Nutrition Articles

Knowing These 8 Facts Could Mean the End of Overeating

Experts Share How to End Binge Eating for Good

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As many others can relate, I was not born a naturally tiny girl. I've spent much of my life having to be mindful of what I eat and making sure to incorporate physical activity into my regular routine in order to stay as healthy as possible. However, despite my best efforts there always seems to be something about one particular day of the week that makes eating healthy and exercising seem impossible for me. That day is Sunday. While I am usually able to stay on track all week, on Sundays it's like a switch goes off as I begin reaching for snack after snack after snack—munching until I'm well beyond the point of feeling full. Then, I'm left as 49-percent of Americans report feeling after overeating… disappointed. Could this habit of overeating on Sundays be because I'm usually surrounded by friends and family that day? As it turns out, overeating can be triggered various ways, that included.
 
Overeating is something many people do, and sometimes it can create a major hurdle in achieving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. There are both physical and mental reasons for overeating, and—likewise—both physical and mental consequences of overeating. For example, according to a study featured in Nature Neuroscience, overeating can be addictive in the same way certain substances can be addictive. According to the study, overeating can trigger the same feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing the chance that the act will become habitual. In addition to being addictive, when coupled with inactivity, overeating can have other pitfalls, including increased body weight and fat mass, according to a study out of Nutrition & Metabolism.
 
The good news is, there are ways to overcome the tendency to overeat, such as planning ahead and being mindful. Understanding the "why" behind overeating is an important step in ending the cycle. These eight facts explained by two experts in the field will get you on track to becoming the best version of you.

Ending the Cycle of Overeating


1. Overeating Is Often Used as A Coping Mechanism

In her book "Free Your Child from Overeating," Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, MPH, clinical director of Westchester Group Works in Harrison, New York, explains that overeating can be used as a coping mechanism to deal with overwhelming emotions, including sadness, frustration, joy and more. According to Maidenberg, this can be because food is easily accessible and reliable, and when you're feeling such emotions, it's simple to grab for the nearest snack.
 
"Emotional eating can be influenced by both positive and negative emotions," Maidenberg explains. "Feelings can affect an individual's motivation to eat, their food choices, where and with whom they eat, and how quickly they eat a meal. This can be conscious or unconscious behavior."
 
She says the emotions behind why people overeat can be explained by the acronym HALT: Happy, Angry/Anxious, Lonely or Tired.
         
"Other common reasons why adults and kids eat are boredom and/or frustration," Maidenberg says. "Comfort foods are often consumed to soothe a bad mood (loneliness) or to stay in a good mood (when celebrating). Typical comfort foods include ice cream, chocolate, pizza, chips, steak and peanut butter."
 
Because of this psychological component behind overeating, it's important to pay close attention to your feelings if you want to conquer the urge, Maidenberg says. In her book, she recommends staying in tune with your feelings and thought patterns.
 
2. Snacking (And In Turn, Overeating) Can Be Addictive

Snackers beware—munching on your favorite sweet, salty or crunchy foods can be addictive. Why? According to Maidenberg, the act of snacking is pleasurable to your senses. It stimulates the brain's reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine, and releases opioids in the brain, sending signals that it needs more. To put it into context, Maidenberg says this pattern is similar to how the body responds to addictive drugs.
 
"We can't help but want more," Maidenberg says. "Our body is just naturally reacting. Planning ahead is the best strategy to combat over-snacking."
 
She recommends focusing on portion control by creating your own snack packs with snack-size, resealable bags in advance of leaving the house. 
3. Classifying Foods as "Good" Or "Bad" Can Result In Overeating

Elizabeth Babcock, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Babcock Counseling & Therapy Services in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, discussed this notion in her book, "Why We Overeat and How To Stop": If you're one to classify foods as "good" and "bad," you might very well be triggering yourself to overeat.  
 
"Distilling it to emotionally-loaded and inaccurate terms like 'good' and 'bad' has actually left many of us feeing defiantly resistant to nutritious foods, and longing for the very foods that usually leave us feeling miserable in the end. It's an oddly backwards pattern of thought," Babcock explains.
 
Maidenberg agrees, recommending, "Avoid saying there are 'good' and 'bad' foods and I am 'good' or 'bad' if I eat or overeat those foods."
 
Maidenberg also suggets avoiding the term "clean eating." "What is the opposite, dirty eating?" Maidenberg tells SparkPeople. "That is polarized thinking and inevitably leads to feelings of guilt and shame and being judgmental of yourself."
 
Babcock explains that instead of placing these "value judgments" on foods, you should instead give foods descriptions. If a food is something you deem as healthy, for example, you might speak of it as something that makes your body stronger or makes you feel better physically and emotionally.
 
4. Avoiding Overeating Can Mean a Lower BMI

On the flip side of overeating and indulging comes the act of mindful eating, or intuitive eating. The idea here is that you're mindfully assessing when and what you're consuming before actually doing so. By acing intuitive eating, you could be doing great things for your body. For one, according to Maidenberg, more than 25 studies show those who are mindful about what and when they eat have a lower body mass index. Such studies have also found that these individuals who practice intuitive eating also have fewer eating disorders and better cholesterol levels, among other benefits, Maidenberg adds.
 
How does one become an intuitive eater? "The objective is to teach skills so that adults and kids learn to make good, balanced decisions about their eating behavior independently, intuitively and mindfully," Maidenberg explains. "We all become distracted when we eat. With distractions we often don't recognize how much food we're consuming [and], because of this, we end up eating mindlessly."
 
According to Maidenberg, some mindful ways to focus on the food you're eating include eating slowly, taking time to appreciate every bite and being aware of all tastes, aromas, textures and consistencies; eating in a setting that enhances concentration and focus on food, such as a quiet, stress-free area; being aware of and eliminating distractions, including TV, computers, phones and the like; sitting down when eating; and being in tune to serving sizes of both meals and snacks.
 
5. Properly Guiding Your Thoughts Can Prevent Overeating

According to Babcock's book, in addition to the "good" foods versus "bad" foods notion, the way in which you talk to yourself about food options and think about foods in general can make a difference in the choices you end up making. Maidenberg agrees that your thoughts can be a major component associated with overeating.
 
"We have many sabotaging thoughts that help us rationalize why we do what we do, such as 'It's just a little piece,' 'I'll make up for it later,' 'I'll never be good at this,' 'I want it,' 'It's a special occasion,' etc.," Maidenberg says.
 
The important thing to remember is that thought are not facts, Maidenberg adds, and they can be overcome.
 
"Identify what your thoughts are and note which ones are most prevalent and how you weave back and forth between them," Maidenberg suggests. "Respond to them instead of giving into them."
 
Babcock recommends remaining mentally focused on your health and wellness goals and on the life you want to lead. By doing this, over time it will become second nature to make smart food choices. 
6. Friends And Family Can Unintentionally Contribute To Overeating

Ever had one of those evenings when you're hanging out and eating dinner with friends and family and suddenly realize you're too full to even move? Many times friends and family can unintentionally give you food pressure, triggering a reaction to indulge, according to Babcock. In fact, Babcock says it's not only common for family and friends to do this, it's actually the norm. The major problem here is that this pressure cannot only result in overeating, but also in feelings of shame and regret.
 
"The best defense is to practice more assertiveness," Babcock says. "Mentally rehearse deflecting such pressure so that you're more prepared to do it when the time comes. I recommend saying something like, 'It was wonderful. I'm quite satisfied and just couldn't enjoy another bite,' because few people will press on and try to get you to do something you've specifically defined as impossible to enjoy."
 
Babcock says however it is you choose to respond, be prepared to use what she refers to as the "broken record technique." This means repeating your answer each time it's challenged.
 
"Do it enough times, and they'll eventually give up, but they might make you work for it," Babcock says. "If all else fails, you could perhaps leave the table early to start helping with kitchen cleanup or some other activity of benefit to the group. Again, it doesn't mean they won't still try, but it puts you in a stronger position to maintain your boundaries."
 
7. Stress Can Lead To Overeating And Overeating Can Lead To Stress

Those who have a tendency to overeat many times are triggered to do so because of stress, as they rely on food to self-soothe and manage stress, according to Babcock's book. On the other side of the coin, overeating can lead to stress, as after compulsively eating the stress and anxiety will increase and eventually become accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame and remorse, according to Babcock.
 
"The more stressed you are, the more intensely you will crave emotional relief and the less discriminating you will become about how you achieve it." Babcock says. "It will become increasingly difficult to think creatively about options that are safer—and ultimately more satisfying—than overeating."
 
The key to success here, according to Babcock, is setting up a lifestyle that results in minimal stress, where possible. Naturally, your work and/or personal life might have aspects that are stress inducing, but finding ways to combat stress without food will make you feel better about yourself and your goals in the long run.
 
8. Overeating Can Result in Other Consequences, Too

Beyond the negative consequences we've already discussed—like feelings of stress, remorse and the like—overeating can result in various other consequences too, such as weight gain and a decrease in confidence, Babcock's book explains.
 
Babcock says that a good way to avoid overeating and its subsequent consequences is to avoid trigger situations as much as possible. "We tire quickly when we have to work hard at self-control with food, so we need to try to avoid circumstances that require it," Babcock adds.
 
She also recommends planning ahead so that you can keep yourself happily and healthfully fed. Finally, Babcock recommends building a moderate level of physical activity into your daily life, choosing activities you enjoy so that it doesn't feel so much like work when you're actually doing them.
 
Maidenberg adds that committing to the right mindset and actions associated with food is vital. "Consistency is key," Maidenberg reiterates. "Anything we want to excel in, we need to put in time, effort and personal dedication."
 
For added support, Maidenberg suggests soliciting the support of friends, family or a support group of like-minded people.
 
By being knowledgeable on these facts about overeating and practicing ways to control it, you can begin to fight the urge and lead the healthiest lifestyle possible.

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Member Comments

  • In my experience the BEST way to avoid overeating is to stop eating the especially addictive food categories: wheat, dairy and sugar. Once those addictions are stopped the WEIGHT COMES OFF and the joy of eating really healthy begins!
  • Really informative!
  • What do you do when you have a family member who insists, and you can't budge them despite many many times trying to, on having the tv on at mealtimes to watch the news? When one doesn't have another room to go to to eat their food in peace. The only other place is in the sitting room in an armchair which scrunches up the mid-section of the body leading to improper digestion and often indigestion/heart
    burn/acid reflux. Even having a plate on a tray doesn't work! This is a scenario that many people face today. Perhaps one of these experts can advise? They'd probably say to banish the tv watcher to another room but what if the tv is in the room where you eat and not in any other room and you don't have a portable tv?
  • Some good information.
  • thanks for sharing
  • ELRIDDICK
    Thanks for sharing
  • Tough times never last but tough people do.
    - Robert H. Schuller
  • GRATISHORE
    Another great article. Bookmarked! I love the approach of just explaining the "whats" and "whys", and letting ME figure out MY own "hows" and "whens". I find that empowering and deeply satisfying.
  • There's really not much here about the physiological effects of food. Some foods are much more likely to drive cravings than other. Until you address that you'll never separate out the emotional and self-soothing behaviors from the physical biofeedback reactions.

    While I've never undertaken it myself, a lot of people have had great success with the Whole 30 program, which is basically an elimination diet to help you test what foods are your triggers to disordered eating as well as what foods might disagree with you on other physical criteria.
  • I didn't disagree with anything in this article, but I found it lacking in practical advice. It felt like she was saying that if this is a problem for you, then just don't do it.
  • My trigger is if there are tortilla chips in the house. I can hardly resist! Sometimes I think I could eat the entire bag!!

About The Author

Erica Florentine Erica Florentine
Erica Florentine is a freelance writer who is passionate about all things health and wellness. Throughout her career thus far she’s polished her craft by writing lifestyle-focused blog posts, news articles and listicles for clients including Bustle and Johnson & Johnson. She lives at the Jersey Shore with her one true love—her puppy.