Overeating is defined as consuming more calories than the body can use. It happens by eating too many calories throughout the day or eating beyond your stomach’s capacity during a single meal. Overeating can be uncomfortable and cause bloating, gas, sluggishness and heartburn, or more serious health issues like obesity and heart disease.
So if overeating generally leads to not feeling good, why do we do it?
The truth is, overeating is a learned habit that can be difficult to break. Think back to expressions like the “Clean Plate Club,” or guilt trips from parents who told you: “There are children starving in [insert country here] who would be happy to eat this!” Though well-intentioned, these tactics result in learning to ignore hunger and satiety queues.
Food is an integral part of our lives and provides both nourishment and pleasure. It plays a major role in holiday celebrations, special occasions and socializing in general. We associate certain foods with events or activities, like pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or popcorn at the movies. The smell of certain foods can stir up emotions and memories, like Mom’s freshly baked chocolate chip cookies after school or Dad’s famous chili on Super Bowl Sunday.
So before you start shaming yourself for overdoing last night’s dinner, realize that there are many reasons you may have overeaten. Once you address said reasons, making changes to your eating habits will become that much easier. Read on to see if any of these common reasons for overeating resonate with you—and learn how to stop them.
7 Most Common Habits That Cause Overeating
1. Distracted Eating
Multitasking while eating is a sure-fire way to eat too much. Studies show that people who eat while distracted (watching TV, working, driving, scrolling through social media or reading) eat more than those who focus solely on their meal.
When multitasking you’re unaware of how much you’re consuming. By the time you realize you’ve had more than enough, it’s too late.
How to Stop:
- Reframe meals and snacks as a time to relax and recharge.
- Sit down and turn off all distractions.
- Examine your food before eating. Appreciate its color, texture and smell.
- Eat slowly and savor every bite.
2. Restrictive Eating
Always being on a diet, banning certain types of food (sugar, dairy, gluten or carbohydrates), or labeling foods as “good” or “bad” all but guarantee overeating.
Before beginning a diet, people tend to binge on all the “forbidden foods” like candy, chips or french fries. In an attempt to “be good,” they then cut these foods out entirely. The strategy works for a few days, maybe even a couple of weeks. Once the inevitable cravings kick in, no amount of willpower can put the brakes on the binge.
How to Stop:
- Unless there is a medical reason, don’t make certain types of foods off-limits.
- Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.” Yes, some foods are more nutritious than others, but if you indulge in a special treat, enjoy it guilt-free.
If you find yourself constantly thinking about food or binging and purging, this could be a sign of an eating disorder. Consult your doctor for possible treatments.
3. Eating Too Fast
There are many reasons why people eat too fast. Perhaps you had a busy work schedule and didn’t plan enough time for lunch, or you waited too long between meals and now you’re starving. If you grew up in a large family and mealtimes were a battle between the quick and the hungry, it can still affect the pace at which you eat today.
Whatever the reason, eating too fast doesn’t give your brain enough time to catch up with your stomach. Like distracted eating, by the time you realize you’ve eaten too much, it’s too late.
How to Stop:
- Schedule time for meals so you’re able to fully enjoy them without rushing.
- Chew your food thoroughly and put your utensils down between bites.
- Pause for five minutes halfway through the meal to gauge if you’re still hungry.
4. Unaware of Portion Size
Most people typically eat what is put in front of them regardless of how hungry they are. This makes portion control important. Restaurant portions are notoriously large, and with the average American eating out at least five times a week, it’s easy to overdo it. Bread and butter or chips and salsa on the table. A cocktail and appetizer before dinner. Split a dessert? Yes, please!
Gauging portion sizes can be tedious, but there’s no need to break out the measuring cups or carry a scale with you. Here are some easy ways to keep your portion size in check.
When Eating at Home:
- Instead of eating directly out of the container or package, put a serving onto a small plate or bowl.
- During meals, keep serving bowls on the counter instead of the dinner table so you don’t mindlessly pick or go for seconds.
When Eating Out:
- Arrive at the restaurant early enough so you’re not tired, irritable or famished.
- Split an entree or put half of it in a to-go container as soon as it gets to the table.
- Don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and increases your appetite.
5. Purposely Skipping Meals
People skip meals or ignore hunger cues because they are trying to lose weight. Skipping meals rarely works for weight loss as it can result in overeating at the next meal. It has also been shown to affect metabolism, leading to weight gain or obesity.
How to Stop:
- Start meal prepping to avoid skipping meals during busy times.
- Use a calorie counting app to ensure you’re consuming enough calories each day.
- Incorporate weight training into your routine and shift your focus from weight loss to muscle building.
6. Emotional Eating
If you find yourself eating as a coping mechanism (i.e. when you’re trying to make yourself feel better or as a reward), this may be a sign of emotional eating. This is when food is used as entertainment or stress relief, rather than addressing the underlying emotion.
This type of eating usually involves craving a particular type of food and the craving comes on suddenly and intensely. Typically the food is highly processed, sugary or salty, and made with addictive ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. These flavor enhancers light up the pleasure centers of the brain and keep you wanting more. It can result in endless grazing and never feeling fully satisfied.
How to Stop:
- Learn to get back in touch with hunger cues by listening to your body and questioning why you want to eat (are you actually hungry?).
- Try stress management techniques like meditation and breathwork to help lower cortisol—a stress hormone that increases appetite.
- Get back to your favorite hobbies like painting or crocheting to keep your hands busy and your mind occupied.
- Call a friend to catch up, meet for a walk, or go for a cup of coffee.
7. Mistaking Thirst for Hunger
If you’re feeling nauseous, weak, dizzy, irritable and unable to concentrate, you may be hungry… or you might just be thirsty. People often mistake hunger for thirst, and while many of the associated feelings are the same, true hunger comes on gradually. It includes an empty feeling and rumbling or gurgling in the stomach. Signs of thirst are dry mouth and darker colored urine.
How to Stop:
- Before reaching for food, have a glass of water and wait five minutes to see how you feel.
- Carry a refillable water bottle so you don’t get dehydrated and overly thirsty.
- Make sure to drink water before drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages.
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