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The hows and whys of compulsive overeating and how to overcome it

Find yourself reaching for a snack even though you feel full? Here's why.

Written by
Lucinda Starr
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
May 15, 2024
6
8
min read
10
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The hows and whys of compulsive overeating and how to overcome it
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Find yourself reaching for a snack even though you feel full? Or, do you sometimes use food as a salve after a stressful day?

Everyone does these things from time to time, but when it becomes part of your routine (without you even thinking about it), you might be compulsively overeating.

Overeating can affect both your physical and mental health. Opening up about struggles in either of these areas can be daunting, but knowing that there are ways to effectively navigate them can help. And the good news is, there are lots of things that you can do to combat overeating.

We've put together a list of reasons you might be overeating along with some helpful tips and tricks on ways to combat them.

What is overeating?

Overeating involves eating more food than you need and consuming more calories than your body uses for energy. Overeating can commonly happen in instances where you're out for dinner and your mate orders another bowl of chips or chicken wings and despite not feeling hungry, it's hard to say no.

Other times, people overeat because of emotions such as stress, sadness and even boredom — this is also referred to as emotional eating.

Binge eating, on the other hand, is defined by 2 key features: eating a large amount of food over a short period of time, and feeling a sense of loss of control while eating [1].

While there could be a number of reasons behind overeating, here's a quick checklist of symptoms to look out for that may suggest a more serious underlying cause, such as binge eating disorder (BED):

  • Eating after you feel full
  • Feeling a loss of control around food
  • Eating quickly during a binge episode
  • Finding it hard to stop eating
  • Repeatedly binge eating
  • Never feeling full or satisfied no matter how much you eat
  • Finding yourself obsessing over food

I want to lose weight but can't stop eating

If you're trying to lose weight but can't stop eating, you're definitely not alone. There are a bunch of reasons why you can't stop eating or find yourself overeating even when you're on a weight loss journey and following a diet plan.

Let's chat about some of the common reasons why you might be finding it hard to limit what you're eating.

Emotional eating

We mentioned emotional eating earlier and this is a common form of hunger — if you're feeling stressed or sad, your body might respond with an emotional hunger rather than a physical hunger.

Eating when you're physically hungry happens because you have an empty feeling in the stomach and it tends to be a slower eating process, too. Emotional hunger, on the other hand, comes on quite quickly and is usually in response to stress, boredom, and negative emotions.

In fact, 38% of people say they have overeaten or engaged in unhealthy eating in the past month because of stress. 49% of those people say they engage in those behaviours at least once a week [2].

This is where mindful eating can be helpful — this involves paying attention to what you're eating and the experience itself, which helps you stay present and can help curb overeating [11].

Restrictive diets

Chances are you've tried a restrictive diet at least once. These diets label foods as 'good' or 'bad' and often involve a caloric deficit that isn't maintainable or healthy.

Plus, labelling food like this can lead to overeating down the track as your body begins to crave what you're restricting. For example, studies have shown that restricting sugary foods for periods of time can lead to binge eating later on [3].

It's also important to note that when you're restricting the amount of food you eat and not consuming enough calories, the body can also reduce the rate at which it burns energy — known as the metabolic rate.

Skipping meals

If you've ever gone an entire day without eating and then come home and eaten everything from your pantry, you already know how skipping meals can cause overeating.

In fact, one study found that people who regularly skipped dinner ended up gaining more weight over 6 years than those who ate dinner every night. People who skipped dinner were also more likely to be overweight or be navigating obesity [5].

On top of that, when you're not consuming enough calories, blood sugar levels decrease and cortisol levels increase which can cause cravings for unhealthy and high-calorie foods [6].

Instead of skipping meals, you might want to try meal replacement shakes, which help meet your nutritional needs while also being low in calories.

Pilot's Weight Reset Shakes are the perfect example of this — these shakes are packed with 20 vitamins and minerals as well as protein, pre and probiotics and are only 205 calories per drink. Opt for a high-quality meal replacement over skipping meals.

Is overeating a symptom of depression?

Having your favourite meal and going back for seconds, or even thirds sometimes, is normal. Having a big meal after a night out? It's normal. Hey, sometimes we just eat more than we need, it happens to everyone.

There is a link between depression and overeating as food can often be used as a coping mechanism. In some cases, eating foods deemed as 'unhealthy' can also lead to feelings of depression [7].

But, as we mentioned above, there are a number of reasons why overeating occurs and depression may be one of them.

However, if you have noticed a connection between your mental health and overeating it's best to chat with your doctor about this. For early intervention help, Pilot has teamed up with This Is A Conversation Starter (TIACS) to offer free, confidential and non-judgemental short-term counselling.

Exploring the psychological causes of overeating

We've talked about the link between overeating and mental health, and it swings both ways, whether your mental health has been affected by your food choices or its food choices that are affecting your mental health.

Let's take a look at a few common psychological blocks that may be hindering your success in losing weight and how to seek help for these.

Negative body image

Whether you're primarily dealing with your mental health or weight loss journey, having a negative body image is a pretty common challenge. But what does it really mean to have a negative body image? Let's have a look at a few key factors [12]:

  • A hyper-fixation on how your body looks to you and to others
  • Critical evaluations of individual body parts
  • An overestimation of your body size and weight.

In an increasingly visual world driven by social media, it's common to tie your body image to your self-worth but it's handy to keep in mind that experiencing negative body image can happen to anyone of any gender or age.

Having a negative body image can lead to overly restrictive diets, can make you feel guilty when eating and you may avoid eating in public altogether. It might also lead to bouts of excessive exercise and a host of other symptoms that can play into feelings of depression.

Stress

Stress and eating go hand in hand for many people.

Reaching for some comfort food after a stressful day or a difficult life event is a really common behaviour. Because food can cause dopamine spikes, it's no wonder we all use food as a pick-me-up [9]. You might be asking yourself, when does the relationship between stress and food choices become an issue?

Stress eating can start to become an issue for those trying to lose weight or when it becomes the primary mode of dealing with stress.

So we know that stress can have us reaching for more, but it's interesting to note that studies have shown that what we're reaching for changes during periods of stress, too. We typically tend to favour 'hyper-palatable' foods that are high in fat and sugar, which can impact weight loss efforts [10].

How do I overcome these barriers?

Knowing about the barriers that may be keeping you from achieving your goal weight or feelings of mental well-being is the first step to making a change. Knowing how to deal with these barriers, particularly as they arise, can be more challenging.

Navigating negative body image can be hard, but reducing social media usage is a good place to start. Instead, try some screen-free time focusing on doing what makes you feel good rather than how to look good. Picking up a social sport or doing something physical that makes you feel empowered can also help you lose weight along the way. Win-win!

There are also a number of resources that you can access, including the Butterfly Foundation, which has a bunch of helpful information about boosting body image. Plus, you can talk to someone at the Butterfly Foundation on its national helpful (call 1800 33 4673 or chat online or email).

Life happens and stress can be unavoidable, so learning some healthy coping mechanisms might just be the key to keeping your weight loss on track. Rather than reaching for something sweet, why not try reaching for a journal, get some good shut-eye, or try some relaxation techniques? Consider reading this helpful resource from the Black Dog Institute.

Overcoming negative self-image or dealing with stress can be a tricky process and there's no shame in reaching out for help. Finding a like-minded community and speaking to experts can help put you on a more positive path.

Be sure to seek psychological help from a professional if you need it — there's no shame in requesting assistance from someone who specialises in this area. We also recommend chatting to your GP about your experiences with this as well so they can support you.

Healthier ways to lose weight

Feel like it's challenging to maintain or lose weight because of over-eating?

While it's normal to over-indulge at times, if it's becoming commonplace in your routine and is getting hard to shake, Pilot's Metabolic Reset Program takes a science-backed approach to weight loss, with breakthrough medication that suppresses your hunger combined with health coaching so you can learn healthy habits that will set you up for life, so you'll feel your best, physically and mentally.

For short-term mental health support, consider accessing the free and confidential text or call lines offered by TIACS.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger or at risk of harm, call 000.

Image credit: Getty Images

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