Why is it that people overeat? Many of us might be inclined to think that it’s a willpower problem, and that people who overeat simply lack the discipline to stop themselves. But actually, that’s not usually the case. Often, the problem has more to do with what we eat, not how much we eat.
The truth about hunger
When our bodies need to be nourished, our brains interpret that as hunger. Of course, this happens when we haven’t had enough food, but it also happens when we haven’t consumed the nutrients we need. If our diets are lacking in nutrition, our brains translate that into a sensation of hunger. This is the only way that our brains know to inspire us to correct our nutritional deficiency. So, it’s possible to eat what feels like a full meal, and still feel hungry.
Many of us have heard this term. It typically refers to processed foods that are high in calories but low in nutrient density. Eating these foods does not nourish us, but leaves us feeling hungry again soon after. As a result, we need to eat more of these foods before we can begin to feel full. So we can consume what might seem like quite a large amount of food and still not feel especially full. So when we overeat, usually the problem is not that we’re eating too much food per se—it’s that we’re not eating the right foods.
It’s easy to see, therefore, how misguided it is to assume that those who overeat have a problem with willpower. When we eat empty calories and deprive our bodies of nutrition, our brains tell us we’re hungry, so we eat more. There is nothing “weak” or “wrong” about overeating. In many cases, it is largely a response to a physiological process.
However, when we hear messages from others—and when we constantly criticize ourselves—about our supposed lack of willpower, we begin to believe it is the truth. And this will only prevent us from moving forward. So it is important to understand the truth about what really causes us to overeat, so we can make changes that are truly effective.
Be compassionate towards yourself
So what can be done to start making positive changes towards ending overeating? First, if you have bought into the false idea that your overeating is due to a lack of discipline, that there’s something “wrong” with you because you overeat, try to change your attitude. Show yourself some compassion.
Any time you notice that you’re criticizing yourself, remember that it’s only self-doubt and insecurity talking. The truth is that you are not lacking in willpower—and your overeating does not make you a less worthy human being. You are valuable and lovable, whether you overeat or not. If you want to stop overeating, it is because you know you deserve optimal health, not because you have to prove your worth to anyone.
After years of eating processed foods, we may have cut ourselves off from the wisdom of our bodies. Begin to eat whole, nutrient dense foods, and see how they make you feel. Some examples may be fresh fruits and vegetables; pastured, grass-fed meat and dairy; and whole grains. What foods help you to feel healthiest? Which ones make you feel full? Do different foods make you feel better in different situations?
Your body will tell you what makes it feel good, and the wisdom behind this is extremely powerful. When we trust our bodies, we will be more likely to nourish ourselves with the nutrients we really need, rather than trying in vain to fill our bodies up by eating more and more empty calories.
The important message here is that overeating is not the result of a lack of willpower or discipline. It is often the result of nutrient deficiencies. It may seem somewhat paradoxical, but it is possible to eat more calories than necessary and still be lacking in certain nutrients. The solution is not to just try and force yourself to stop. It is not to count calories or go on any other diet intended to combat overeating. The real solution is to treat yourself with compassion and begin to eat whole, nutrient-dense foods.
Become a Mind Body Eating Coach
Summer 2023 enrollment begins soon.
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.