Why We Overeat and What You Can Do About It

We’ve all been there before. You open a bag of chips for a ‘small’ snack and the next thing you know you’re staring at the bottom of an empty packet. Or you’re stuffed after finishing dinner, but somehow have room for dessert. Your brain says yes. But your now tighter fitting pants say no. Why do we struggle with overeating so much? What are some of the causes? And most importantly, what can you do about it?

Overeating Is Complex

We know that two hormones play a key role. Ghrelin sends hunger signals while leptin tells us when we're full (see video below). But it’s not that simple. There can be a range of physiological factors such as:

  • Hormones
  • Body fat
  • Glucose
  • Fatty acids
  • Amino acids 

As well as psychological factors:

  • Sensory cues like images of food or the smell of a bakery
  • Social setting
  • Knowledge of food
  • Cultural behaviours
  • Stress
  • History of restricting foods

Clearly, overeating is a battle we need to fight on different fronts. And the reasons I overeat will not necessarily be the same for you. But there are some common factors that lead many of us to an extra slice of cake. Let’s look at some of the main temptations that could be increasing your waistline.

Hyperpalatable Foods

Hyperpalatable foods are a delicious blend of all the things we love. Think pizza, cakes, cookies, ice cream, baked goods, fried foods, and so on. They’re combinations of sweet, fatty, and savoury foods with textures (like crunchy) that make it hard to say no. These foods light up the reward center of the brain. And can mess with our hormones ‘stop’ signals that usually regulate hunger. Here’s a quick video explaining the process.

Eating Too Fast

I’ve written a separate post on eating slowly here, so will keep it brief.

It takes about 20 minutes from the time we start eating for our brain to tell us we're full. So, if you scoff your food down quickly, you don’t give yourself time to get the signal. And when we look at the research on fast eaters, we see that they are generally heavier than slow eaters.

We live in a fast-paced world and don’t often realise we’re eating quickly. But the pounds can really stack up over the years. To see how quickly you could gain weight, read about the University of Rhode Island study I cited in this post.

Cultural Practices

Cultural practices play a large role in overeating. For example, in many western countries, fast food and drive-throughs are now commonplace. We’re surrounded by cheeseburgers, fries, supersized meals, sugar-loaded drinks, cakes, pastries, ice cream, and so on. All this is quick, convenient, and available 24/7. Add in low activity levels and you’ve got a recipe for obesity.

In addition, many of us were brought up to finish all the food on our plate or eat past the point of fullness. Over time, this adds up.

In contrast, cultures that eat less processed foods and practice mindful eating are among the healthiest in the world. Many of them have habits that stop them from overeating:

  • The Okinawans practice hara hachi bu, which roughly translates to eating to 80% full.
  • The Ayurvedic tradition in India advises eating until 75% full.
  • The Chinese have an age-old adage to eat until you are seven parts full (70% full).
  • The French paradox: how they can eat baguettes, wine, cheese, pate, and pastries but stay healthy. This is because they don't eat past the point of fullness.

Emotional Eating

Food makes us feel good. This can lead to emotional eating that’s triggered by a hard day at work, boredom, stress, anxiety, or the need for a pick-me-up. Research has found that we’re much more likely to go overboard when burnt out at work.

Your Environment Matters

Our environment plays a large role in overeating. Many studies have found that we’ll eat more if served larger portion sizes, regardless of body weight, food served, meal setting, or timing.

The very sight of food is enough to make us want to eat. So the bowl of lollies you keep at your desk may not be the best idea.

Social settings matter too. Research has found that the longer the duration of the meal, the more we’ll eat. We’ve all been in situations where you visit a friend or go to the pub. Everyone’s eating. You’re not really hungry. But you eat anyway.

Get Your Buzz On

Some food and drinks give us a ‘buzz’ or another type of physiological effect. Think your morning latte, after work beers, or sugary energy bars you use for a quick boost. You might not even like the taste of coffee or beer. But can learn to enjoy it because of the reward.

How to Stop Overeating

As we’ve seen, there are a lot of factors that could be contributing to overeating. And there’s no magic bullet approach that’ll work for everyone. You need to do a bit of investigative work to find your internal and external cues. Once you’re aware of these, you can change your eating habits (to learn more about developing good habits or breaking bad ones, read this post).

There are some approaches that generally work well for most people:

Eat More Whole, Fresh Foods

  • Focus on lean meats, poultry, eggs, fish, and plant protein sources.
  • Eat clean carbs: high fibre and slow digesting carbs like beans, legumes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, brown rice, etc.
  • Eat more vegetables.
  • Eat fruit in moderation.
  • Eat healthy fats like salmon, seeds, nuts, avocados, olive oil, and coconut oil.

Eat Slowly and Mindfully

Even if you’re eating junk food, slowing down and tuning into internal cues can help you eat less. Eating slowly has many other benefits:

  • Develops mindful eating practices similar to the Okinawan or French approaches to eating to 80% full.
  • Improves digestion.
  • You enjoy your meals more.
  • You eat less.

Eat Less Hyperpalatable Foods

Okay, so this is a tough one. We’ve talked about how much we love hyperpalatable foods. They’re designed to make us gorge ourselves and come back wanting more. So telling someone to reduce their intake is not very helpful. But, if you follow the first two steps (eating more whole foods and eating slowly), you’ll find this much easier to do. 

Don’t restrict your favourite foods, but make a rule that you need to eat a large healthy meal of protein, clean carbs, and healthy fats first. Or apply the 80/20 principle. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to turn down junk food when you're satisfied. And if you're still craving it, you’ll likely eat less. Mum was right – you got to finish your dinner before you get desserts.

Tune Into Emotional Eating

This is a very complex problem that many struggle with, so I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But here are some approaches you can try:

  • Try keeping a food journal for a week. Before, during, and after your meals note how you feel and what’s going on in your life (e.g., busy day at work). Look for patterns.
  • Become aware of your habits. Are you eating because you’re truly hungry or because it’s lunchtime? When you finish your meal, are you full or just satisfied?
  • If you want to eat but are not actually hungry, try to identify the emotion or external cue. Are you stressed or bored? If you can identify the emotion, you can address it by de-stressing or doing something active (go for a massage, walk, or meditate).
  • Change your state. If you find you’re not really hungry, doing something physical that gets your heart rate up quickly (running, kettlebell swings, bike sprints, push-ups, etc.) can help you to stop thinking about food.
  • Once you've identified your emotional triggers, learn how to change your habits here.
  • Eating slowly and mindfully.

Set Your Environment up for Success

As we saw, environment plays a huge role. This means that you need to make it easy to eat healthy foods and decrease the temptation for junk foods. Some of these approaches may seem simple, but they can go a long way:

  • Build a meal-prep routine. Having fresh, healthy food on hand reduces the temptation to order in or buy a burger for lunch.
  • Try serving 20% smaller portion sizes and see if it makes a difference. Wait 20 minutes before getting more food. If you're still hungry after that, get a second helping.
  • Don’t keep junk food easily accessible at work or home. If you find it hard to resist, make it more challenging to get at. Out of sight out of mind.
  • Be aware that you’re likely to eat more in social settings. So, go for lighter options. Try to eat 20% or so less than you normally would. Or tune into your hunger signals. If you’re not really hungry, pass up the food.

Alcohol and Sugar

Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you to ditch your morning coffee or afternoon beers. But simply having one less beer or skipping the sugar or milk in your coffee can really add up over time. Instead of the afternoon chocolate bar, try switching it up with fruit or another healthy snack from home.

Do Something – Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day or 2) pick one strategy in this post to help you eat less and test drive it. Make it so small you can’t fail. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you're so close to the share buttons - look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out any time. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what you struggle with when it comes to overeating.

Subscribe to My Blog

If you liked this post, you'll love my weekly email. Short. Punchy. Packed full of gems of wisdom on life, fitness, and beyond! Enter your email to sign up. In addition to one weekly email (learn more), you'll get a free e-book: The Battle Tested Body Transformation Guide!