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.
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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," Malkani says.
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.
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.
Research backs that up. In an August 2020 study in Appetite, participants had a low- or high-calorie beverage and were then asked to perform a task. After completing the task, they were offered a snack. Participants who'd done more demanding tasks ate the same amount of the snack, regardless of the calories they'd had beforehand. But the participants who'd performed a less-demanding task were able to adjust their snacking — that is, they snacked less if they'd had a high-cal beverage earlier on.
The bottom line here: When you're doing something engaging, it's hard to track what you're eating. 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," Malkani says.
2. Emotional Eating
It's common to overeat because you're sad, angry or even happy, says Hayley Miller, RD, LPC, a registered dietitian 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," Miller says. "I am always referring clients to a therapist, in addition to the work I am doing with them."
The American Psychological Association's 2013 Stress in America survey 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
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," Malkani says. 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," Miller says.
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 effect 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," Dr. Redgrave says. "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.
- American Psychological Society: "Stress in America"
- National Eating Disorders Association:"Binge Eating Disorder"
- The Mayo Clinic: "Binge-eating Disorder"
- Harvard Health: "Why Stress Causes People to Overeat"
- John Hopkins Medicine: Practice Areas Eating Disorders
- Cleveland Clinic: "Why Did I Overeat?"
- Journal of Biological Psychiatry:"The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication"
- Embo Reports, August 2012: "The neurobiology of overeating"
- Current Topics In Behavioral Neuroscience: "Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction"
- Harvard Health:"Why Keep a Food Diary?"
- Nature Communications: "Agrp neuron activity is required for alcohol-induced overeating"
- Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV and V: DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder
- Appetite: "Ingested but not perceived: Response to satiety cues disrupted by perceptual load"