5 Reasons We Overeat: A General Overview
Overeating is the act of excessively consuming food or eating when not hungry. Whether done alone or in a group setting, it takes on various forms and can be as subtle as a few extra bites to eat here and there when not hungry to full-blown binge eating in other cases.
It can be as infrequent as stuffing oneself with the relatives each year at Thanksgiving or as constant as every day overeating. It is often the byproduct of joyous celebration but also associated with the harsh reality of those struggling with certain eating disorders. It arguably has a negative connotation and as basic nutritional science tells us, when we take in more than we use or expend, unhealthful consequences follow.
Regardless of specifics, greater attention has been given to overeating and other forces as the rise of obesity and chronic disease in our modern society leaves us searching for solutions. In this hub, I take the opportunity to reflect on some of the driving forces behind overeating and attempt to distill such information into general (not exhaustive) information.
*Please note: I am not a medical doctor and the information presented herein is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Please consult your personal physician or a qualified healthcare practitioner to address any personal health concerns and treatment directly.
Why do we overeat?
There are a variety of reasons we overeat and often times it is not one but a combination of different factors that steer us into such a direction. The following presents general information on this topic however, it is important to remember that each person is different from the next and his or her reasons for overeating are as unique as the very circumstances that precede such behavior. This is important when providing solutions and help for those in need.
So, let's get to it:
- Culture and traditions: Our holidays and cultural celebrations are almost always filled with indulgent sweet and savory fare that enhance our revelry. When were you ever at such an occasion and not enjoyed or beheld some kind of delectable food or drink to be had? It is extremely commonplace to partake in festivities by consuming food as you share good times with others. Food can also be symbolic or act as a way to memorialize important events in history and thus, it may be expected that one should eat and participate. It becomes easy enough to overeat when surrounded by merrymaking or abundance.
- Social atmosphere: Related to the above and with some overlap, overeating can easily arise when engaging socially with others and when food is available. For example, friends may choose to meet up and structure their time around lunch or hanging out at a coffee shop. Many of us have experienced what it's like to keep occupied while talking and sharing with others and food has often taken that role, regardless of us feeling hungry or not. Sometimes we eat just to avoid being awkward as in the example of a person forcing himself to eat just because his friends are. Or, on a related note, it may be easy to overeat at a social function where one is new or knows few others. Eating may help some ignore the discomfort of the social situation and even create the appearance of blending in more with the social event. Overall, there is something to be said about some of the dynamics one may feel when with others and food is present.
- Stimulation and environment: Sometimes we turn to food (and thus eating when we're not hungry, aka overeating) when we are feeling bored, we're sleepy or tired, lack structure in our lives, or feel the need for a lift in some way. It can be easy to mistake the need for sleep, social interaction or even thirst (!) as a something food can remedy. Additionally, having food nearby or simply having a variety of choices presents novelty, a perception of excitement to some and distraction. Likewise, living in a part of the world where food products are overly abundant and affordable may pose a problem. Eating out is no different when served generous portions or complimentary offerings (buffet-go'ers especially beware). How many of us were raised to clean our plates and what's more American than getting the best value for your money? It is also notable that eating mindlessly is a real issue and often involves some sort of distraction; whether it's a book in front of us, the TV blaring loudly in the background, or the computer nearby, what we surround ourselves with impacts our ability to focus on the task or experience of eating, in the present moment. Of course, I'd be amiss to overlook in this big picture the role food plays in making us feel certain ways and that will be discussed accordingly.
- Consolation and memories: There is a reason the term "emotional eating" came to be in our common vocabulary. Eating to console ourselves as a way of dealing with various stressors or life challenges is more commonplace than some may realize and poses a real problem. Outside the context of eating for hunger, consuming food is often used to calm down, fill personal voids, or numb difficult feelings. It is well documented in science that certain foods elicit particularly pleasurable responses within us and may often feel like the perfect momentary antidote for a downtrodden mood (chocolate, anyone?). We do not help ourselves when we resort to emotional eating for solace and many have this behavior rooted in childhood memories of eating for comfort when a parent or caregiver offered a little something for good cheer. As we all know, habits die hard and having memories strongly associated with pleasant food often does us a disservice in the end (the mind is very powerful and still being researched). Utilizing food in this way is overeating in and of itself but can also lead to overeating during mealtimes when for example, one is more absorbed in his or her emotions than the very act of eating before them. It is also important to note that eating to console oneself for reasons such as low self-esteem, poor body image or conditions such as depression or anxiety can lead to more serious disorders such as bulimia or binge-eating disorder. In such cases, professional assistance is warranted to assess the situation and provide therapy and treatment.
- Nutritional deficiencies:Another reason we may overeat is due to the fact that we are nutritionally deficient in some way. Simply put, when are bodies are not getting the raw materials necessary to function properly, we not only begin to observe that things start "breaking down", we also notice that we may start craving certain foods. This may be confusing or feel counterintuitive when some of us find ourselves lusting after a 'Big Mac' versus something healthy like a green salad. I will say right now that human physiology and nutrition are both large topics and take a little bit of time and an open mind to understand. That said, consider that sometimes cravings for certain items mask the greater nutritional need for other important elements lacking in the body. Being truly nourished with all the right amounts of macro and micronutrients (along with other important lifestyle choices such as exercise) allows one to feel balanced, stable, satiated and energetic. It is easy to mistake cravings, especially ones that aren't health-promoting choices, for real needs in the body. It's also important to consider that certain substances such as caffeine and sugar have addicting qualities and if one were to lessen or eliminate consumption of such entirely, a withdrawal process would be in order and likely elicit things like headaches, irritability and you said it, cravings! Often times, we replace one thing for another and if we are steering away from caffeine we may just reach for some other food item to help mitigate the discomfort of letting go of the caffeine; this however, can eventually lead to overeating also and must be watched.
Overeating has many driving forces as described above and it is very common in our society given the abundance of food and the ubiquitous role it plays in social functions. Most can agree that everyone overeats once in awhile but there are a significant number of people that undoubtedly have a problem with consistently overeating and of course, there are those battling extremes as well.
If one were to distill the components of healthful living, eating less, or rather, not overeating, would surely be a part of the list. To be clear, eating highly nutritious food is vitally important and doing so without stuffing oneself is another part of it. Additionally, much can be said about other interventions to curtail overeating given the different sources impacting the urge to do so in the first place. While the purpose of this hub focuses on what causes overeating rather than how to address it, please note that there are resources, help and support available for those struggling. One first step is consulting your healthcare provider or seeking information from credible sources such as MedlinePlus.
It's always important to note that overeating can be as complex and unique as the very person experiencing it. That said, also consider that overeating is often the symptom, if you will, or sign, that something is off or needs attention otherwise in a person. This is important to understand as targeting the overeating itself is often not enough.