5 Reasons You Might Be Overeating (That Have Nothing to Do With Willpower)

Nikhita Mahtani
Medically Reviewed
July 9, 2021

We’ve all been there: You’re trying to stick to a healthy eating schedule, you have all your meals prepped for the week, and then, come lunchtime, you’re absolutely ravenous and all your plans to eat well have been thrown out the window. It’s so easy to feel frustrated with yourself when this happens—and want to throw in the towel altogether. After all, this just means you’re going to fail. It means you just don’t have the willpower needed to keep going. Actually, you couldn’t be further from the truth. So, how to stop overeating?

“Overeating usually has nothing to do with willpower,” says Shaina Painter, a health coach and functional medicine nutritionist formerly at Parsley Health. And a note on overeating: It just means eating over a point of comfortable fullness, explains Painter.

There can be many factors, or even a combination of factors, that lead to overeating. “I think it’s important to notice when you are overeating or you’re getting to a point where you feel uncomfortably full after meals,” says Painter. Then, “non-judgmentally look at exactly what you’re eating and why you might be overeating to see where you can make small, compassionate changes.”

While diet culture may have influenced you to believe that you’re a failure if you don’t stick to a certain way of eating, lifestyle can be the biggest contributing factor when it comes to overeating. In fact, depending on the day, or even the time of month, you may be hungrier than usual, and that’s perfectly okay. “The issue comes when people feel guilty after they overeat, and either try to starve themselves or give up eating healthy altogether,” says Painter.

How to stop overeating (and why we overeat)

Below are some reasons that may be contributing to your overeating, along with Painter’s suggestions on what you can do—no willpower required. He says, “This is when you need to show your body compassion the most, and really get down to the root causes of why you’re overeating in the first place.”

Not sleeping enough at night

You wouldn’t think it, but your sleep completely affects your appetite. A single night of disturbed or inadequate sleep increases the production of the hormone ghrelin, also called the hunger hormone, and decreases leptin levels, or the satiety hormone. “Leptin signals to the brain when we are full, while ghrelin stimulates appetite,” says Painter. “And not getting adequate sleep, even one night of poor quality sleep really skews that delicate hormone balance.” Painter recommends aiming for at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

However, if you find that that’s an issue for you, taking an audit of your sleep hygiene to see where you can improve can be very beneficial. “Blue light —the kinds that emit from screens—affects people’s quality of sleep, even in the subtlest of ways,” explains Painter. “Avoid screen time 30 to 60 minutes before bed and instead opt for a relaxation routine that feels very nourishing to your soul—whether that’s engaging in a bath, reading a book, spending time with your partner or even journaling—can help,” adds Painter. “There are a lot of different ways that we can unwind to achieve a quality night’s sleep.” If you’re struggling to find a sleep routine that works for you, Parsley’s clinicians and health coaches can help you find one that’ll improve your quality of sleep with ease.

Being too restrictive with eating

Eating healthy is great, but are you starving yourself to a point where your diet is becoming restrictive? “A 1944 study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment actually showed that restriction has significant health implications, and most importantly, may lead to weight cycling and yo-yo dieting,” says Painter. Essentially, after the timeline of restricted eating, mentally and physically healthy men developed an unhealthy relationship with food, eating way more than they normally would, and even becoming obsessed with food, due to the psychological effects of food restriction.

“When we restrict too many foods in a short period of time, it may lead to uncontrollable desires for those particular foods, just based on our biology,” says Painter. “The support of a professional can be really helpful to help improve your relationship with food. It’s more beneficial to work with a therapeutic diet you can stick to in the long run, as that is sustainable and won’t lead to short-term weight loss at the expense of your mental health which often a lot of restrictive diets tend to sell us on.”

You can also do a quick check-in with yourself: Are you restricting foods you love? Are you focused on eating a specific number of calories? Are you cutting out entire food groups, like non-refined healthy carbs, leading you to crave huge bowls of pasta whenever you’re out with friends? Do you skip meals? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, chances are, you are over restricting. Working with an expert can help you create a sustainable plan that you can stick to overtime, which will get you the results you want without having to go overboard.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is a horrible condition to deal with in any case, but according to Painter, it can really affect your appetite in ways you may not have expected. “A study found that chronic stress may increase our motivation to consume foods that particularly hit on the mesolimbic dopamine system, which is basically our reward pathway,” she explains. “When we’re chronically stressed, our hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPA Axis) is chronically activated, which then results in high cortisol (the stress hormone) leading to increased food craving .”

This means that when you’re chronically stressed , you tend to crave more processed foods or sweet foods, which works as a type of coping mechanism. “It’s really important for us to have non-food-based coping mechanisms to depend on when our stress is high, so we can reduce those feelings of shame and guilt that tend to be associated with overeating, which then perpetuates our stress even more,” explains Painter. Often, she relies on mindfulness meditation such as body scans or guided imagery, taking a walk outside in nature for five to 10 minutes, listening to music, engaging in some sort of deep breathing , or simply calling a friend.

Stress management does not need to be elaborate, it does not need to be expensive, and it also does not need to take a long time,” she adds. “It can be really simple, accessible, and convenient. We just have to know that we have those tools in our back pocket that we can pull out at any point in time.”

Not being in touch with hunger cues

Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full—sounds easy enough, right? Well, it turns out it’s more nuanced than that. “Many times, you could just not really be hungry—you could be thirsty, stressed, tired, or any number of things,” says Painter. “And to really know whether you’re hungry or not, you need to pay attention to your body’s internal cues.”

According to Painter, paying attention to those cues is what will truly allow you to understand what your body’s trying to tell you. To do this, Painter relies on intuitive eating (IE), a self-care eating framework rooted in respect for all bodies. IE teaches you to develop interoceptive awareness, or attunement to the body’s internal cues to help us decipher when to eat, how much to eat, and what to eat. “Intuitive eating is a really great way for us to get in touch with our hunger and fullness cues, to make peace with food, and to give ourselves unconditional permission to eat when our body wants us to eat,” she says. “It creates this very trusting, loving, respecting relationship with ourselves in which food fear and the obsession with our bodies/food dissipate because we’ve given ourselves space and the kindness to create peace with food and our body.”

In fact, intuitive eating has almost 150 evidence-based studies validating its impact. However, listening to your body’s cues after a lifetime of ignoring them can be hard to do, which is why Painter says it’s important to reach out to a professional first who can support you in developing body literacy and provide you tools to build a healthy relationship with food. Parsley’s health coaches are one example of a type of professional who can work with you on developing body literacy and help you establish a healthier relationship with food.

Not fueling yourself properly after working out

If you don’t eat after a workout (or if you eat the wrong combination of food or too little), you’re actually doing your body a huge disservice—and affecting your hunger levels for the entire day. “After activity, your body needs to be refueled 30 to 60 minutes post-workout, with both carbohydrates and protein for optimal recovery.” Basically, after we work out, our muscles use up their glycogen or stored glucose which is the body’s preferred fuel source, especially during high-intensity workouts. This results in the muscles being partially depleted of glycogen, and the best way to fuel them is by replacing them.

If you don’t eat adequate protein and carbohydrates after a workout, it not only affects the ability of your muscles to repair themselves, it also affects your hunger levels. Studies have shown that exercise can reduce your blood sugar, which can leave you feeling pretty hungry if you don’t fuel yourself adequately after a workout. Also, it’s been shown that the longer you wait to eat when you’re hungry, the lower your blood sugar will drop , which may lead to craving sugary and refined carbohydrate-rich foods to get your blood sugar up. That’s why it’s essential to eat a balanced combination of protein and complex carbohydrates after you work out to keep you satiated and improve recovery, according to Painter.

If you struggle with overeating, consider working with a therapist and a holistic medicine practitioner, like those at Parsley Health , to help you get to the root cause and develop a healthy relationship with food.

Nikhita Mahtani
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