Overeating is a common issue among both men and women and a big contributor to unwanted weight gain. In this article I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about overeating and tell you how to stop overeating for good so you can finally find success with your health and body composition goals.
Do you see overeating as “the problem” you face? If so, I’d encourage you to see it differently. In my experience, overeating is not the problem. It’s a symptom of other problems you’re experiencing (and likely not dealing with).
Now, before we get too deep into this, keep in mind that solving your overeating challenge is not going to happen overnight. It requires long-term focus. If you’re not patient, frustration will corrupt your desire to succeed. You must be willing to play the long game and you must understand that there are no quick fixes or magic pills.
Got it? Good. Let’s continue…
What is Overeating?
The surface-level definition of overeating is obvious. It’s eating more – in calories – than your body actually needs.
What I’d like to add is that overeating on any single day is irrelevant. Overeating is only a problem if it happens often.
You should also be aware that there are varying degrees of overeating. Some people mildly overeat, some people overeat often, and some people overeat to a degree that they end up with a clinical eating disorder diagnosis such as Compulsive Overeating.
As you read through this article, it might be helpful to also start thinking about where you fall on that spectrum.
What Are the Symptoms of Overeating?
The #1 symptom of overeating is weight gain in the form of body fat storage (keep in mind that weight gain is not inherently bad – you can add weight in the form of lean muscle mass).
While it’s possible for one to behave like an overeater (as evidenced by their relationship with food) and not gain weight, it’s not very typical. Most overeaters are overweight or obese.
When you look up overeating symptoms, you’ll note that many physical health ailments are also listed as symptoms, such as diabetes, heart attack risk, “high cholesterol,” etc. These are far less compelling than behavioral symptoms – they’re natural consequences of having an unhealthy body.
Your behavior around food, the food choices you make, and your relationship with food are where the most compelling symptoms are found. If you honestly compare your eating habits to someone who has a healthy relationship with food, you’ll see a big difference between your actions and their actions.
Do you tend to eat beyond feelings of fullness? Do you tend to eat when you’re stressed? Do eat at times outside the norm, such as in the middle of the night? Do you feel a lot of shame around food and your body? Do you hide your eating from others? Do you diet chronically to try and control your eating? Do you hide food in places outside the norm, such as your bedroom or closets?
These are the real telltale signs that your relationship with food behind your overeating issues and requires a much deeper focus.
Optimal Foraging Theory: Does Your Biology Drive You To Overeat?
There is a theory that links overeating to your genetic survival programming. It’s called Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT).
OFT is a mechanism that ensures the greatest survival rates for a species. The theory says that organisms who are able to find the most energy (food) with the least effort will win the game of natural selection at the highest rates.
One of the chemicals that drives OFT is dopamine, which rewards seeking-behavior. We teach our clients that introducing new foods triggers more reward (dopamine) and eating the same foods you eat all the time triggers less reward. This is a great thing when it comes to eating a variety of fresh, real food.
But, there’s an exception that complicates things. The dopamine fall-off that occurs with the consumption of the same whole foods over time does not seem to occur with sugar and processed, hyper-palatable foods. In other words, the dopamine response to these foods doesn’t decline. No matter how much sugar and processed food you eat, your brain doesn’t stop seeking them.
This brings us back to a concept I’ve talked about many times in the past called Evolutionary Mismatch. In times of famine – which represents the majority of human history – OFT is what kept your ancestors alive.
In our modern world, OFT works to keep you fat. This is especially true if you don’t know how to deal with the challenges of the new food supply where food is abundant and 80% of it is fake. That’s the mismatch. Your genes haven’t caught up to the fact that you’re not going to starve any time soon.
And this isn’t just about eating. It’s about movement too. The desire to move is driven largely by the need to find more sources of food. But with an abundance of precious calories at your fingertips, is the drive to move turned off? Is this why we are sedentary to the point of being destructive?
OFT is going to create huge challenges in your life if you don’t understand it and account for it. While your genes helped you win in your ancestors’ world, you’re now tasked with learning how to win in the world you actually live in.
Calorie counting, creating a points system, using willpower, and otherwise micromanaging your eating habits are mainstream strategies for trying to beat this evolutionary mismatch. As we can see from the failure rates, though, these are rather futile strategies.
And as powerful as OFT may be, it’s still not the primary reason for why you eat…
Why Do I Overeat [Really]? Here Are 7 Questions for You to Answer…
This is the all-important question, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, there’s no one clear cut answer. People can overeat for various reasons. And in my experience, overeating is always a multi-factorial issue. That means there’s never a single cause, but multiple causes that combine to create the problem.
The first thing to understand is that the human body is not genetically programmed to overeat to the degree in which most people who struggle with overeating do. Sure, OFT is a thing, but you also have an internal “calculator” controlled by various hormones and chemical processes that is designed to automatically regulate your appetite and keep you at a healthy weight.
That calculator only works, though, if you eat food that you’re biologically programmed to eat, move your body enough, sleep enough, and so on.
So, the question becomes, “Are you overeating because your internal calculator is broken (a physical issue) or because you have a disordered relationship with food (psychological)? Or both?”
Here are nine questions to help you sort this overeating problem out so you can address it from the right angles…
#1 – Are you sure you’re overeating?
How can you be sure that you’re overeating? If you’re like most people, you’ve calculated some arbitrary number of calories using an app like MyFitnessPal (read: Why You Shouldn’t Use MyFitnessPal to Lose Weight).
If you eat beyond that calorie count, you’re said to be “overeating.”
But using calories as a tool is more harmful than helpful. There’s no solid way to calculate your caloric need because it fluctuates daily. And even if you could calculate your needs, it’s nearly impossible to track your calorie intake accurately.
Your body does the calculations automatically though, which brings me to the next point…
#2 – Are you overeating because you’re not listening to your body?
Overeating means eating more calories than your body needs on a regular basis.
If you’re overeating consistently, it’s almost certain that one or more of the following is going on:
- Your body is sending the wrong signals.
- You’re not tuned in to your body’s signals.
- You’re actively ignoring or overriding your body’s signals.
There are two main signaling mechanisms – hunger and satiety.
If you want to stop overeating, it’s important to follow your signals to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.
I realize that you’ve heard that advice before.
“Kevin, if I could eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full, I wouldn’t have an overeating problem.”
I get that, but it’s still important to note that this is how it *should* work. Many people don’t know their body can and will signal properly if the right factors are in place.
The bottom line is that if you want to stop overeating, you must be able to consistently eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full and you must be able to regulate this internally, without the use of apps, calculators, spreadsheets, accountability partners, etc.
While that might sound impossible now, I can assure you that it’s achievable.
#3 – Are you balancing macronutrients properly?
The three main macronutrients are fat, protein, and carbs. Out of the three macros, protein is the most satiating.
Carbohydrates and fat are both satiating as well, but you need to make sure you’re eating healthy fats and real-food carbohydrates.
Inflammatory fats disrupt your hormone signaling and drive up inflammation.
Processed, hyper-palatable carbs disrupt your hormone signaling, feed emotional eating issues, and can result in physiological dependence.
Contrary to some opinions floating around the internet, you can still eat carbs and not overeat. My recommendation is to match your carbohydrate intake with your activity levels.
If you don’t have emotional eating issues and you still overeat, it’s almost certain that you’re eating inflammatory fats or processed, hyper-palatable carbs.
#4 – Is your gut healthy? Are you nurturing your gut?
There are over 100 trillion microbes in the human gut with over 1000 different species represented. In terms of complexity of function, the gut is second only to the human brain.
Not only is your gut the first line of defense for your entire body, it’s where 95% or more of your serotonin is produced.
This is why gut health is one of our Six Pillars of Optimal Human Health.
The majority of adults are suffering from a range of ailments related to poor gut health and don’t know it: digestive distress, reflux, low energy, mood instability, sleep problems, diarrhea/constipation, slow metabolism or trouble losing weight, anxiety or other mental/emotional stability issues, and frequent illness.
Well, guess what? The gut also might be responsible for your overeating issues.
Smithsonian Magazine covered this in an article, Your Gut Bacteria May Be Controlling Your Appetite.
“Here we see a bacterial protein that appears to inhibit appetite by stimulation of neurons in the brain,” Fetissov notes. “But you can imagine that other bacteria can produce other proteins that can influence not only other appetite pathways but entirely different pathways. We may find out that human behavior is in some part very much influenced by gut bacteria.”
While this point in the checklist isn’t as actionable as some of the others, making sure you have healthy gut function is critical for overall wellness and not overeating.
#5 – Are you eating nutrient-rich food?
Let’s say your body needs 2400 calories today (don’t worry about the number itself, I could have picked anything). Then let’s say you eat 1200 calories of nutritionally poor food and 1200 calories of nutritionally rich food.
You’ve only received part of the micronutrient load you could have received by eating all 2400 calories of nutrient-rich food. You understand that, right?
Well, most people in modern society are eating more nutrient-poor food than nutrient-rich food. This causes a condition I call “nutritional poverty” where the body is starving for micronutrients at the cellular level.
This starvation prompts endless calls to eat more food. Not for needed calories, but for needed micro-nutrition.
But, you’ve already consumed the 2400 calories your body needed today. To get more nutrients, you have to eat more than that. This means nourishing your body in this scenario results in weight gain.
Not only that, but processed foods hijack your brain chemistry and make listening to your body impossible. This is a vicious combination. Not only are your cells are starving for nutrition and telling you to eat more, but you’re eating nutrient-poor food that’s putting your appetite into overdrive.
This is why all effective overeating protocols must start with Rebooting your body and diet. You can’t solve out of control eating problems related to your psychology when you’re simultaneously out of control physiologically.
Real food allows you to snatch your brain chemistry out of the grasp of the processed food trance and it gives your cells the nutrients they need. This ends the cycle and puts you back in the driver’s seat.
#6 – Are you under too much stress?
In today’s modern world, being healthy requires some extra time and attention.
Let’s face it, the most convenient foods are often the most unhealthy.
In order to consistently eat healthy, you have to have the physical, mental, and emotional resources required to make healthy decisions, acquire healthy foods, and move your body in healthy ways.
- Physical resources (like time and money) allow you to eat slower and afford higher quality food.
- Mental resources give you the resolve to cook, meal prep, or choose a particular restaurant.
- Emotional resources ensure that you’ll be able to choose nourishing foods instead of coping foods.
Stress chips away at these resources. Stress makes you seek out convenience foods. And stress, for those who struggle with emotional eating, drives food-seeking for comfort, control, and coping.
If you want to stop overeating, work to get your stress levels under control. Make sure you have healthy boundaries. And work to improve your emotional metabolism.
#7 – Are you eating emotionally?
As I described in The No-Fluff Guide to Emotional Eating, emotional Eating is the use of food for the three Cs: comfort, control, or coping.
This includes common challenges such as binge eating, stress eating, under-eating, overeating, excessively clean eating, and an otherwise dysfunctional relationship with food.
You probably already know that processed foods can hijack your brain chemistry and influence your choices. Well, there are mental and emotional factors that can influence your choices as well. And, typically, these mental and emotional factors are far more powerful than any physiological trigger.
If you’re not sure of the extent of your emotional eating or overeating issues, I’d highly recommend that you take our free emotional eating evaluation.
Is it Helpful to Suppress Hunger or Suppress Your Appetite?
It’s very common for people who overeat to attack the symptoms instead of the root causes.
You may start to see food as the problem or tell yourself that the act of overeating itself is the problem (when overeating is really a symptom).
If this becomes the story you tell yourself, it can lead you to “solutions” like appetite suppression. You might try a ketogenic diet because you’ve heard that it suppresses appetite. You might try fasting because not eating from time to time seems like an obvious fix. Or you might try something extreme like pills and medications.
None of these approaches are a good idea if your problem is psychological. They’re merely band-aids that will keep you stuck and struggling for a longer period of time. And they could end up having significant consequences to your health and happiness on top of that.
Write this down and work to digest it: “My physical appetite doesn’t need to be suppressed. My emotional appetite needs to be fed.”
Continue repeating that to yourself until it sinks in.
How to Stop Overeating at Night or On the Weekends
It’s quite possible that your overeating only happens at specific times. For example, overeating at night or on the weekends are two of the biggest times for overeating.
This kind of patterned eating has two primary causes:
- You’re stuck in a mode of what I call, “pattern paralysis.”
- You’re an emotional eater who is able to “keep it together” during the day or during the week and then you end up “letting loose” at night or on the weekends.
Let’s take a look at these two reasons more closely…
What is Pattern Paralysis and How Does it Work?
What would happen if you ate a handful of nuts every single time you got in your car, for a year? Strange example, I know. But, on day 366, what do you think you’d be prompted to do upon entering your car again?
You’d be subconsciously triggered to eat nuts. That’s because you’ve participated in a long cycle of what’s called “context-dependent repetition.”
Many unhealthy eating triggers are simply patterns that we’ve been following our entire lives.
When I was a child we would always do two things: eat dessert after dinner and eat dessert in front of the television. I lived in that paradigm for 17 years, so it’s no wonder that I carried it with me into adulthood. Whenever I ate dinner or sat down in front of a television as an adult, I was triggered to eat something sweet.
It’s nothing more than a pattern, but it’s a HUGE trigger and it’s made even stronger by the connection to brain-altering substances (of which food is a very powerful one). In effect, you’ve been programmed to not listen to your body at certain times or in certain situations and will eat no matter what.
The first step toward breaking pattern paralysis is obvious – become aware that you’re engaging in mindless, patterned behavior. This can be difficult since people will report, “It’s not mindless, I know I’m doing it. I just can’t stop.”
Yes, you know you’re doing it, but you don’t know *why* you’re doing it. You might even think you’re making a conscious decision, but that’s only because you were first triggered subconsciously by the pattern. It’s that act of being triggered that you have to recognize as a pattern.
Beyond that, there are a system of steps you can take to break the pattern of behavior. We cover this extensively in our Decode Your Cravings program.
Why Are Nights and Weekends Prime Times for Overeating?
The reason nights and weekends are so popular is because they usually represent periods of decompression for most people. There are three main factors at play here:
- Your physical, mental, and emotional resources are at their peak in the morning and taper off throughout the day.
- Most people are distracted during the day.
- People tend to compartmentalize periods of time and this compartmentalization often becomes a permission slip for specific behaviors.
Your physical, mental, and emotional resources are at their peak in the morning and taper off throughout the day.
Making healthy choices consistently requires an adequate amount of “PME” resources (I talk about this more in my article on emotional eating). These resources are at their highest in the morning and taper off throughout the day as you encounter various inputs that tax those resources (basic “decision fatigue” is one well-known example).
As your resources are depleted, you experience the following issues:
- A reduction in your ability to make trade-offs. Rather than weighing consequences and eating mostly healthy with the addition of a little treat, you act with total disregard for the consequences.
- Complete decision avoidance. You’ll do whatever is easiest and doesn’t require any mental energy, e.g. drive through a fast food place.
- Impulsive behavior. Decisions that you normally would be able to resist are now made with very little resistance.
- Impaired self-regulation. Once you make the decision, you also can’t moderate it. You often go to the extremes.
If you are truly stressed, or are suffering from a sleep deficit, you might run out of resources earlier in the day and overeat at other times. But, most “casual overeaters” are able to make it through the day only to fall apart at night. Or, make it through the week and then fall apart on the weekend.
Most people are distracted during the day.
If you’re [actually] busy at work or you’re running your kids around town to various activities, it gives you something else to focus on other than eating.
Weeknights and weekends, on the other hand, tend to be filled more with downtime for most people. Downtime can create boredom which leads to boredom eating (eating simply because it’s something to do).
Also, downtime can be uncomfortable for people who tend to stuff their feelings. When you’re not distracting yourself with busy-work, you feelings start to appear. If you can’t find an activity to distract yourself with, it’s common to turn to a comfort/control/coping mechanism such as food.
People tend to compartmentalize periods of time and this compartmentalization often becomes a permission slip for specific behaviors.
What is a year? It’s nothing more than a social construct. Nothing changes about our lives from December 31st to January 1st, yet the entire world celebrates this transition in extravagant fashion.
What is a week? It’s the same type of social construct. What is the block of hours from 9a to 5p? Another social construct.
How we slice up periods of time is a form of compartmentalization and humans tend to assign specific patterns of behavior to different compartments. A “weekday” is different than a “weekend” and therefore often has a different set of behaviors.
9a to 5p is for focus and productivity, 5p to 7p is for happy hour, 9p to 11p is for downtime, and so on.
Even if nobody invites you to happy hour after work, your brain will still gladly go into happy hour mode during that time. You’ll find some way to behave in similar fashion to how you would behave at happy hour.
If called into work unexpectedly on Saturday and Sunday, the majority of people would be far more lackadaisical. That’s because your brain prepared itself for weekend mode, not weekday mode.
This compartmentalization can create a pattern paralysis scenario where it becomes difficult to consciously act in opposition to the expected pattern. Also, if you’re low on resources, you’re unlikely to have enough mental energy to break the cycle. Instead of admitting all of this to yourself, of course, you’ll simply turn the circumstances into a permission slip with rationalization and self-justification.
How to Stop Overeating Once and For All
If your problem is mostly physical, you can try simple things like changing up your diet, moving your body in healthier ways, and getting more sleep (or better sleep). In other words, Reboot.
If your problem is mostly psychological, then you need an additional approach aside from doing a basic Reboot. To really win, you must heal your relationship with food, body, and Self.
The good news is that when you do this work, aligning your behavior with your good intentions on a consistent basis becomes a part of who you are. This is the psychology of the process that I talk about so often and it’s one of the main things we focus on at Rebooted Body.
Our Decode Your Cravings program is a powerful online program that guides you through this work if you’re serious about finding success from overeating. And, since this is a two-sided problem, your best bet is to bundle both programs together.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s helped tens of thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and now offers all of his signature programs through a “pay what you want” model.