Why we overeat
It is so easy to overeat in the world that we live in. Our culture, psychology and neurobiology all play a part and have contributed to the simple fact that overeating is ‘normal’.
It’s normal to eat cake when someone brings it into the office because it is their birthday. Even though your body has no fuel or nutritional requirement for the cake, and even though eating cake regularly leads to being overweight and increasing chance of health problems, it’s the person who declines the slice of cake that stands out. Isn’t that crazy!
And of course, the problem with overeating is that the more we overeat the more weight we gain and the greater the decline of our mental and physical health.
In 2016 The World Health Organization reported that more than 1.9 billion adults (39%) were overweight, of which 650 million (13%) were obese.
Being overweight is a major risk factor in:
- Heart disease and stroke
- some cancers (including endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon)
Also, because obese individuals are highly stigmatised and judged as though their condition is all their own fault, even though obesity is a multifaceted condition. Weight stigma increases vulnerability to depression and low self-esteem.
The better we understand why we overeat, the easier it is to overcome it. Many of us blame ourselves, and whilst we absolutely should accept responsibility for managing our weight, we also need to know that we are not broken. We have not failed, we just need to understand and learn what is going on with our brains and bodies, so that we can get them working for us and not against us.
An overeating culture
As I alluded to earlier, we live in a culture where it’s normal to eat meals and snacks throughout the day whether or not our body needs them. Three meals a day, maybe a pudding with dinner, and a couple of snacks is for sure more fuel than most of us require for fuel. And then we get to the weekend where we add in three course meals, sugar laden drinks at Starbucks, wine and gin.
An overeating psychology
Not many of us were taught to manage our emotions so consequently when we feel lonely, unhappy or miserable we think that something has gone wrong and we think that we don’t know how to cope. Then we seek out ‘false pleasures’. For many of us that is food, for others of us it’s drink, shopping, gambling or binging on Netflix.
The problem arises when those ‘false pleasures’ are at the expense of what we truly want in life.
And of course, the food industry is totally on to us. All food marketing is based on taking advantage of our desire for pleasure whilst expending the least amount of effort. This is the motivational triad. See pleasure. Avoid Pain. Expend Minimal Effort. It’s how we are wired for survival but in today’s world it works against us.
The neurobiology of overeating
Our brains are designed to be rewarded for life preserving activities. And food provides that reward in the form of serotonin, dopamine and desire.
All the cues around food create neural pathways that remind us how important it is to get it again and repeat.
When you eat food that is concentrated and refined you concentrate that response in your brain. This leads your brain to believe that concentrated foods are much more important to keep eating than they really are.
Dopamine creates more and more desire for the food but as we eat more foods that create more dopamine the receptors are down regulated which perpetuates more desire.
The more that you do something, like eating chocolate or crisps when you sit down to watch television in the evening, the stronger the neural pathway that you create for that behaviour.
Eventually we get so good at it that eating the chocolate or crisps becomes an unconscious habit delegated to our unconscious brain.
Therefore, we often feel out of control and as if we are eating against our own will.
The good news is that our brains are ‘reprogrammable’. We can break down these ingrained pathways by changing action and denying reward and at the same time replace them with new ones that enable us to create the results that we want in our lives.
The first step to stopping overeating
The first step in stopping overeating is to get curious about what you are doing. Start noticing how often you eat, whether you are hungry when you eat, how hungry you are, what you want to eat, are you eating to avoid an emotion. Figuring out what is going on with you is the first step. The more you can observe with curiosity and compassion the better. You may even want to keep a journal of the answers to some of the questions I’ve suggested as you think about eating throughout your day.
One more thing, do all your observing and watching without judgement. Beating yourself up, being nasty or critical of yourself will only hinder your weight loss. You can’t hate yourself to permanent happy weight management.
I am going to talk about how we can reduce our hunger for foods in my next blog post.
Oh, and if you want to talk to me about what is going on with you, let’s get on the phone and have a chat. You can book a coaching call with me on my calendar here.
And the best bit. It’s totally free!