I have been scouring the internet for a resource that talks about overeating without describing it as a character flaw. Or offering a bunch of diet-y strategies to avoid it or prevent it.
And I haven’t been able to find one.
So, figured I needed to write it myself.
Because guess what?
There are going to be times in our lives where we overeat.
Overeating is completely normal.
It is our thoughts, feelings, and reactions to overeating that have us believing overeating is the problem that needs to be addressed.
Well, diet culture has us convinced there is a direct link between overeating and our weight, so therefore we think overeating is a ‘bad’ thing. This means we feel guilty when it happens, we feel like a failure and we believe we lack control around food. And we react by being stricter with our eating – introducing more rules, not allowing ‘trigger foods’ into the house, compensating by eating less next time or by doing a longer or more intensive workout.
The actual overeating itself disappears in amongst all of that internal struggle and reactivity!
how overeating can occur
as a response to deprivation
Our bodies need a regular supply of food to stay alive and provide it with the energy and nutrients to perform all of the various chemical reactions and daily bodily functions (like keeping our heart beating, growing hair and nails etc).
When we deprive our bodies of that regular supply – whether that be through being on a diet, or restricting the amount we are eating, or the types of food we are eating, our bodies will drive us to overeat when we do eat to compensate for that deprivation. This is just a natural biological reaction. The overeating also serves as a bit of a protective mechanism to ensure that we get more food in now when it is available, in case our bodies are deprived of food again in the future (which, with dieting and dietary restriction, there often is).
when there are too many rules around food and eating
When we put rules and boundaries around what we believe is the ‘correct’ amount of food that should be eaten, it doesn’t leave any wiggle room for variance. That means, if the amount we DO eat seems to be more than what is ‘usual’ or ‘allowed’, then we automatically deem it a problem.
But sometimes we just need more food.
Like when we are doing something that requires physical exertion. And I am not just talking about planned exercise here, but maybe after you have been gardening all afternoon, or helping your friend move to a new house, or after an impromptu game frisbee in the park.
not honouring hunger
Another simple biological fact is that when we leave or ignore our physical hunger for too long, our bodies will often re-bound with overeating to make up for it.
What is happening at a biological level is pretty much the same thing described earlier around the body’s response to deprivation. And we are definitely not honouring our hunger when we are depriving our bodies of food for weight loss purposes! But in this instance, I am thinking more along the lines of when we let ‘life stuff’ take priority over feeding ourselves.
Like when we get tied up at work and miss our breaks or we have meetings that run over lunch, or we wait until we are feeling that ravenous hunger before eating.
when eating is your only coping strategy
Food is meant to be pleasurable to eat and eating is meant to make us feel good – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t eat it and we would die. It is just another one of our bodies amazing survival mechanisms. It makes complete sense then, that when we feel challenged or don’t want to feel all the feels, turning to food to feel better is our natural reaction.
In addition to overeating being normal, emotional eating is also completely normal. Where we can get ourselves into a pickle is if we don’t have any other coping skills to draw on other than eating.
when you are tuned out of your eating experience
Tuning out of our eating experiences, that is eating with distractions or deliberately introducing distractions while eating so as not to have to deal with act of eating is another really common way in which overeating can occur.
what can I do to be less vulnerable to overeating?
While overeating doesn’t need to come with moral consequences, I acknowledge that when it happens, it can leave us feeling PHYSICALLY uncomfortable and disrupt eating for the rest of the day or the next day.
It sounds a bit silly, but doing the opposite of what has been described above can leave us less vulnerable to overeating. So, things like:
- Not dieting
- Eating regularly
- Attending to hunger – even when it is subtle. Don’t wait for that ravenous hunger before allowing yourself permission to eat
- Letting go of the tight grip on food and eating rules – this means getting rid of the ‘shoulds’ that show up in your thoughts and language.
- Building up your self-care, stress management and resilience skills
- Questioning and getting critical at diet culture and the role it has played in leading you to believe that overeating is a character flaw
- Getting comfortable with the idea that nourishing your body with food is a life-enhancing behaviour – not something that needs rigid control
- Working on how to tune into your body and to trust and respond to the signals it sends you
Remember, it’s not that we are trying to stop the overeating from ever happening. If it does, it is important to accept it for what it is, neutrally, and move on. Normalising overeating and attending to the areas in your life that makes you vulnerable, instead of demonising overeating is likely to be more helpful than white-knuckling your way through trying to eradicate it from your life and then feeling guilty when it does (and trust me it will!) happen.