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Why do we overeat?

"I enjoy food too much and that's why I eat too much."

"I'm always hungry and never feel full."

"Why can't I stop eating?”

Does this sound familiar? I hear this often from clients who come to me for nutritional guidance. We often think we overeat because we enjoy food, but consider this: What if the opposite was true?

What if we overeat because we don't enjoy the food enough. What if we eat until we're uncomfortable because we're not tasting the food enough, or we've forgotten how to truly savor food. When we relearn the skills to taste our food, we can begin to understand our body's needs. I use the word 'relearn', because as children we innately know how to listen to our body's appetite, until it's drummed out of us when we approach adulthood.

Savor your food

We are taught that we need to restrict, cut down, avoid food, and fight cravings. But we have strong evidence that cutting back on food to lose weight has "profound effects, including a preoccupation with food, unrelenting thoughts of eating, distraction and limited concentration, analogous to the effects of dieting," according to an article in The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2012. Restricting food impacts mood and focus. People who dieted also performed worse on cognitive tasks.

But when you respond to your body with generosity and love, you'll never say, I ate too much, with disdain and judgment. It might happen here and there that you will overeat. After all, eating like a human means eating diverse foods in different amounts every day; and responding to environmental cues, physical symptoms, and what's available to you. This is the ideal way to respond to your body's need for nourishment. It’s what Ellyn Satter, RD and psychotherapist calls “normal eating.”

Learn the skills to savor food so you can understand what your body needs right now, or later in the day. You can find a comfortable and compassionate way to meet your body's nutritional needs.

Get to know your body. Ask questions back. What am I hungry for? What does eating too much mean for me? What foods are available to me right now? Do I have enough time for a meal or something satisfying in-between meals? Your body is sending you signals all the time, and you may not be listening.

Here are 5 tips to meet your needs for nourishment and begin to relearn how to eat:

  1. If you find yourself overeating until you're uncomfortable, practice compassion instead of criticism. Self-compassion leads to a relaxation response and a search for comfort. But self-judgment releases fight-or-flight stress hormones, which leads you to ignore your physical needs and look to food for comfort.

  2. Approach food with joy, not fear and trepidation about calories, fat, carbohydrates, or weight gain. Focus on nourishment, the colors of the food, or the textures you particularly enjoy. This method also helps cancer patients whose taste and appetite are dulled by medical treatments. Moreover, even if you must eliminate foods for a medical condition, there are specific methods to find joy in the foods we are able to eat.

  3. Our preferences for sweet and salty flavors develop early in life. The cravings for these foods will be heightened if you deny them. Accept the desire for these flavors and enjoy them. Then listen to your body when it says it's content and full, whenever feasible.

  4. Practice gratitude both before and after you eat, and even if you overeat. It may be easier to be grateful when we're hungry and have food in front of us, but it's equally important to remain grateful for a full and happy belly.

  5. Vary where you eat, when possible. Eating in the same place leads to a dulling of the senses, and habituates us to eat the same amounts. For example, eat outside on the weekend, at the dining room table instead of the kitchen, or put your phone down and eat slowly. Don't eat in your car or while watching TV, as you will no longer pay attention to your appetite.

The skills to taste your food, eat mindfully, and not overeat (most of the time!) take practice. These skills must also include acceptance and even admiration for your body with all its quirks and needs. You may ask, why do it at all? Because when you savor your food, you will find yourself savoring all of life.

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