Overeating is an all-too-common problem in the United States and around the world. In fact, the World Obesity Federation recently predicted that over half of the world’s population (more than four billion people) will be either overweight or obese in the next 12 years. But besides the social stigma of appearing to be fat, a pattern of overeating is known to lead to a variety of serious health concerns like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Health risks like these can be mitigated, however, by training yourself to eat less and make better food choices.
How Is Overeating Defined?
The basic definition of overeating is to consume more food than a person’s body needs or is hungry for. This is typically measured in calories, a unit that represents the energy value of a food. In some ways, overeating is quite normal and harmless, such as during a holiday like Thanksgiving when it’s socially and culturally acceptable to eat a large amount of food in one sitting. When overeating becomes a habit, though, the pattern can lead to increased fat storage and subsequent weight gain.
There are many reasons why people may overeat, but it often is connected to a psychological or emotional need. In fact, overeating is also one of the main symptoms and manifestations of binge eating disorder, a known mental health condition that involves frequent episodes of binge eating. Bulimia nervosa is a related condition, but it differs from binge eating disorder in that it also involves purging after bingeing. The fact that overeating is linked with these mental health conditions is an indicator of how challenging it can be to stop overeating and adopt a more healthy eating pattern.
Signs of an Overeating Problem
As American life has evolved over the last few decades, our day-to-day lives have become more sedentary; at the same time, processed foods that are high in fat and refined carbs have become increasingly prevalent. All of these factors combined have led to the widespread increase in food intake and correlated weight gain, but overeating isn’t necessarily a problem until it becomes significant enough to start affecting one’s health. Below are some signs that you might be overeating:
- eating even after you already feel full
- mindless eating as a distraction or to cure boredom
- experiencing symptoms after eating like heartburn, nausea, bloating, or abdominal discomfort
- emotional eating or otherwise trying to cope with life situations by eating
- difficulty sleeping at night or feeling sluggish or fatigued after eating
Tips for How to Stop Binge Eating
Under almost any circumstance, changing one’s eating habits is a difficult task because of how entrenched those habits become. One of the biggest reasons for this is the complex array of brain chemicals that are involved. For example, eating foods like ice cream and french fries contain compounds that increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in the brain’s reward system. Choosing to not eat foods that have this effect can be really hard because the brain wants and expects a certain amount of dopamine.
Making substantial changes to your eating behavior will therefore require a focused and concerted effort. Suddenly eating less is somewhat of a shock to the body, and most people experience strong cravings for their favorite foods. To mitigate those cravings and develop a new set of habits, you’ll most likely need to adopt a number of different strategies:
- Practice mindful eating: A common characteristic of overeating behavior is not being engaged with what you’re eating and how it makes you feel. Most of the foods that we tend to overindulge in are pleasurable in the moment but leave us feeling nauseated, bloated, or generally unwell later on. That’s why the practice of mindful eating can make a big difference in the actual experience of eating. If you commit to giving your full attention to the process of eating, you’ll be much more aware of physical cues and will be more likely to listen to your body saying, “stop.”
- Reduce portion sizes: Sometimes the tendency to overeat can be related to a kneejerk impulse to eat everything on your plate (something we may have been taught as children). As simple as it sounds, one relatively effective way to reduce portion size is to use a smaller plate. This creates a situation where you have to make a second choice to eat more rather than just finishing what was already in front of you.
- Eat more slowly: A similarly simple tactic is to eat more slowly. By default, there is a delay in the chemical signaling between states of hunger (ghrelin) and satiety (leptin); when we eat really fast, we consume calories faster than our body can signal satiety. But by slowing down, you can reach a feeling of fullness and naturally feel an urge to stop eating.
- Limit distractions: Some recent research has shown a connection between being distracted during a meal and overeating. By limiting distractions (like phones, tablets, and TVs), you’ll be able to concentrate on what and how much you’re eating and will be less likely to mindlessly consume too much food.
- Identify trigger foods: Any kind of life change usually involves an honest assessment of the situation, and in the case of overeating this means being aware of the specific foods you’re likely to binge on. By identifying your trigger foods, you can choose to not buy them at all or only for a special occasion.
- Find substitutes: Changing your eating habits can’t realistically be all about cutting out the foods you love. You also need to find healthy substitutes that you enjoy so eating food doesn’t become a grim and pleasureless duty. So as you identify your trigger foods, think about healthier and lower-calorie replacements.
- Increase fiber: Dietary fiber is a valuable food component both in general and in terms of learning to eat less. In addition to the benefits for digestion, fiber is important for reducing cholesterol and controlling blood sugar. But fiber is also great for eating less because it greatly increases the sense of fullness after eating. Fiber supplements can be useful in some circumstances, but it’s best to get it from whole foods like fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
- Reduce stress: When the body experiences high stress levels, a hormone called cortisol is released by the adrenal glands; among other things, this increase in cortisol can also increase one’s appetite. Some people respond to this by overeating, which is essentially an evolutionary response that assumes more energy will be needed to handle whatever is causing the stress. By finding ways to reduce stress, you can reduce cortisol levels and thus reduce appetite.
- Food journal: For most people, mealtimes come and go every day without much thought, but that creates an environment where you’re more likely to overeat. By keeping a food journal, you can keep track of how much you’re eating and therefore how much you cut back. Keeping a food journal is also a great starting point for building a regular meal plan.
- Get support: Some goals in life just can’t be successfully achieved alone, and that’s why finding a source of support can make a huge difference in finding your way to success. Whether it’s a spouse, a friend, or an overeaters support group, find some people who can cheer you on as you take on a big life change.
How to Achieve Sustainable Weight Loss
If you’ve been trying to train yourself to eat less, you already know how hard the process can be. The same kind of challenge exists for a weight loss journey, and for many people all the effort expended never really gets them the freedom they’re looking for. At True You Weight Loss, we have helped many people find a new approach to weight loss that is sustainable over the long term. Our non-surgical solutions can help you get past the kind of roadblocks that have hampered your progress in the past. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you, please contact us today to request a consultation.