Episode 102: Overeating: Why It Happens and What to Do About It
May 11, 2021
Do you ever feel out of control around food? You know you should watch your portions and eat mindfully, but you can't help it. One spoonful after another, long after your body is satisfied, you continue to shovel.
Maybe it starts with your dinner. Then you want something crunchy and salty so you mow through a bag of chips. But then you need something sweet to balance it out so you plow through a sleeve of Oreos. And before you know it, you're flopped on the couch, groaning in discomfort with your jeans unbuttoned, swearing this is the last time.
It's a miserable experience, and one that can make us feel completely powerless.
But if you know me, you know I believe that when we understand the root cause of our food choices and bad habits, we stand a much better chance at overcoming them.
So let's start there: why do we overeat?
- Skipping meals. When we skip meals or ignore our hunger cues, our body will produce more and more ghrelin (the hunger hormone), so that when we do finally eat, we're ravenous.
- Eating a diet of highly-processed, nutrient-deficient foods. On top of being chemically designed to light up the reward system of the brain causing you to become addicted to them, processed foods don't have the necessary nutrients in them to signal to your body that you're getting what you need. So when you aren't getting a good mix of complex carbs, healthy fats, and clean protein, your brain doesn't readily signal you to stop eating.
- Easy access to red light foods. Food addiction is hard to tackle because unlike other addictions, you can't quit food. But you should still treat it similarly. If you were an alcoholic, it would not be advised that you keep alcohol in your house. And by the same logic, you would not be advised to keep binge-worthy foods in the house.
- Stress. When you're stressed, your body produces cortisol, adrenaline, and insulin to give you a quick surge of energy to fight or run from the threat. Once the perceived threat has subsided, your body becomes depleted and seeks to restore the lost energy in the form of food. When you're chronically stressed (as most Americans are), this can lead to a daily fight against overeating, especially at night after a long, overwhelming day.
- Lack of sleep. Sleep plays an important role in regulating hormones including ghrelin (the hunger hormone), leptin (the satiety hormone), and insulin (the fat storage hormone). As we lose sleep, we increase ghrelin, decrease leptin, and decreased insulin sensitivity. Decreased insulin sensitivity means it's harder for us to pull the energy from our food which can lead us to overeat. Plus, lack of sleep has been shown to increase activity in the area of the brain that associates food with a positive reward.
- Diet culture. One of the most damaging side effects of diet culture is its affect on our relationship with food. We've been made to fear food and to feel like if we mess up our diet even a little bit, all is lost and we might as well throw in the towel. This leads us to gorge any time we slip.
What NOT to do after you overeat.
- Beat yourself up. Berating yourself for messing up does nothing but layer on the shame and put you in a victim mentality (because you are quite literally victimizing yourself). It would be like yelling at a kid for slipping and falling; it won't do anything to prevent a future slip and only adds insult to injury.
- Starve yourself/cleanse/detox. Stop trying to atone for diet missteps. It just keeps you entrenched in the toxic diet culture that has you swinging from one extreme (overeating) to another (restriction).
- Try to 'work it off'. Punishing yourself in the gym for overeating only will create a negative connotation with working out. Fitness should be a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for something you ate.
What to do after you overeat.
- Start with self-compassion. Give yourself some grace for being human. It's a lot easier to make changes from a place of self-love than it is from a place of self-hate.
- Identify the root cause. Was it stress? Skipping lunch? Stayed up too late the night before? Didn't get a lot of nutrients in? Was a big bowl of candy staring you in the face every time you walked in the kitchen?
- Make a plan for how you'll handle the root cause more directly next time. Now that you know what caused the overeating, decide on a more constructive course of action. Meditate before dinner. Skip the Netflix binge and go to bed. Plan your meal times so you're on a consistent schedule.
- Get back to balanced habits. No restrictions, no extra workouts, just the simple healthy habits we know work: drink your water, eat your veggies, watch your portions, and move your body daily in a way you enjoy.
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