Ever wonder why the cookies you bought never made it home from the store? Or regret scarfing down every party appetizer in sight? Or feel guilty after eating a whole bag of chips while watching TV? You may be asking yourself: Why do I overeat?
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We all have a tendency to overeat now and then. But if it becomes a common occurrence, it can cause you to gain unhealthy weight and may lead to eating disorders.
Being aware of why you overeat — reasons can include boredom, sleep deprivation and dieting — can help you make a different choice the next time around.
Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, explains the common reasons we may overeat and what we can do instead.
What counts as overeating?
“Overeating is eating more than your hunger level,” states Dr. Albers. “That can look different for every person.”
If you overeat, you may feel full or sluggish. You may also experience:
- Acid reflux.
- Stomach pain.
- Feelings of regret, surprise or fear that you’ve eaten too much.
“Overeating is different than binge eating disorder,” clarifies Dr. Albers. “With binge eating, you often feel out of control. But overeating is often caused by emotional eating. But it can also be that what you’re eating is just really tasty and you enjoy it so you continue to eat for the pleasure of it.”
What causes overeating?
Overeating can be caused by many factors, including how, when and why we eat. Dr. Albers outlines some common causes of overeating and how to overcome them.
You have 24/7 access to food
You’ve got a packed pantry and a full fridge at the ready to satisfy any craving you may have. While it’s good to have options and access, this can lead to giving into any hankering you have — whether that’s a midnight snack or a smorgasbord for lunch.
What to do: Dr. Albers says it all starts at the grocery store. “Being mindful when you shop, and making a list can be helpful so that it decreases impulse buys.” She also recommends shopping online and doing curbside pickup, which can also reduce impulse buys.
Another way to be more mindful? “Rethink your kitchen and strategically place healthy food in the front of your refrigerator,” suggests Dr. Albers. “If it’s in your line of sight, you’re more likely to eat those healthy foods.”
You feel good, bad or stressed
A main reason we tend to overeat? Emotional eating. While we may associate emotional eating with negative feelings like sadness or anger, we can also overeat if we’re experiencing happiness or other positive feelings.
What to do: “Before you eat, make sure that you take a pause and ask yourself: Am I eating because I’m having feelings?” recommends Dr. Albers. “Sometimes, simply taking that pause can prevent you from engaging in emotional eating.”
You’re eating supersized portions
Are you part of the “clean plate club” — feeling like you always need to eat every single morsel of food placed in front of you? Many times, we may be eating more than the recommended serving of a meal, and this is especially true when we eat out at a restaurant. It can be hard to gauge how much we should eat and it can be tempting to keep going until all the food is gone.
What to do: If you’re going out to eat, start by looking at the menu ahead of time. “This helps to reduce impulse ordering,” says Dr. Albers. “You may also be impacted by the people that you’re eating with, so make sure that you’re assessing your own hunger and not just following what someone else is ordering.” And it’s always OK to save part of your meal as leftovers, whether you’re at a restaurant or sitting down to a family meal.
“Boredom eating is the No. 1 trigger of mindless overeating,” states Dr. Albers. “And we tend to do it often in certain spots and locations. For example, on the couch while we’re watching TV, or if you’re sitting at your desk because you’re feeling bored.”
What to do: Know where your trigger spots are. “And when you catch yourself eating because of boredom, acknowledge it,” says Dr. Albers. This can help you be more aware of how much you’re eating. And to avoid falling into the boredom trap, Dr. Albers suggests walking around or changing locations. Even drinking something cold can help snap you out of boredom.
You’re eating because it’s there
This is where mindless eating can go wrong. You’re having an in-depth text conversation with your bestie or scrolling through Instagram while having a snack, maybe eating ice cream straight from the pint or digging into a bag of chips. You’re not paying attention to how much you’re eating — in fact, you’re eating in a very zombie-like, automatic way. “By doing this, you lose track of your hunger,” says Dr. Albers.
What to do: Dr. Albers says it’s important to put that phone down or turn off the TV. “When it’s time to eat, put aside whatever you’re doing and focus all your attention on eating.” If you tend to snack or even have meals on the couch or coffee table, make an effort to sit at your dining room or kitchen table to help limit distractions.
There are too many options
If you’ve ever been to a buffet or a potluck dinner, you may jump with joy at the plethora of meal options. Think trays of mac-n-cheese, piles of chicken wings, a salad bar and a carving station with variety of juicy meats. Where do you even begin? You want it all. And that can be a downfall to overeating. Your eyes are bigger than your stomach but after you load your plate (or plates) up with food, you feel like you need to eat it all.
What to do: Do some recon, says Dr. Albers. “Take a tour of the entire buffet. Go around the entire table and check out your options before you choose.
“There’s a study that looked at buffets. We tend to fill up our plates with the first three options and then go for more later because there’s often something that we really want,” she explains. By scouting all the options first, you can make a more informed choice on what to eat or take smaller portions of everything so you can taste more.
Your friends and family overeat, too
We’re highly influenced by other people — from what we wear and what we do — and that includes what and how much we eat. “In fact, studies have shown that we tend to match the rate of chewing with the people that we are with, even if we don’t know them,” says Dr. Albers. So, it can be difficult to curb your cravings when those around you are indulging.
What to do: “Be sure that you eat slowly and that you don’t match the pace of the people around you, especially if they’re eating really fast,” suggests Dr. Albers. “Also, order first, which can be very helpful because the first person who orders sets the tone.” Try to remember that your nutritional needs are very different from other people, so if your friend orders a triple cheeseburger with fries and a milkshake, know that their meal may not match your cravings and hunger levels.
You’re being social
You’re at a friend’s party or an after-work networking event and you’re busy being a social butterfly. But you don’t realize that you keep popping appetizers and downing glasses or wine all night long — and those mindless calories can add up. “Often, you’re eating in a very mindless way,” says Dr. Albers. “You can eat an entire plate of food and not taste one bite.”
What to do: “My motto is, ’Always eat off your feet,’” shares Dr. Albers. “If you’re at a party and there’s a buffet, make sure that you put it on a plate and sit down while you’re eating.” This will help you focus on what you’re eating. Make sure you’re using all of your senses to smell and taste your food, too.
You’ve got a big work deadline coming up but you’re not motivated to work on it. Or maybe you’re putting off doing this week’s laundry. And instead of focusing on the task at hand, you fill it with food.
What to do: “Give yourself permission to take a break,” says Dr. Albers. “You don’t need food to fill up that time. What you really need is a couple minutes of quiet or some time to mindlessly flipping through a magazine.”
Your hunger hormones are off balance
There are two hunger hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is known as the satiety hormone, which helps regulate energy and suppresses your appetite, while ghrelin is often referred to as the hunger hormone and stimulates your appetite. “These hormone levels increase before meals and decrease after meals,” explains Dr. Albers. “But they can be impacted by things like lack of sleep or exercise or an increase in stress.”
What to do: Even making sure that you’re hydrated and drinking enough water throughout the day can help support a consistent appetite. “Additionally, one of the best things you can do is maintain a routine,” notes Dr. Albers. So, eating at a consistent time each day, fitting in daily exercise and taking steps to manage stress can help prevent overeating. “When you have a routine, it helps keep those hunger hormones regulated,” she adds.
You’re sleep-deprived and brain-fogged
As we mentioned above, sleep can affect how you eat. “Sleep is the cornerstone of your mental health and sleep helps to regulate your hormones,” reiterates Dr. Albers. “Even missing one hour of sleep can increase your cravings.” So, that’s why you might indulge in a stack of pancakes with bacon and eggs.
What to do: It’s all about establishing a sleeping routine. “It’s incredibly important to go to sleep and wake up at the same time — the ability to get up at the same time each day helps to regulate your appetite,” says Dr. Albers. “If you’re sleep-deprived, you may reach for something sugary and it sends your blood sugar on a roller coaster throughout the day.”
You’ve waited too long to eat
Hangry — you know that feeling. You’re both hungry and angry because you’ve waited too long to eat. “It’s often a big trigger of overeating because your blood sugar is very low,” says Dr. Albers. “And you tend to eat anything that is close by because you’re overly hungry.”
What to do: So, how can you prevent that hangry feeling? “Make sure that you eat regularly, having snacks throughout the day to keep your blood sugar regulated,” recommends Dr. Albers. “That’s going to prevent those big dips that make you crave eating food quickly.”
You’re on a diet. You’re not liking the restrictions (no carbs! no sugar!) and are feeling deprived. So, instead of staying away from ice cream, you give in and end up eating a whole pint. “Dieting is a direct line to overeating,” says Dr. Albers. “It makes you very vulnerable to overeating.”
What to do: Make sure you’re eating mindfully throughout the day. “Don’t try to convince yourself that you should ignore your hunger or talk yourself out of your hunger,” emphasizes Dr. Albers. “Instead, make sure that you eat healthy foods to keep your blood sugar stable. This will prevent you from overeating at a later time.”
When does overeating become a problem?
We all overeat on occasion — and that is perfectly OK and normal.
“Overeating can become a problem with a lot of emotional discomfort like shame and regret,” says Dr. Albers. “For some people, it also can cause a lot of anxiety, or sometimes depression.”
And if your overeating habits start to impact how you function daily, it’s a good idea to take steps to work on eating more mindfully.
“The antidote to overeating is listening to your hunger and eating in a mindful way, which means paying attention to what you’re eating and not becoming distracted,” says Dr. Albers.
And if you try to minimize your overeating and feel like it’s difficult, speaking with a healthcare provider can help give you the tools you need.
“A mental health professional or your doctor can give you some additional guidance, as well as perform some assessments to see if there are any medical reasons that may be impacting your overeating,” says Dr. Albers. “But they will also come up with some practical solutions to help you address the factors that are leading to overeating.”