Most of us have at least one thing we can’t stop ourselves from eating if we have it in the house. For too many, overeating is a problem that takes over lives, spreads into many more than just one or two food items, and seems to have no solution. It’s important to look at what really leads us to overeat before we can even think about how to overcome the problem.
What are the reasons we overeat?
We often assume we’re above the instincts we see in other animals, but humans are hardwired to do certain things just like any animal. One of those things we’re programmed to do is eat. For thousands of years, humanity’s focus was finding enough food to survive long enough to pass on their genes and hopefully give the new generation a good chance to do the same. Hunger was a good thing that kept us working, progressing, and striving to build and create. Natural selection removed the weaker hunger drives in our species ages ago.
This same natural instinct directed humans toward rich foods that supplied more nutrients and calories at less physical cost, but these foods were rare, hard to find, or took some effort. Today these once rare delicacies are available in convenient and immediate packages in every grocery store, gas station, fast food joint, and restaurant spaced nicely just a few blocks from one another everywhere you go.
Food, especially rich food, triggers an emotional response. Foods we find delicious increase the levels of serotonin in the brain, giving a euphoric, satisfied, and contented feeling that we can depend on to feel good when we are down. Comfort foods are definitely a real thing that many of us reach for when we feel depressed, overwhelmed, stressed, overly tired, or sick. Comfort foods aren’t necessarily a bad thing to begin with.
My favorite comfort food is tomato soup, not the worst thing in the world, but then again I also have an affinity for a certain soft drink that is in no way good for me. I also can’t eat tomato soup for every meal and expect to remain healthy. Food can safely fill an emotional void very briefly, but our modern world amplifies and extends our stress, depression, exhaustion, and illnesses. This makes us reach for our comfort foods more often than we should and then becomes a vicious cycle of dependence, just like with any other drug. Feelings of anger, depression, and guilt lead to us to eat and then, when we overeat, we react to our perceived betrayal of self with guilt, depression, and self-directed anger which then lead to overeating once again.
Even for those of us who may not have a dependence on food to combat stress and depression, many of us still eat poorly due to environment, habits, lack of choices, and our cultural or family influences. We may have grown up eating heavy, dense, rich foods that of course lead to overeating, being overweight, and poor health, never knowing there were different ways to feed ourselves. Or we work long hours and choose poor food because we don’t think we have time for healthier options. We have developed a habit of overeating over years and years and habits can be very difficult to break.
Environment is another strong factor that dictates how we eat. The food industry capitalizes on this by exposing you to delicious looking foods as often as possible. Food bombards us on the television, on the internet, on the street, and everywhere in between. We see billboards and commercials that show these foods in the best light, looking ready to eat.
Our brains are programmed to respond to these images with cravings and desires to have these foods and those cravings grow. Many studies show that even a brief exposure to an image of a comfort food, like chocolate or milkshakes, leads to intense cravings and overeating later. If you were just handed some chocolate or a milkshake and allowed to eat, you are less likely to overeat. Our environment influences us more than we may know.
Our lives are overly stressful and crammed to the brim with jobs, family, friends, deadlines, our favorite activities, televisions shows, hobbies, and relationships. These distractions and obligations make it difficult to take the time we need to eat healthy. It’s easier to skip breakfast and then grab a burger and fries for an early lunch than it is to sit down to a meal and make something to bring in to work. It’s easier to rush through a fast food drive-thru on the way home for dinner than it is to have ingredients ready and prepare a meal at home. The perception of limited time and the convenience of unhealthy food are very big contributors to our overeating problems.
These five factors all combine, leaving us overweight, unhealthy, and unhappy, but there’s always hope. Now that you know what causes overeating, you can do something to counteract it.
How do we quit overeating?
1. Understand Instinct
Knowing how our bodies work helps us make better decisions. The foods that were rare and difficult to find a few thousand years ago are now everywhere. These are fats, sugars, and salts. We need them to survive, but not in the amounts that we’re exposed to today. Be aware that you crave these for a reason, but you don’t always have to give in to those cravings.
Seek out foods that will satisfy your hunger and these cravings while filling you with more nutrients than these high calorie temptations. For fats choose healthier ones like coconut oil and olive oil. For sugars reach for sweet berries, apples, and pears. For salt grab savory vegetables or nuts that contain fiber to fill you up longer, use Himalayan sea salt modestly, and salt your food just before you eat it so your taste buds register it more.
Chew longer. Savoring the first bites and chewing each one a little longer allows your body to digest more efficiently and use the nutrients properly. It also makes you feel fuller and allows your taste buds to adjust and signal when to stop. The initial bites will taste better. Once the food begins to loose flavor, it’s a signal to stop eating.
Eat foods high in water, fiber, and protein. These will fill you up faster, satisfy you, and trigger the body’s response to stop eating, all with fewer calories. Whole grains, broccoli, leafy greens, asparagus, grapes, berries, apples, pears, beans, and oranges are great examples of what to eat to stay fuller longer.
Don’t wait too long to eat. Our starvation instinct kicks in when we go long periods without eating, driving us to eat too much. Eat when you’re moderately hungry, before the crazy cravings begin, and you will eat less every time.
2. Love and Forgive Yourself
The emotional aspect of eating is usually ignored by fad diets and that is also one reason why they often fail. The high pressure to get the same results as seen on the ads, in the workout videos, in before and after photos, and on the packaging leads to a spiral of emotional eating. Work on loving yourself as you are, as you’ve been, and as you could become. Find the emotional triggers that lead you to overeat and work to remove the cause. This isn’t an easy process and it won’t be without pain.
Forgive yourself more often. Don’t hold on to those emotional triggers once you know what they are. If you overeat, forgive yourself and vow to do better. Don’t allow depression, anger, and guilt to sink in and destroy the progress you’ve made. Mistakes happen, but they don’t have to slow you down.
Let yourself cheat a little. Giving up foods you love entirely often results in delayed binging. Try giving yourself small doses of your comfort food a couple times a week when you feel the need. You may find that it helps you control the emotional crash and the overeating later.
3. Change Your Ways
Habits and addictions are hard to break. Losing weight is difficult. Don’t let the fad diets fool you into thinking losing weight or eating better will be an easy path. It won’t, but don’t let that discourage you either. Knowing something is difficult beforehand helps you prepare and makes it even more rewarding when you succeed.
Ask for help. Tell your friends and family what you want to accomplish and get their love, support, and nagging to aid you in your goals. If they aren’t supportive, join a food addiction support group. They can often be found locally or online. A friend who is going through or has gone through the same thing you are will make a huge difference in your inevitable success.
Instead of eliminating habits, replace them. Eat healthy choices of foods you love. You can find thousands of recipes for healthy versions of what you eat most. Keep snacking, but reach for carrots and apples instead of sweets. Eat a handful of raw nuts instead of grabbing a bag of potato chips.
4. Remove Stimuli
You can’t shut the world out, but you can do small things to expose yourself to less unhealthy images. Fast forward those commercials if you have a DVR or get up and do some jumping jacks while facing away from the television. Replace what you can control, the food in your own pantry and fridge. Stock them with high fiber, high protein, and high water foods. Remember to avoid the high fat, sugar, and salty foods that you now know drive you to overeat.
Eat little bits of your comfort food to help you resist cravings, but if you can’t eat it in small doses, get it out of the house. There is always something that you can’t stop yourself from eating, even if you try to dose it out bit by bit. If allowing yourself to cheat a little ends with you eating it all every time, it’s time to remove that temptation completely.
Take a different route to work. If you can’t drive past that restaurant without smelling the cheese-fries and stopping, try taking another street. Also, by breaking one habit, like your driving route, you can make it easier to break another.
Eat more often, but less. Eating small portions of healthy snacks four or five hours after a meal will keep those cravings at bay and make you more immune to the relentless stimuli around you. Bring a couple carrots or apple slices with you when you leave the house.
5. Prioritize Your Time
You can’t make more time, but your perception of time is often tainted by your priorities. If you make your health a priority you can then give it the time it deserves. Write down health goals and stick them somewhere you will see several times a day. The reminder will help you eliminate or restrict things that can consume your precious time but don’t align with your goals.
Prepare the day before. You can slice carrots while catching up on your favorite shows and stick them in a container for the next day. On a day off, prepare several similar meals at once and put them in the fridge for the week. Supplement with healthy protein shakes that can be made in minutes anywhere. Make sure you choose shakes high in protein and fiber with healthy fats and sugars from whole fruits.
Make time for breakfast. Eating in the morning prepares your body to eat normal meals during the day. Skipping a meal results in more intense cravings and more overeating in later meals. Breakfast can still be quick. Apple slices and oatmeal make a great breakfast that won’t slow you down.
These five steps won’t be without some effort, but they are a simple way to keep yourself from overeating and on your way to a healthier, happier, slimmer you.