Why We Keep Overeating and What We Can Do About It

By Alice G. Walton

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.

Stress has been shown to increase one's perception of hunger and how much one eats. It may be that the brain's hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which governs the stress response, is overactive in some people during times of stress, and could influence the drive to eat.

When people receive an injection that stimulates the release of the stress hormone cortisol, they don't necessarily report feeling more stressed afterwards, but they do eat more snack foods than people who did not get the injection. The hunger hormone, ghrelin, is now known to be what links stressful events with the urge to eat.

ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGERS TO EAT

The outside world provides plenty of cues that can trigger eating at times we might otherwise not even think of food. And not all of those triggers are even food-related.

Food, Food, Everywhere

Andrea Vazzana, clinical assistant professor in the department of child & adolescent psychiatry at NYU's Child Study Center says the sheer abundance of food these days is a major culprit in our eating behavior. Food is advertised and promoted in the unlikeliest of places. Sitting at your computer, a pop-up ad for a restaurant or a brand of snack foods can set off that eating cue within us.

Subtle changes in the dining industry over the years also make overeating more likely: Plates and utensils in restaurants are significantly larger than they were 50 years ago, and when we are served more, we eat more. Therefore, the glut of external cues and the relatively recent attitude that more is better can be important factors in overeating.

Eating Is Social

People have gathered around tables of food for centuries. But social eating carries risks. When we eat to please others, to remain part of the social group, we tend gain weight. In fact, people pleasers tend to eat more than people who are less interested in doing right by others. Our natural urge to do what those around us are doing, and not set ourselves apart or alienate other people by declining to eat, can contribute to overeating.

Eating to Mirror Others

Another aspect of social eating is in our tendency to mirror. Mimicry is an important form of social communication: we often mimic -- or mirror -- other's gestures or behaviors to form a connection, or to show them that we like them. One study found that even people who meet each other for the first time over a meal tend to match each other's eating behaviors bite for bite. It's likely that this is an unconscious phenomenon, says study author Roel Hermans of Radboud University Nijmegen. Even if the phenomenon is subconscious, being aware of the tendency to mirror is key in breaking it.

Other research has found that overweight is contagious. This is likely a result of both mirroring and social eating.

EATING MINDFULLY AND OTHER WAYS TO PREVENT OVEREATING

Clearly, knowing the internal cues and external reasons why we overeat is the first step to curbing the habit. Becoming aware of when you are full and your own eating patterns and specific triggers for overeating is the most essential step in changing them.

When you feel the urge to eat -- and before you make a beeline for the fridge -- try to understand where the urge is coming from. Are you actually hungry? Or is there something else fueling the need to eat?

An effective method of addressing overeating is what's becoming known as mindful eating. In mindful eating, you pay close attention to both the driving force behind the urge to eat and to the actual experience of eating. "The more conscientious you are, the more mindful you are," Vazzana says. "Stop and think, are you even hungry right now?"

If you are indeed hungry, being conscious of the actual experience of eating will also help reduce the tendency to overeat. Stop and put your fork down between each bite, feel the food in your mouth, and appreciate all its textures, tastes, and smells. It's awfully easy to eat while we're doing other things, so we miss the experience entirely, and before long we've polished off an entire meal without even being aware of it.

If your urge to eat is not coming from actual hunger, try to pinpoint the emotion (or external cue) that could be driving it. If you can identify stress, depression, or boredom as the motivating force, then you can address those emotions, rather than feeding them with food.

You can also institute small checks to keep you from overdoing your eating. For example, choosing duller, more mundane foods is a good way to keep from eating too much, says Vazzana. Not every meal needs to be a banquet or huge gastronomical experience.

Finally, engaging in activities that are simply incompatible with eating may also prevent you from doing so when you're not really hungry. For example, if you feel the need to eat (from stress or because you saw an enticing food ad), go for a walk -- but don't bring your wallet with you. In this way, if you weaken, you'll be unable to cave to the craving.

Overeating is extraordinarily common these days. As we learn more about it, we develop more effective options for coping with it. Paying attention to your particular patterns is the first step. Then developing the best combination of methods to change it can follow.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/why-we-keep-overeating-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/253906/