Why are we overeating?

Over-eating and binge-eating is easy to do at any time of the year but especially in the festive season.  There is a slight difference between the two in that over-eating simply means eating more calories than are burnt off.  Binge eating disorder (BED) differs clinically but the point could be made that over eating is a form of BED on a less chronic and severe level, especially when you consider the diagnostic criteria for BED below:

  • Eating even when full or not hungry
  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a 2-hour period
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Feel their eating is out of control
  • Frequently diet, possibly without weight loss
  • Eating rapidly during episodes
  • Have an eating binge at least once a week for 3 months, on average
  • Frequently eat alone or in secret
  • Feel depressed, upset, disgusted, ashamed, or guilty about their bingeing.

The reasons we over-indulge vary, but in our modern go, go, go lifestyles a common cause is eating too fast. Most people chew each mouthful around 4-6 times on average.  The ideal amount of chewing varies depending on what is being eaten, with soup requiring no chewing and a piece of steak ideally taking around 25 chews per mouthful.

Wolfing down our food the way we do these days, means the stomach’s stretch receptors and our satiety hormones have no chance to kick in and tell us to stop eating.  This process of hormone release etc. takes about 20 mins which is more time than most people spend on a meal.  Compounding this problem and also making over-eating more likely is eating on the go, or whilst distracted with social media for example.

Other reasons for over-indulging include the over-abundance of high calorie foods available at this time of year, which usually contain ingredients that are highly addictive such as sugar.  Along with this, these types of foods generally are nutrient poor which drives your body to seek more food to try to ‘make up’ for the sub-clinical nutrient deficiencies.

Also, like most things in life, eating is also affected by emotions which often drive patients to over-eat as a coping mechanism.  Considering we’re nurtured and rewarded with food as children and even as adults this is not too surprising.  In addition many patients find certain foods become more attractive when they are considered ‘off-limits’.

Even as adults most of us have, at some stage, felt an element of peer pressure.  This is particularly the case when it comes to the ‘cocktail’ of being surrounded by a ‘shot’ of unhealthy festive foods and also a ‘dash’ of well-meaning friends, work colleagues and relatives at festive parties.  Many of us have had the experience of a well-intentioned person saying to us such statements as, ‘just have one more slice, I made it especially for you’ or ‘what’s wrong with you are you on another diet, one chocolate won’t hurt’.

Keeping with the topic of alcohol, which is usually also widely available at this time of year, the loss of inhibitory control associated with this ‘drug’ means we are more likely to indulge in unhealthy eating behaviours including over-eating according to a 2015 study (1).

By understanding the reasons behind over-eating, we can help our patients avoid this festive ‘epidemic’.  And remember, although it’s tricky, it may require modelling a more restrained eating behaviour ourselves!


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