It’s Thanksgiving, and you’re on your third serving of grandma’s shepherd’s pie with the extra cheese on top; it’s your Sunday dinner, and that sticky pudding has never tasted better.
All those scenarios describe overeating, and you ate too much, but it was periodic, not regular. That is totally normal and nothing to feel guilty about.
On the other hand, compulsive eating is overeating regularly, if not all the time. That’s a cause for concern and an issue worth addressing. Learn about the reasons behind it and the solutions to stop eating so much.
Why Do I Eat So Much? Causes And Solutions
For every reason we shall highlight, we also provide actionable solutions.
1. Binge Eating Disorder
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5), Binge-Eating Disorder (BED) is an eating condition where you have recurrent binges or eating episodes with symptoms such as:
- Consuming large portions of food when you’re not hungry
- Eating alone
- Eating more rapidly
The National Eating Disorders Association concurs with this description, adding that if you have BED, you lack self-control with eating, experience disgust, depression, or guilt with yourself, and often prefer seclusion where you hoard food to eat privately.
While there’s no apparent cause for this disorder, medical research claims that it could be a genetic disorder, hereditary from the family, or a sign of stress, low self-esteem, or depression (14).
Without a clear cause for BED, there’s no clear solution, but there are several ways you can try to deal with the symptoms of the disorder. They include:
- Seek professional help. BED is recognized nationally as a significant eating disorder that may disrupt one’s life. A doctor specializing in eating disorders can offer the right advice, counseling, and solutions, including diets and exercise to follow or medication such as antidepressants and suppressants to take.
- Keep a food diary. A food journal keeps you aware of the time, type, and frequency of food you consume. This method allows you to be mindful of how frequent your binges are. This way, you can work towards minimizing the episodes.
- Remove temptations. It will be challenging to stick to a meal plan when your pantry and refrigerator store all kinds of foods, especially ready-to-eat foods. Quick access to food is often a trigger to binge eating, so cutting off and clearing temptations can help you deal with this disorder.
Some people stress-eat, and others stress-starve. The science behind it is that the nervous system triggers epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal glands located atop the kidneys. Epinephrine will then begin the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, in fight or flight responses. During that period, the body will be in an alert physiological state that places eating on hold.
But extended stress periods mean cortisol levels will increase, and appetite causes you to eat, and the food is stored as visceral fat in the abdomen.
Research reveals that stress hormones affect eating patterns and strengthen the network towards hedonic overeating, which leads to obesity (12). Furthermore, stress can affect your preferences towards high fat and high sugar foods. A study on animals showed that physical and emotional distress could increase the intake of fat and sugar-filled foods (12).
In summary, stress changes our eating habits and our satiety overconsumption of food. The need to consume hyper-palatable foods like high fat and high sugar foods may trigger our minds to promote compulsive eating behavior.
The best way to deal with stress is to work on the problem rather than dwell on it. Therefore, indulge in activities that reduce stress and may lower your body’s stress levels. Such activities include:
- Exercise. Whichever type of exercise you choose, whether tai-chi, yoga, HIIT, aerobics, walking, or swimming, working out reduces the adverse effects of stress.
- Meditation. The practice of mediation allows you to be one with your body. You learn to be more aware of your choices and be mindful about what you eat, how you eat, and when you eat.
- Social support. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone and seek help. Stress is a significant concern worldwide because it can contribute to obesity and is a risk factor for multiple other diseases, including chronic heart disease, blood pressure, and hypertension.
- Deal with stress factors. For those who work in stressful areas like emergency departments and community aid centers, social support is excellent. If your stress factors are personal triggers like too much work or an abusive relationship, take some time to find solutions to these problems.
3. Lack Of Sleep
Insomnia is prevalent in many people, but it can create much more serious problems than eye bags when it occurs too often. Lack of sleep can mess with many things, from the absence of focus due to mental fog, mood swings, and metabolic changes.
Lack of sleep affects two crucial hormones that cause appetite and satiety: leptin and ghrelin. Sleeping for short periods or not at all causes a decrease in leptin and an increase in ghrelin, leading to overeating from an increased appetite (11).
The study further states that acute sleep deprivation and chronic partial sleep deprivation or restriction can cause a decrease in serum leptin concentrations and a spike in ghrelin levels which may be causing increased BMI (11).
The answer is to get enough sleep so your hormone levels can standardize. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a healthy adult should sleep between seven to nine hours a night; babies, young children, and teens should sleep 8 to 13 hours per night; newborns, infants, toddlers should sleep 14 to 17 hours a night; finally, those over 65 should also get 7 to 8 hours per night.
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4. Mindless Eating
Mindless eating means you eat distracted when multitasking between work and lunch, watching TV and snacking, or driving and eating. Mindless eating or multitasking may lead to a higher body mass index because it results in self-control lags and an imbalance between the brain’s cues and appetite to eat (9).
Therefore, the more distracted you are, the less likely you are to notice how much food you intake.
These are some of the solutions you can try:
- Avoid distractions. For example, if it’s time to eat, eat without doing anything else. This way, you can be more alert to your hunger and satiety cues. Therefore, turn off all distractive material or devices like TV, phones, and computers and be in the moment.
- Eat slowly. Slow eating allows the brain to process information about the body. Leptin, the satiety hormone, sends messages to the brain when the body has received or if you’ve eaten enough food. When you eat more slowly, you allow the body to work at its own pace, creating balance.
- Serve healthy portions. When you’re binge-watching your favorite series, you’ll probably watch for as long as several hours, so if you have a large enough amount of food, who’s to say you won’t eat it all. So watch out for the portions of food you serve and avoid large quantities.
5. Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is similar to stressful eating, except emotional eating can be due to depression, loss, grief, loss of self-esteem or self-worth, heartbreak, plus other emotions. With emotional eating, you seek comfort from food which causes you to eat continuously without realizing that no amount of food will make you stop feeling lonely, ashamed, depressed, or heartbroken.
The solutions to emotional eating are similar to those of stress eating but focus on social support and finding ways to deal with your emotions. One of the best ways to deal with emotions is to indulge in a hobby, whether drawing, singing, dancing, or writing. Use your hobby to express and release the negative energy in your mind.
6. Depriving Yourself Food (Excess Dieting)
Dieting doesn’t necessarily result in overeating. But overly restrictive dieting, where you miss essential macronutrients, can cause cravings. For example, vegan diets can miss out on crucial omega-three acids, vitamins, and minerals; low-fat diets, low carb diets, and high protein diets can result in fewer carbohydrates in your body, yet carbs are essential for energy.
Restrictive dieting may exacerbate your response to food cues causing you to crave different foods and unable to stop eating when presented with the food. Therefore, with dieting, certain foods become a trigger to compulsive eating (5).
First, we would suggest that if you’re on a diet by choice and not due to a medical condition, then you should try intuitive eating, a nutritional approach to eating as per your intuitive cues. The eating principle relies on the ten principles of intuitive eating, where you’ll learn to love food, accept a relationship with food, avoid restraining from food and be gentle with your body.
The following solution is to eat foods that make you feel full for longer. These are whole meals, fresh foods that are minimally processed, so they’re rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Such foods include:
- Whole grains
- Legumes like lentils, beans, and peas
- Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, cruciferous vegetables, and dark green leafy vegetables.
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole fruits
Protein-rich foods also help keep you feeling fuller for longer and regulate your hunger hormone, ghrelin. For example, one study found that eating a high protein breakfast decreased ghrelin levels and improved satiety feelings as opposed to a high carbohydrate breakfast (3).
Also, if you plan to snack in between meals, take healthy snacks like high protein, low-fat, low sugar yogurt.
Lastly, eat regularly. Skipping meals may cause weight loss, but it’s the wrong way to lose weight. Not only do you generate an imbalance in your hormones, but it could also lead to cravings and changes in eating habits. As you try to eat more regularly, start with at least three times a day, then you can include snacks in between.
7. Food Addiction
In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition (DSM-IV), overeating was included as an addictive eating disorder that should be included and recognized as a human concern. Part of the argument was that food addiction met the criteria similar to drug addiction, such as:
- Taking larger portions
- Taking for longer
- Persistent desire
- Unsuccessful efforts to limit or control
- Neglect of social or occupational activities
- Continuous use despite recurrent physical problems
Further studies reveal that food addiction involves a dopamine reward pathway that directs the eating behavior to pleasurable activities like eating or using drugs (10). The release of dopamine into the midbrain, a section called the nucleus accumbens, signals a repeat of activities that causes you to eat compulsively.
Eating can redirect the brain to release dopamine as a reward which encourages you to repeat the activity until these activities (13) dominate an individual’s behavior.
The best solution would be to seek medical assistance to get to the root of your food addiction. Because it’s an eating disorder, you may need counseling, social support, or medication to help you deal with the condition.
We would not advise you to stay away from food as this can cause you to get health problems.
8. Alcohol Consumption
The last cause as to why you overeat is alcohol influence. When you’re intoxicated, the body loses balance. It cannot lower or inhibit appetite and satiety hormones which means you’re in constant appetite causing you to overeat (1).
One or two drinks may not have such an effect, but excessive drinking may lead to increased hunger levels.
It would help if you cut back on drinking alcohol to minimize your compulsive eating.
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These two solutions we shall highlight below can help with all the eight causes discussed above.
We have already mentioned this above, but a food journal or diet tracking apps can help minimize overeating by highlighting your problem areas, especially your poor eating patterns.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, food tracking will give you awareness and help you stick to proper eating plans regardless of your intent to lose, gain, or maintain weight.
Staying Hydrated With Water
Hydration is a classic method to prevent overeating because you’re filling your body with water. While water has no direct effect on overeating, it can minimize your need to feed all the time. Moreover, choosing water over sugar-sweetened drinks can help prevent sugar cravings for sweet drinks.
Eating too much all the time may be a cause for concern not because of obesity or the other serious health concerns that may result from compulsive eating, but because of its mental health implications.
Compulsive eating sometimes is a mask for what you’re not ready to deal with, whether it’s because of shame, low self-esteem, depression, too much work, or retaliation from too much dieting. To stop overeating, you have to decide to deal with the problem and use the solutions above to concur the dilemma.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for the diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Acute effects of an alcoholic drink on food intake (2007, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Binge Eating Disorder (nationaleatingdisorders.org)
- Consuming Two Eggs per Day, as Compared to an Oatmeal Breakfast, Decreases Plasma Ghrelin while Maintaining the LDL/HDL Ratio (2017, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Excessive sugar intake alters binding to dopamine and mu-opioid receptors in the brain (2001, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Fasting Increases Risk for Onset of Binge Eating and Bulimic Pathology (2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Food and drug reward (2012, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Food diary (nhlbi.nih.gov)
- How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? (2021, sleepfoundation.org)
- Media Multitasking Is Associated With Higher Body Mass Index in Pre-adolescent Children (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake (2011, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index (2004, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Stress and eating behaviors (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The neurobiology of overeating (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Why am I binge eating? (2021, webmd.com)