We’ve all been there: You’re trying to eat healthy food, you have all your meals prepped for the week, and then, come lunchtime, you’re ravenous and all your plans to eat well get thrown out the window. It’s so easy to feel frustrated with yourself when this happens and want to just give up. Why does it feel so hard sometimes? Does it really mean you don’t have enough willpower or are failing at yet another attempt to change your eating habits?
Nope. Overeating usually has nothing to do with willpower. And for clarity, when we say overeating, we just mean eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness, which usually doesn’t leave us feeling good and can be taxing on our digestive system. The truth is that there can be several factors or a combination of factors that lead to overeating.
It starts with noticing when you are overeating or you’re getting to the point where you’re uncomfortably full after a meal. The next step is to look at exactly what it is you’re eating and explore why, without judgement. Observing your behaviours non-judgementally is an important step to making compassionate small changes.
While diet culture may have influenced you to believe that you’re a failure if you don’t stick to a certain way of eating, lifestyle can be the biggest contributing factor when it comes to overeating. In fact, depending on the day, or even the time of the month, you may be hungrier than usual, and that’s perfectly okay. The challenge comes when we feel guilty after we overeat, and either try to starve ourselves or give up on making healthier choices altogether.
How to stop overeating (and why we overeat)
Below are some reasons that may be contributing to a tendency to eat beyond a point of comfortable fullness – no willpower required. Again, as you start to notice what may be contributing, this is when you need to show yourself the most compassion and dig down to the root cause of why you’re overeating in the first place.
Not sleeping enough at night
You may not be aware that sleep affects your appetite. Just one night of disturbed or inadequate sleep increases the production of ghrelin, also called the hunger hormone, and decreases levels of leptin, or the satiety hormone.
Leptin signals your brain when you’re full and ghrelin stimulates appetite. When you’re not getting enough sleep, it can skew that delicate hormonal balance. Aim for the recommended 7.5-9 hours of sleep per night.
If you notice that getting adequate sleep is an issue, take a sleep hygiene inventory and explore the contributing factors. Things like the blue light from screens impact our ability to get good quality sleep. Try to avoid screen time at least 30-60 minutes before bed and find other ways to relax and wind down. You might try reading a book (non-digital), having a bath or shower, spending time with loved ones or journaling.
Login to the Accuro HealthHub and check out The Sleep Routine Checklist for more ideas.
Being too restrictive with eating
Eating nutritious food is important. It’s also important to identify if you’re restricting what you eat to a point that has significant health implications. A 1944 study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment showed that restricted eating may lead to weight cycling and yo-yo dieting. As studies have shown, what can happen is that after a time of restricted eating, mentally and physically healthy people can develop an unhealthy relationship with food, eating way more than they normally would, and even becoming obsessed with food, due to the psychological effects of food restriction. Don’t get sucked into the fads and focus on finding nutritious ways to nourish your body.
You can also do a quick check-in with yourself: Are you restricting foods you love? Are you focused on eating a specific number of calories? Are you cutting out entire food groups, like non-refined healthy carbs, leading you to crave huge bowls of pasta whenever you’re out with friends? Do you skip meals? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, chances are, you are over restricting. Working with a nutritional expert can help you create a sustainable plan that you can stick to over time, which will get you the results you want without having to go overboard.
Chronic stress is on the rise, and it can affect your appetite in ways you may not expect. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that chronic stress may increase our motivation to consume foods that particularly hit on the mesolimbic dopamine system, which is basically our reward pathway. When we’re chronically stressed, our hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPA Axis) is chronically activated, which then results in high cortisol (the stress hormone) leading to increased food cravings.
This means that when you’re chronically stressed, you tend to crave more processed foods or sweet foods, which works as a type of coping mechanism. This highlights the need for us to have non-food-based coping mechanisms to depend on when our stress is high, so we can reduce those feelings of shame and guilt that tend to be associated with overeating, which then perpetuates our stress even more.
Stress management doesn’t need to be complex, elaborate, or expensive. It also doesn’t need to take a long time. Creating micro-moments throughout the day to alleviate stress so it doesn’t build up is a useful technique. Pick a handful of simple tools, like taking five deep breaths or going for a short walk, that you can draw upon throughout the day.
Not being in touch with hunger cues
Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full - sounds simple enough, right? Simple but not always easy and it turns out it’s more nuanced than that. Many times, you might not really be hungry - you could be thirsty, stressed, tired, bored or any number of things. To really know whether you’re or not you’re actually hungry, pay attention to your body’s internal cues.
Paying attention to these cues is what will help you understand what your body is trying to tell you. Intuitive eating is become more widely recognised and talked about as a self-care eating framework rooted in respect for all bodies.
Intuitive eating is a mindful way to get in touch with your hunger and fullness cues, make peace with food and avoid a fearful relationship with food.
There are almost 150 evidence-based studies validating the impact of intuitive eating. However, listening to your body’s cues after a lifetime of ignoring them can be hard to do and won’t change overnight. If you recognise this is a significant struggle for you, consider reaching out to a professional who can work with you on developing body literacy and help you establish a healthier relationship with food.
Not fueling yourself properly after working out
Not eating enough or at all after an intense workout can do your body a disservice and may affect your hunger levels throughout the rest of the day. After hard activity, your body needs to be refuelled ideally within 30-60 minutes with a mix of protein and carbohydrates.
When we work out, our muscles use their glycogen or stored glucose, especially during high-intensity workouts. So, eating post-workout is a good way to refuel them.
If you don’t eat an adequate amount after a workout, it not only affects the ability of your muscles to repair themselves but also affects your hunger levels. Studies have shown that exercise can reduce your blood sugar, which can leave you feeling hungry if you don’t fuel yourself adequately after a workout.
It’s also been shown that the longer you wait to eat when you’re hungry, the lower your blood sugar will drop, which may lead to craving sugary and refined carbohydrate-rich foods to get your blood sugar up. That’s why it’s essential to eat a balanced combination of protein and complex carbohydrates after you work out to keep you satiated and improve recovery.
If you find yourself overeating and are tempted to berate yourself for lacking willpower, take some time to explore if any of these factors may be influencing your habits. Remember that we’re in partnership with our bodies and that eating well and fuelling ourselves adequately is an important act of self-care.
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