5 Reasons We Overeat — and How to Stop the Cycle

Whether it's eating a whole bag of chips in front of the TV, or the entire tub of ice-cream when you're feeling sad, you've probably overeaten at some point your life. And while occasionally eating too much is totally normal, it can still feel physically uncomfortable and trigger feelings of guilt and regret.

One of the common causes of overeating is skipping meals, which makes you more likely to overindulge later on. (Image: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/GettyImages)

Here, we'll explore why people overeat, when it becomes a problem and how to put the kibosh on it for good.

Causes of Overeating

There is no one thing that causes overeating in everyone, Malina Malkani, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "The reasons for overeating are unique to the individual," she says.

To break the cycle, you need to figure out your own triggers, and the best way to do this is with a food diary. "Food journaling is a huge, evidence based, validated tool for helping people recognize and recalibrate their physical hunger and fullness cues," says Malkani.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, a food diary should include everything you consume, including snacks and drinks. Include what you eat, how much you eat and when you eat it, as well as where you eat it, who with, what you are doing while eating and how you are feeling before, during and afterward.

Did you know that keeping a food diary is one of the most effective ways to manage your weight? Download the MyPlate app to easily track calories, stay focused and achieve your goals!

Malkani also recommends logging how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10 before each meal or snack. Do this for at least a week before reviewing. Many people find they are eating more than they thought and certain situations, foods, people or emotions are triggers.

Here are the five most common causes of overeating.

1. Mindless Eating

Many of us overeat because we are distracted, usually by our phones or some other screen. The simple act of being more mindful can be enough to curb your overeating habit.

"The more we bring mindfulness to the taste, smell, texture and how food feels, the more satisfying the experience is and the less likely we are to overeat," says Malkani.

2. Emotional Eating

It's common to overeat because you're sad, angry or even happy, says Hayley Miller, RD, LPC, a registered dietician and psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders. It becomes a problem when it's your only coping strategy. "There is never enough food that you can eat to feel less lonely, or feel less sad about a situation," she says. "Because we're not really solving the problem, we're just eating."

Create a kit of non-food tools to use instead. Call a friend, go for a walk, exercise, meditate, write in a journal or take some time in nature. Seek professional help if you need to. "A lot of things come up in my sessions as a nutritionist," says Miller. "I am always referring clients to a therapist, in addition to the work I am doing with them."

3. Stress-Eating

The American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey, published in February 2014, revealed that 38 percent of adults overeat or eat unhealthy foods because of stress. Levels of the hormone cortisol rise when we are feeling stressed and, as a result, so does our appetite. It also makes us more likely to crave sugary or fatty foods.

For many, stress is unavoidable, but mitigating its effects is vital for long-term health. Good stress-reduction techniques include regular exercise, meditation and seeking support from friends and family.

"Studies show that when we overly restrict ourselves, we're more likely to feel deprived and then subsequently overeat."

4. Skipping Meals and Dieting

Another common cause of overeating: Restricting food can wreak havoc on your blood sugar, making you more likely to overindulge.

"It really helps to develop a routine and a structure around meals and snacks," says Malkani. The more dependably the body gets used to eating at relatively stable times throughout the day, the less likely you are to get overly hungry and then compensate by overeating.

If you're craving something particular, her advice is to have a small amount, and then move on. "Studies show that when we overly restrict ourselves, we're more likely to feel deprived and then subsequently overeat," she explains.

The other problem? Diets create guilt and shame around food. "If you see all foods as being OK, and fitting into a healthy diet, then you won't have so much stress around food. Then you'll actually be able to be more mindful in your approach toward food," says Miller.

Learn to pay attention to your hunger cues, eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Accept that your body has a healthy weight that's perfect for you.

5. Processed Foods and Drinking

Heavily processed foods are digested quickly, leading to a blood sugar spike. The dip that follows makes you hungry. Plus, scientists believe that sugary foods have the same impact on the brain's dopamine receptors as opioids, and food companies spend millions to make you want more, per a 2012 study in Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences.

The fix? Switch to nutrient-dense alternatives that contain protein, healthy fats and fiber. These provide a steadier, longer-lasting energy source.

And watch the cocktails, since alcohol can lower your inhibitions and cause you to go overboard with unhealthy food.

Overeating vs. Binge-Eating Disorder

Overeating and binge eating are two related but very different things, explains Graham Redgrave, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and assistant director of the Eating Disorders Program at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"Not everyone who sits down and eats a pint of ice cream is necessarily bingeing," says Dr. Redgrave. "It's really that sense of 'I don't want to be doing this, but I can't stop' that defines a binge." A binge is defined as eating a lot of food in a short period of time, while feeling out of control, he explains.

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5), Binge-Eating Disorder (BED) is diagnosed as recurrent binges as described above. The binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:

  • Eating much more rapidly than normal.
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
  • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed or very guilty afterward.

Marked distress due to binge eating will be present, it will happen at least once a week for three months and there will be no other eating disorder present.

BED is believed to be the most common eating disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic. A much-cited population study, which appeared in Biological Psychiatry in February 2007, found the disorder affected 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men over the course of their lives.

If you believe you're suffering from BED and need help, contact the National Eating Disorders Awareness Helpline toll free at 1-800-931-2237. Dr. Redgrave also recommends the book Overcoming Binge Eating by Christopher G. Fairburn.

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