Overeating impacts your weight and your health. Try these tips from a registered dietitian to stop overeating.
It happens to the best of us. You sit down to a meal and eat far more than you planned. Your pants feel too tight, your stomach is upset, and your energy tanks.
Occasional overeating happens, and it’s not a big deal as long as you can get back on track for the next meal. But if this happens to you all the time, it’s worth examining why you are overeating and what steps you can take to minimize it.
Overeating is associated with health risks<sup>1</sup> and makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight. Plus, it just doesn’t feel good—emotionally or physically—to eat until you feel sick!
Unfortunately, our culture of super-sized meals and accessibility to calorically dense foods can make it easy to overeat without even realizing it.
Overeating looks different for everyone. We all have different calorie needs depending on activity levels, gender, age, muscle mass, and more. Plus, your reasons for overeating may be different than your family or friends. Some triggers are related to actual hunger, while others have more of a psychological basis.
If you struggle with overeating, the trick is to examine your own patterns and habits.
Let’s look at some of the science behind overeating—why we do it, why it’s not so great for us, and what you can do to make changes to help you feel better.
Overeating simply means you take in more calories than your body needs. This can be during a single meal or over an entire day.
People overeat for a variety of reasons. Many people eat to the point of fullness because of how quickly they eat. Eating slowly<sup>2</sup> gives the body time to respond and send out hormonal signals to regulate appetite and help you stop eating. But eating too fast doesn’t give the gut hormones a chance to catch up, so by the time you notice you are full, it’s too late.
Overeating also happens for other reasons like<sup>3</sup>:
And sometimes you may overeat just because the food tastes good to you. This isn’t the scenario that’s a problem. Occasionally eating to the point of excessive fullness only becomes a health concern if you do it regularly.
It’s also important to note that we are not discussing eating disorders like binge eating disorder<sup>4</sup> characterized by eating large quantities in a short amount of time coupled with significant feelings of shame and a loss of control. This is a serious diagnosis that should be supported under the care of a healthcare team.
If overeating often happens for you, it may not be evident that you are eating more than your body needs. Feeling overly full may just feel normal.
Here are some clues that you may have overeaten:
There is a lot of research looking into why we overeat. What drives us to eat food until we feel ill or in a way that negatively impacts our health? The answers vary, and we all have different reasons for why we may be overeating.
One reason is related to the ease of access to not-so-healthy foods. We are bombarded by cheap, palatable foods at all corners of the grocery store. There is a whole science behind food marketing, from the words and images on the packages to the perfect combination of flavors that stimulate your brain<sup>5</sup> to want more.
These processed foods are also associated with blood sugar dysregulation<sup>6</sup>, where you swing between highs and lows, leading to even more cravings for sweets. While we have the power to override food cravings and make healthy decisions, some of these foods are literally made to make you crave more than you need<sup>7</sup>.
Overeating can also be related to your daily eating patterns. Skipping meals early in the day can lead to overeating later at night<sup>8</sup> as your body overcompensates for the missing calories.
Blood sugar drops, so your hunger hormones kick in to make sure you get enough food to bring it back up and give you energy. This can lead to a vicious cycle where you eat too much later in the day and into the night, then wake up still full and begin the process again as the day goes on.
But overeating can also have absolutely no connection to true physiological hunger. Loneliness, boredom, stress, or sadness can trigger some people to overeat. Even not sleeping well<sup>9</sup> the night before can cause overeating, as the body looks for quick energy bursts to help wake you up.
Distracted eating can also lead to overeating. This includes eating at your desk for lunch or binge-watching your favorite show while enjoying dinner. You are much more likely to overeat if you aren’t paying attention to your food and how it really tastes. In fact, some studies suggest that your brain processes the taste of food completely differently<sup>10</sup> if you are distracted.
We do so many things out of habit. Think about it. Do you eat lunch because the clock says it’s time? Or do you do it because you recognize hunger? Do you ever feel like you need something else to eat even if you’ve just eaten an entire meal?
Most overeating happens because we aren’t connected to our bodies while we eat. The trick is finding your individual trigger(s) or reason(s) for overeating.
Aside from not feeling well, continuously overeating can add up to more concerning health problems. The primary adverse health effect related to overeating is weight gain. While weight loss is more complicated than cutting calories, eating more food than your body needs will eventually increase weight gain<sup>11</sup>, especially with sedentary lifestyles.
When we eat, food is broken down to provide energy for our cells to perform their many functions. If we take in more than we need, our body stores it<sup>12</sup>. Small amounts go to the liver and muscles for quick energy, and the rest will be stored as fat.
Overeating is often (but not always) related to eating foods that may not be the best choices. Research suggests that it’s much easier to overeat foods rated “highly palatable”<sup>13</sup>. For example, it’s more likely you’ll eat one too many pieces of pizza than salad, no matter how much you like salad.
As a result, overeating processed, highly palatable foods can contribute to your intake of ingredients like inflammatory fats, sugar, and white flour. In addition to weight gain, these foods are associated with chronic disease and an overall increased mortality risk<sup>14</sup>. And high-carb, high-fat diets are associated with increases in body fat<sup>15</sup>.
Overeating can also interfere with the normal balance of hormones that help regulate your hunger cues, ghrelin and leptin. Increases in ghrelin signal hunger while leptin sends the message that you are full.
But chronic overeating, especially foods high in fat or sugar that stimulate pleasure signals in the brain (the same signs that the food marketers are trying to target as mentioned above), can override these satiety hormones<sup>16</sup>. In other words, your brain will continue to seek these foods, even if your satiety hormones tell you that you’re full.
Overeating can also negatively impact your blood glucose levels. Even if you are a healthy person without blood sugar dysregulation, overeating foods high in refined carbohydrates can lead to blood sugar variability. This means you swing between highs and lows, which disrupts your metabolic equilibrium.
<hr class="read-mr">Read more: Find out what normal glucose levels are for non diabetics and what to do when glucose spikes.<hr class="read-mr">
Think of the scenario mentioned earlier. You skip breakfast because you aren’t hungry, have a light lunch, and then show up starving for dinner. Your blood sugar is likely low since you haven’t eaten, which will make you naturally crave higher-carb foods to bring your glucose up quickly.
High-carb foods spike your blood sugar, insulin is released from your pancreas to compensate and bring it back down quickly, and suddenly you are hungry and tired again.
One study found that a single day of high-fat, high-calorie overeating in otherwise healthy adults significantly decreased insulin sensitivity<sup>17</sup> (how well your cells respond to insulin’s signal to move glucose out of the blood) by 28 percent.
Despite knowing the risks, it can be challenging to break the habit if you are used to overeating. It takes time to create a new pattern, but you can do it. Here are seven ways to get started.
As mentioned above, skipping meals can backfire. You should be hungry before eating, but not so starving that you want to eat everything and anything.
In a perfect world, you’d listen to your hunger and satiety cues. Still, many who overeat aren’t connected to their body’s signals. As silly as it may sound, it takes time to relearn how to eat. If this sounds like you, try eating at the same time each day to set new patterns.
This combination supports satiety and blood sugar balance.
Avoid placing large portions of food on the table. Plate your food away from the table and just bring what you plan to eat to the table with you. Sometimes just having the food in front of you can lead to mindless eating even if you aren’t hungry anymore.
It fills you up and helps with blood sugar regulation, especially vegetable fiber. Fill at least half your plate with non-starchy, fiber-filled veggies like leafy greens, bell peppers, tomatoes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, or broccoli.
Remove distractions like television, computer, or any screens from your eating area. If you eat with others, enjoy the conversations and your food!
It can feel strange at first, but take a second to think through each bite. How does it taste? What is the texture? Put down your fork and chew your food in between bites.
Known as hara hachi bu<sup>18</sup> in Japanese culture, this practice is associated with healthier eating and helps avoid overeating before your brain has a chance to catch up.
Sometimes we also overeat in specific situations; the most common circumstances are outlined below.
Chronic stress can increase stress hormones like cortisol that raise blood sugar and increase appetite<sup>19</sup> .
There are many ways to work on stress management and resilience, but the best one is the one that works for you. If you hate tracking food or journaling, don’t force it. Maybe meditation or deep breathing help you instead? Perhaps you have a post-it on your refrigerator that reminds you to ask yourself if you are truly hungry.
Check in with yourself before you eat. If the motivation is not true hunger, shift your focus and try going for a walk or calling a friend. Recognizing what triggers your stress is an essential first step.
If you practice intermittent or occasional fasting, it’s easy to overeat when you break your fast. Make sure you plan ahead before fasting and have nutrient-dense foods in the fridge ready to go. Don’t wait until you are starving to make a game-time decision about what to eat. Fill up on fat, fiber, protein, and complex carbs.
Eating at night usually relates to emotional eating and not so much hunger. Make sure you eat enough earlier in the day and don’t skip meals as mentioned above.
If it’s about emotional eating, try brainstorming a list of other things that bring you pleasure besides food. Bring out the list when you are tempted to eat when you aren’t hungry. And when all else fails, brush and floss your teeth because who wants to eat after that?
Once again, planning ahead will help you make healthy choices. Right after your workout, make sure you have easily accessible foods with protein and carbs. If you don’t have time to eat after working out, consider a protein shake to get you through until you eat a balanced meal.
Working at home makes it that much easier to graze even when you aren’t hungry. While deprivation is never the answer, it’s also a good idea to keep things that tempt you out of the house, or at least make it harder to get to them.
It’s like having a candy dish on your desk at work. If it’s there, you’re more likely to reach for one without even thinking about it.
Planning ahead helps here too. Have easy-to-access lunches and snacks in the fridge ready to go. Try keeping healthy foods like pre-washed veggies, chopped-up fruits, or even pre-frozen smoothie packs to make it easy to eat well.
Fluctuations in hormones can impact your appetite and make overeating more likely. Progesterone, which is high right before your period, is associated with increases in appetite<sup>20</sup> . Plus, many women have mood changes related to their period that can increase the desire for emotional eating.
All of the above tips will work for overeating during your period, but don’t forget to give yourself a little extra grace as well.
Try choosing any of the above tips and implement them into your life. Pick one that speaks to you.
Maybe you realize you don’t really pay attention to how your food tastes while working at your desk? Or perhaps you haven’t eaten dinner away from a screen for years. You can always add on once you’ve mastered the first habit.
And remember that if overeating feels like a more significant problem and you no longer feel in control, it’s important to reach out for help.
Anything that requires a behavior change will take more than a few days to make a new habit. If you’ve been overeating regularly for years, you can’t expect to change overnight, but you can get started today.