Why do I Overeat?
This week I’ve changed my plan slightly as the emails mounting up in my inbox are telling me this is an issue on many of our minds…why do I overeat and why can’t I stop?
As with many habits, there’s not always one simple answer and working through our own challenges or addictions means identifying the driving force behind it, which is unique to each person.
First, let’s take a very quick glance at what happens to our body when we eat: as soon as we see or smell food, our digestive systems begin working and preparing to eat by releasing the hormones and enzymes that break down food. During the digestion process, food moves from the mouth to the oesophagus to the stomach, to the small intestine, to the large intestine. The pancreas and liver contribute digestive juices to help with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. It makes sense: food feeds the body; it goes in, we break it down, use the nutrients and expel the waste. Simple.
What happens when we OVEReat?
· Stomachs swell. When we eat too much, the stomach expands like a balloon to accommodate the large amount of food, which pushes against our other organs and makes us feel like we need to loosen our belts.
· We feel bloated and gassy. Every time we swallow food, air gets into our digestive tract, and gas extends the stomach, making us feel bloated. This is made worse if we drink carbonated drinks with our meal – this is when we start belching; the build-up of gas needs to get out somehow.
· Heartburn. The stomach produces hydrochloric acid to break down food, and, if we overeat, this can lead to a backup into the oesophagus, which causes heartburn (the more food we eat, the more acids we need to break down the food). Heartburn may last longer if we’re overeating foods that take longer to digest like greasy burgers.
· We store excess calories. As food moves through the digestive tract and into the small intestine (where nutrients are absorbed), the liver and the pancreas begin to secrete enzymes to digest fats, carbs and proteins. Cells in the intestinal walls absorb these macronutrients along with vitamins and minerals to be used for energy or storage. Excess calories that cannot be used for energy are stored as fat.
· Our organs work overtime. Digesting a massive meal requires the organs to work in overdrive, secreting extra hormones and enzymes to break down the food. When this happens regularly, we start to develop issues with our metabolism and endocrine function, like insulin resistance, increased cortisol and reduction in growth hormone.
· We feel drowsy and tired. As the pancreas releases the hormone insulin, it sends of others to be released too; serotonin and melatonin, the feel-good hormones are released, which makes us feel tired and content.
· Nausea. Leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, tells the brain we are no longer hungry and to stop eating. If we eat too much, too fast, our brains can miss this signal and continue eating past the feeling of fullness, causing the body to produce more leptin. People with more fat cells in their bodies often develop leptin resistance, making it harder to recognise fullness and, ultimately, lose weight.
Paints quite the picture, doesn’t it? So, the question is, if we know it’s not doing good things to our bodies and leaves us feel too full, uncomfortable, sleepy and belching the alphabet (not the most attractive features we look for in dinner partners), why do we do it?
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There are several reasons we could be overeating and we’ll have a quick look at them, but let’s be clear from the very beginning; eating too much every now and then is normal; so is eating for emotional reasons – emotional connections to food are completely normal; from birth, we are rewarded and nurtured with food, how could we not develop emotional connections with it?
Although normal once in a while, people who compulsively overeat may be using food as a way (usually their only way) of coping with negative emotions, as a result of which, they usually feel their eating is out of control, think about food all the time and feel guilty, ashamed and/or depressed after eating. Now here is something we need to be very clear about – these feelings of shame, guilt and depression are very different to how you feel after a big meal (think of Thanksgiving, Christmas or another celebration or event where you often find yourself wishing you hadn’t eaten that last piece of cake/pie/chocolate/cup of coffee – this leaves you feeling full, but you are not consumed with shame).
Some people who overeat have a clinical disorder called BED (Binge Eating Disorder); this means they compulsively eat large amounts of food in a short amount of time and feel immense shame or guilt afterwards (this is not simply diagnosed after one or two instances; it has to be happening regularly over a period of months for a diagnosis to be considered). Quick side note: the ‘disorder’ part of a diagnosis means it prevents you from functioning in the world, so, like any other ‘disorder’ you can display features of it, but unless it literally prevents you from functioning and living your life productively, it is not a disorder (so please, for those of you who like things neat and tidy, stop saying you’re OCD – those who are living with that full disorder are struggling, you liking things lined up in a certain way may be an Obsessive Compulsive feature or tendency, but if you’re carrying our your daily life and functioning, you don’t have the disorder).
Think back to the last time you ate so much you felt stuffed. Were you eating big slices of cake to celebrate a birthday or life event? Were you going in for your third visit to the buffet table at a family wedding? Were you at home alone after a hard day? How did you feel afterwards? Were you frustrated or annoyed that you made yourself uncomfortable? Or were you tormented by shame?
Not everyone who overeats is a binge eater. Perhaps you eat a lot of food throughout the day, not in one sitting, and maybe you don’t do it all the time, just when you’re feeling upset, lonely or stressed.
How does it start?
Sometimes we overeat out of mindless habit – like when we sit down in front of the television at night with a bag of crisps or bowl of popcorn, but usually it’s the result of underlying emotional challenges. Having a negative body image also plays an enormous role.
It often starts with a restrictive diet; you begin a diet because you aren’t happy with your weight or size but find it too hard to stick to (especially if you use food as a coping tool), so you eventually hit a breaking point and binge on the foods that are forbidden, the guilt and shame sets in and you put the restrictions back in place again. This is a very hard cycle to break. Even when we’re not on a diet, we have ingrained ideas about what food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; when we have a substance (food) that is naturally appealing and we make it off limits, it simply becomes more attractive.
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A question I was asked last week is a great one to answer here: Am I Addicted to Food?
Over the past few years, this has been a hot topic among scientists and research has shown that certain foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt are addictive and cause changes in the brain similar to those made by drugs. Animal studies have shown, animals that binge on sugar develop signs of dependency. This is a very controversial topic that can’t be treated the way we would usually treat an addiction, which is abstinence, as that’s not possible with food. Also, as highlighted above, dieting is a large factor contributing to the binge eating cycle, so labelling certain foods as negative isn’t helpful or productive. Whilst eating stimulates the release of feel good chemicals in the brain, that doesn’t necessarily make food an addictive substance; evidence suggests it’s the behaviour (restrict – binge – restrict) that causes the signs of dependency, not the food. So perhaps we should use the phrase ‘eating addiction’ rather than ‘food addiction.’
If I know I overeat, I know it’s more often than once in a while and it leaves me with negative feelings and I want to change it, what can I do?
First get some help.This can be an extremely difficult thing to do alone, especially when there are deep rooted emotional problems involved. Working with a therapist or counsellor can help you get to the root of your triggers and self-image that can be driving your behaviour, and please don’t allow the ‘just stop putting it in your mouth’ people to upset you; these are not people to engage with debate in or try and make see your point of view, just walk away and focus on your own well-being.
Don’t label yourself– you are not a bad person doing bad things; constantly calling yourself names can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the cycle continuing, let’s break that. Food also needs to be label free in terms of good and bad. Food is food, and, although it’s tough to get over those deep-rooted beliefs, when you eat something you believe is a bad food, you are highly likely to overeat afterwards – let’s break this cycle too.
Take a break.When you feel like eating, take a minute and ask yourself ‘am I hungy?’ Sometimes we are so busy asking ourselves what we want to eat, we don’t actually check to make sure we really are hungy – the question to ask instead is ‘why do I want to eat?’ If food is a coping tool for you, you may not be in tune with the signals your body is giving you to say it’s full. We need to bring our awareness back to our bodies and pay attention.
Check your habits and environment.A habit is usually a behaviour that’s automatic; a small change to the environment around us can usually bring our focus back to our behaviour and help us make a more purposeful decision (this can be as simple as sitting in a different chair/place or going into another room).
Don’t ban foods.When we ban a food, it usually causes us to overeat it later. If you’re really craving something, even if you’re not really hungry, allow yourself to have a small amount.
STOP RESTRICTIVE DIETS.Overeating and restrictive diets are two sides of the same thing. Depriving yourself of something triggers you to overeat it later, just stop.
That’s been a lot to take in today. Changing eating habits, especially one with deep rooted emotional roots, is not a quick thing to do. A habit took time to form and it will take time to break. Some say twenty-one days can break it, some say two months – whatever is true for you, you need to allow yourself some grace while you go through this. We are always our own harshest critics (most of us anyway) and hold ourselves to much higher standards than we would hold others to; this needs to stop. When we give ourselves the love and care we give to others, these challenges begin to get easier. When we stop the yoyo dieting, which leads to the binges, which lead to the shame, and we start allowing ourselves the food we are craving, it ceases to be a taboo subject – we no longer crave what we are not allowed and start listening to our bodies. Don’t be afraid to get help with this, and please remember, the reason you overeat doesn’t have to be the same as the person sitting next to you, so the fix that worked for them may not work for you – don’t be scared to be different and find someone who can help you.
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