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Why We Overeat

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Maybe it was that fifth handful of sour cream and cheddar chips, or the third trip to the buffet line. Regardless, many of us have had experience with overeating. So what causes this uncontrollable urge to stuff our faces? With one-third of the U.S. adult population suffering from obesity, people are flocking to the next fad diet or fat-busting fitness program. But that can’t solve the problem for everyone in the long run. Instead, lets dig a little deeper to discover why we overeat (and how to stop).

The Stuffing — The Need-to-Know

Photo: Bigstock 

So here's the breakdown: When we have cravings, good memories we’ve tied to that specific food comes to mind. These pleasing memories fuel our anticipation to eat that food. Once we eat it, we feel rewarded, and the brain keeps seeking that reward until the food is gone. But it’s not just about old memories. The body can play other tricks to make us think it’s time to chow down, too.

Mixed Signals
Ever eat something, but the stomach keeps rumbling like it’s asking for more? It can be easy to misread out bodies’ signals and needs, and the mixed messages start at an early age. One study found out that three year olds stop eating when full because they’re better at listening to their bodies’ hunger cues. Five year olds, on the other hand, start paying attention to factors other than hunger when chowing down, so they’ll often finish what’s in front of them, even after they’re full [1]. But it’s not just about the full factor: We can also misread what our bodies are telling us to feed them. Another study found that people tend reach for super salty foods when they’re actually dehydrated [2].

Mindless Eating
When the latest brood of botoxed housewives (or football players) are brawling on TV, it’s all too easy to stuff our faces with whatever’s within reach and not even notice how much we’re consuming. That uber-entertaining TV show can easily distract from the natural food cues our bodies are giving us. Plus, commercials tend to lure folks in with 37 percent of them hawking delicious food items. In fact, some research suggests that watching TV during mealtime promotes overeating and weight gain [3]. Food enviornment, or the atmosphere, distractions, and people we surround ourselves with, can also have a huge effect on the quality and quantity of what we eat.

Emotional and Stress Eating
When life starts to get hectic and dramatic like the latest soap opera, many people use food for comfort to cope with negative emotions. Emotional eating can increase happiness for a short time, but the harm is more long lived [4]. Actually, people with stress related problems are 13.4 percent more likely to be overweight or obese [5].

To Binge, or Not to Binge — The Answer/Debate

If overeating is a personal issue, don’t worry — there are ways to correct the bad habit!

  • Uncover the culprit. Be careful! What we interpret as hunger might actually be thirst. When craving a salty snack, try sipping on a glass of water first to see if the hunger subsides.
  • Keep an eye on portions. Controlling portion sizes is one of the best ways to prevent overeating.
  • Distraction, be gone! Focus on the plate in front of you at that next meal, and banish distractions like TV or email from the dinner table.
  • Be aware of your feelings. Are you chowing down on a box of cookies because someone bummed you out at work? Recognize the reasons behind the binge to help stop unnecessary eating. If you’re eating because of stress or emotional issues, talk to someone!
  • Break the habit. Since habits are built over time, overeaters must consistently disrupt their habit to get rid of it.

One last thing: Overeating and food addiction can be serious medical issues. If you feel the way you eat has turned into more than just a bad habit, it’s important to consider looking for professional help. Talk to your doctor about healthy eating habits, and check out sites like foodaddicts.org to help figure out if those habits are more like an addiction.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist experts Carlene Thomas and Tina Gowin.

Are you an overeater? How do you combat the urges to chow down (and not stop)? Let us know in the comments below!

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Works Cited

  1. Serving portion size influences 5-year-old but not 3-year-old children's food intakes.Rolls BJ., Engell D., Birch LL. Nutrition Department, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, USA.  Journal of American Dietetic Association, 2000 Feb;100(2):232-4.
  2. Water deprivation-induced sodium appetite. De Luca L.A. Jr., Pereira-Derderian D.T., Vendramini R.C., et al. Department of Physiology and Pathology, School of Dentistry-FOAr, São Paulo State University, Araraquara, São Paulo, Brazil. Physiology and Behavior, 2010 Jul 14;100(5):535-44.
  3. ObesiTV: How television is influencing the obesity epidemic. Boulos R., Vikre E.K., Oppenheimer S., et al. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Boston, MA 02111, USA. Physiology and Behavior, 2012 Aug 20;107(1):146-53.
  4. The psychobiology of comfort eating: implications for neuropharmacological interventions. Gibson EL. Department of Psychology, Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, London, UK. Behavioural Pharmacology, 2012 Sep;23(5-6):442-60.
  5. Overweight and obesity are associated with emotion- and stress-related eating as measured by the eating and appraisal due to emotions and stress questionnaire.Ozier A.D., Kendrick O.W., Leeper J.D., et al. Northern Illinois University, School of Family, Consumer, and Nutrition Sciences, Nutrition, Dietetics, and Hospitality Administration, DeKalb, IL. Journal Of American Dietetic Association, 2008 Jan;108(1):49-56.

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