Why We Keep Overeating and What We Can Do About It

Learning what the common triggers for eating too much food are and how to manage them is our best defense against expanding waistlines.

Credit: Ken Tannenbaum/Shutterstock

Food is an essential element of life and can be one of the most pleasurable. In theory, the feeding system is simple: We're hungry. We eat. We stop. Several hours later, we might feel hungry again and so repeat the process. If only it stayed as simple as this.

The system breaks down for everyone on occasion: holiday gatherings or a delectable restaurant meal can tempt even the healthiest among us to eat past the point of fullness. But eating too much occasionally can easily become chronic when we miss (or ignore) the cues to stop when we're full, or when we eat when we're not even hungry. This is the essence of overeating.

Of course, it is possible to be hefty and healthy, but if we could just stop eating when we are full, or not eat when we aren't hungry, it might put a stop to the pounds that creep on year by year to the point where it's not so healthy anymore. Overeating is the main factor contributing to obesity. When we begin to overeat regularly -- perhaps snacking at a certain time of the day as a "pick-me-up" or when a midnight snack becomes a ritual -- this can be a problem for our physical health, and even our mental health.

The source of the problem of overeating is this: We have an innate drive to eat in response to both internal and external cues. Not only do our bodies set off the hungry signal when energy stores are low, but so does the outside environment. Images of food or, worse, the scent of food (think catching a whiff of a bakery, or French fries) can trigger the desire to eat. All of these triggers can easily lead to overeating -- and overweight.

Since the expanding waistline of the country is becoming a real health concern, learning what the common triggers for overeating are and how to manage them is your best defense. Here are some of the top reasons it's so easy to eat too much, and a few of the most effective methods for resisting the urge.

EMOTIONAL EATING

Not all internal drives to eat are about hunger. We may eat for the pleasure of it. We may also use the pleasure of eating to make ourselves feel better.

Using Food to Make Yourself Happy

Many people have used food to cheer themselves up at some point in life, perhaps downing a pint of ice cream to make problems seem a little less bad. But why does this help? There's something in the act of eating itself that is inherently calming: Feeding holds a lot of power as a tool for comfort and nurture, which likely goes back to the mother-infant connection.

But there's more to it than just the act of eating. The chemicals in foods can also buck us up. Carbohydrates are known to enhance the levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which is the target of many antidepressant medications. If you crave carbs (muffins, breads, and pasta) when your mood is low, your brain may be asking for a serotonin boost.

Comfort foods tend to be packed with fats, which may be what makes them so appealing to a person who's feeling blue. Research shows that fatty acids even by themselves, when infused directly into people's stomachs (so as to remove the act of eating from the equation), make people feel less sad, and change the way the brain reacts to sad images. This suggests that the specific compounds in foods can have a mood-boosting effect.

Because the act of eating has soothing properties and food itself has certain medicinal properties, it can be very easy to use it as a mood booster a little too often.

Eating to Ease Boredom

It's no secret that sometimes we eat when we have nothing better to do. Many people, skinny or overweight, have eaten out of boredom at some time or other: It's so easy to gravitate toward the fridge when you're at loose ends, and the next thing you know the leftovers from the night before are gone.

Stop and put your fork down between each bite, feel the food in your mouth, and appreciate all its textures, tastes, smells.

Boredom-eating may be related to both internal and external cues (or the lack of external cues). Perhaps that is why boredom may actually prompt people to eat even more than the high-arousal emotions, like anxiety, depression, or anger. People cite boredom as a central reason for overeating.

Eating to Ease Stress

From infancy on, eating is soothing. Emotional stress plays perhaps the best-known role in the urge to overeat. Who hasn't grabbed a bag of chips, chocolates, or the always-tempting muffin to calm their nerves? There are very real chemical changes that occur as a result of stress, and the body's stress response, with its intricate cascade of hormones descending from brain to body, has a lot to do with our tendency to reach for food.

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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