat as a form of medication. It will take time and practice, but commit to trying this out for a few weeks and notice what happens.
The Overeating Challenge is a Doorway
While most consider overeating to be a willpower problem, we at the Institute see it as a valuable doorway into how we are feeding ourselves in all areas of our life. By being more present in our eating, especially during times of stress and discomfort, we can find new ways to grow and feel more nourished.
Perhaps this unwanted symptom is inviting you to grow in your relationship with food, body, and self. Be inquisitive and explore the feelings and circumstances around overeating, and you may benefit from great healing in many areas of your life!
When it comes to why we overeat, it is necessary to remember that there are psychological reasons for overeating. If you would like to dive deeper into the root causes of your overeating challenges, please consider our public program Transform Your Relationship with Food.
Become a Mind Body Eating Coach
Now enrolling for February 2024.
Make real, lasting change - in your life and the lives of others using eating psychology coaching tools.
Subscribe to The Psychology of Eating Podcast
Get notified when new episodes go live.