If you’ve ever accidentally finished a whole bag of chips when you only meant to have one or two, you’re probably quite familiar with overeating. Maybe you were absent-mindedly snacking while in the middle of a good movie, or you were served too much at a restaurant and felt like you had to finish it. Either way, there might be a reason why you felt powerless to resist.
You might be surprised to learn there are deeper reasons as to why we overeat. While it’s easy to feel guilty and blame yourself for giving in, it’s important to consider why it’s not just hunger driving you to snack. Today I’m going to talk about some of the reasons for overeating and how you can avoid it.
What pushes us to overeat?
It’s not lack of willpower. Yes, there are ways to break the cycle of overeating, but the reason we sometimes eat more than we intended has a lot more to do with chemistry than our ability to say no to those cookies.
When you eat food with sugar, fat or salt, your brain records a unique feeling of pleasure. This can trigger it to release the “happy chemicals”, dopamine and serotonin – a combination that can leave us feeling amazing. As our own in-built “reward system”, this chemical reaction can cause us to keep chasing that good feeling.
Because we feel rewarded after these foods, that craving is reinforced. This is why we always want another biscuit, even when we’re not hungry. Our brains are so sophisticated, they associate particular cues with achieving the reward as well, leading you to crave a particular treat. That sudden craving for something sweet as you walk past a bakery is response to both a physiological urge and to the environment.
Why do we crave ‘junk’ food?
The high levels of sugar, fat and salt in processed foods can kick our brain into overdrive producing those “feel-good” chemicals.
Our brain learns that foods with sugar and fat can give us a bigger “reward” than eating veggies. We may begin to focus on the fact that eating those foods gave us a moment of pleasure, which drives us to reward ourselves again. The desire for that reward can become more important than sticking to a healthy eating plan.
Overeating junk food or highly processed foods can become a cycle. The more we eat the foods that feel like a reward, the more we crave them. That’s why when you stop eating junk food, after a while it becomes easier to resist.
How your surroundings can increase overeating.
The way food is marketed to us is almost a science of its own! Generally, the most indulgent foods are full of bad fats, salt and sugar. These additives are cheap to produce, leaving more money to use on marketing.
All those fancy marketing words are often there just to appeal to our emotions — letting us believe we deserve a treat because our lives are so busy or as stress relief. Of course, I’m not saying you can’t have the occasional treat every now and then. I’m simply recommending that you enjoy them in moderation.
What can we do to break the overeating cycle?
While there’s no way to completely stop our brain from chasing that feeling that comes from foods high in sugar, fat or salt (this is a completely natural process, after all!), there are ways you can slow the urge to overeat.
Overeating is a complex matter, so it’s important to acknowledge you may not be able to kick the habit straight away. It takes patience and a change in mindset to help you break the cycle.
You may be able to reduce overeating by:
- Learning to recognise your triggers — do you overeat while in front of the TV? When stressed? Understanding what triggers the desire can help you address and avoid it.
- Reduce your exposure to cues. For example, take the confectionery-free checkout at the supermarket, as it reduces the chance of buying a chocolate bar on impulse.
- Empower yourself by retraining your brain to think of how you feel after overeating. Eating a handful of cookies won’t help you feel less stressed or tired, instead you’re more likely to feel guilty or even sick.
- When the desire hits, try to distract yourself with another activity or simply say no. The urge to binge may pass in just a few minutes.
- Find other ways to provide that feeling of reward that you’re chasing. For example, exercise releases endorphins as well!
It can get easier to break overeating patterns once you know when it happens and how you can avoid it. In order to make a positive change, you need to stop feeling guilty for overdoing it in the past and focus on being mindful in the future. While you might have been frustrated with yourself in the past for giving in, know that you can take control of the situation.
Now that you have an understanding of why overeating happens, hopefully you are better equipped to make healthier choices for your body.