3 Common Reasons We Overeat (And What to Do About It)
Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD
Overeating can be a frustrating symptom of the eating disorder. Any time we eat when we’re not actually hungry, or when we eat past the point of comfortable fullness, it’s considered overeating.
Overeating occurs on a continuum of slight overeating to full out binging. Regardless of the degree of overeating, it warrants understanding why it’s happening.
3 common reasons for overeating
1. Physical Hunger
Picture your internal hunger-o-meter like the gas gauge on a car. If you get near empty, your body freaks out that it’s going to run out of gas. Wanting to prevent that from happening, your body becomes so desperate that you’re likely to eat a lot of food very quickly.
At that point your body breathes a sigh of relief - whew, I’ve got enough fuel now! The problem is, this often results in eating so much so quickly that we actually overshoot and end up overly full (i.e. overeating).
This is why I encourage people to check in with their hunger throughout the day, so you can eat before you reach ravenous hunger. We want your ebb and flow of hunger/fullness to be gentle rolling hills, not mountains and valleys.
This can occur whether you’ve eaten enough quantity of food or not. Plenty of people fill up on “safe” or “healthy” foods that aren’t always satisfying. No amount of broccoli and grilled chicken is going to satisfy a craving for pizza.
When we deprive ourselves of the foods we truly want, we are likely to overeat when we finally give in and consume them. I call this the “what the heck” response - you start eating a food you have told yourself you shouldn’t eat, and you figure I’ve already screwed up so I might as well keep eating.
The guilt that follows this sense of having broken a rule often results in us trying to avoid that food again in the future - which actually perpetuates the very same cycle that led you to overeat on it in the first place.
The best way to prevent deprivation-based overeating is to not deprive yourself in the first place. I know how terrifying this can be. AND I know how freeing it is when you work through it.
This is the trickiest one of all, because it isn’t always obvious when it’s happening. I frequently ask clients, “What were you feeling or needing outside of food when you overate?” People use food for all sorts of emotional reasons - feeling happy, sad, bored, angry, lonely, tired, in need of comfort. The list could go on and on. If you find yourself eating for reasons beyond physical hunger, it’s essential for recovery that you look at the emotions. Healing from your eating disorder happens at the emotional level.
What to do about overeating
1. Notice that it happened
This requires you to be attuned to what your body is telling you. If you have your head in the sand and numb out after you overeat, you prevent yourself from noticing and looking at what really happened. As much as it sucks to acknowledge you overate and to sit with the physical discomfort, there is a huge amount of value in doing so.
2. Give yourself compassion
Beating yourself up isn’t going to make things better. We don’t learn or change our behaviors when we are in shame.
Self-compassion means acknowledging and validating your suffering. Don’t compare your suffering to others’ (you’ll always be able to find someone who has it worse off than you). Just because someone else is suffering doesn’t mean that your suffering isn’t real. Tell yourself This sucks, and it doesn’t feel good.
3. Get curious
Explore possible reasons you overate. The key is to do this without judgment. Pretend that you are a detective or a scientist gathering data. Consider the 3 common reasons for overeating that I described above. See if any of them fit.
4. Be proactive
By understanding why you overate, you now have increased knowledge about what may make you vulnerable to it happening again in the future.
If you realize that you’d gotten too hungry, figure out exactly why it happened. Did you forget to bring a snack? Were you so distracted that you didn’t notice your hunger until it was too late?
If you realize that it was deprivation-based overeating, look at why you deprived yourself of that food. What are your judgments about it? What are your fears about eating it? Make a plan to start working that food in so that you can neutralize it.
If you realize it was emotional overeating, you will need to sit with and deal with the emotions. You might also look at emotions that make you vulnerable to using food so you can be intentional about not using food to cope when you are feeling that way in the future.
5. Move on
No need to linger on this once you’ve done the reflective and proactive work. You had a symptom of your eating disorder, which makes perfect sense. It’s an illness, and you are going to have symptoms of your illness. Also, keep in mind that even people without eating disorders overeat sometimes. Learn what you can from it, use this knowledge to your advantage, and forgive yourself.
Katy Harvey, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.